Loads of information come and go through every day. Marcos Weskamp has created some projects, which visualize such unseen information with academic and interesting concept and technology. We interviewed him and grabbed interesting talk.

Could you introduce yourself including your background?

I was born in Rosario, Argentina in 1977. When I entered University I was taking classes in Architecture, Fine Arts, and Graphic Design. It was in Architecture school where they had us study contemporary Japanese Architects, and somehow I got so interested that I’d spend my days in the school Library researching about traditional Japanese crafts. I loved the simplicity and pureness and sometimes humility of all the forms.

I came to Japan in 1998 with a scholarship from the Japanese Ministry of Education (Monbusho), had a year in language school and later entered Graphic Design school. Besides having spent all my life sketching and painting with analog tools, I had been a computer geek all the way, I was introduced to computers when I was 10 through Syemour Pappert’s Logo, which was an excellent introduction to the mechanics of geometry and computer programming, and I somehow made computers my ally since then. During all that time, my prime way of communication with friends and family back home was the internet so it wasn’t until I was here, half a planet away from where I grew up when computers became a necessity for everyday survival.

Again, that was 1998 and the commercial internet was just starting in Japan. I somehow got my hands on a tiny handheld PC and I spent all the money I had saved on part-time jobs to get an internet provider. When I graduated Design school I had already done a couple of freelance projects on HTML CGI and Flash, as well as some commercial illustration. But it only when I got a job when I started scripting and programming for my daily bread. Those first years I was really lucky to work with the most inspiring and amazing people, to whom I’ll always be more than grateful.

Although today I design at the same time I write software; Code gives life to my designs – but I still don’t regard myself as a programmer. I don’t think it’d be appropriate.

Please tell us your current activity.

I’ve been freelancing in the web industry for the past 3 years although from April 1st of this year we are starting a small creative studio with a couple of other friends. I know it’s going to be really tough, but I’m super excited about it!

In your own web site, there are both works which is using high technology like Social Circles and fantastic drawings which is like an illustration for a fairy tale. They seem to be opposite thing in a way. What’s your idea about the relationship between virtual and reality, digital and analogue?

I’ve always been trapped in between both worlds, the screen and canvas, programming and brushes, bits and atoms. Digital and analog media are completely different from the base. Still, no matter on which side of the line you stand on, I believe the most interesting part is the possibilities each medium presents, as each medium gives different possibilities to represent the same concept. Marshall Mc Luhan’s pointed out that the message to be communicated will always be rhetorically biased by the medium it is transmitted through. My interests also lay in finding those distortions in each medium.

I think today there is still very well defined line between reality and virtuality, most people are still used to think about virtuality as something that lives inside a screen. I think my works are still trapped on either side of that line, but I’m deeply interested in somehow filling the gap. I don’t think I’m really there yet.

Your project such as Social Circles and Newsmap has the concept of “visualization of unseen information”. What do you find interesting in the concept?

I’d say it’s slightly more like visualization of unseen patterns in information. I think today we are being constantly bombarded with information, be it on the street, on the train, on TV, radio. The Internet is a wonderful communication tool, but day after day we find ourselves constantly dealing with information overload. Today, the internet presents a new challenge, the wide and unregulated distribution of information requires new visual paradigms to organize, simplify and analyze large amounts of data. New user interface challenges are arising to deal with all that overwhelming quantity of information. Information visualization is a fusion between graphic design, scientific visualization, and human-computer interaction.

Still my interest goes a step further from that, to the point where information becomes expressive. Ben Fry introduced the concept of information metabolism; ” a visualization would consume data; if the data were ‘nutritious’, the visualization would become ‘corpulent.’ Today, utilizing the network as a medium, we can then start creating engines to which we feed either previously harvested or realtime data, and depending on the quality and quantity of it, the visualizations reacts in different ways, becoming each time a completely different being.

I think apparently, you think “concept” is very important factor in your creation. Could you tell us the concept of the following two projects? In addition, how is the idea born?

The idea for Social Circles started a day I was in a meeting, where I noticed how hierarchical and structured the conversation was. Besides conversation protocols and the actual spoken words there’s always loads of information that we perceive on body language, dress codes, the position of each person in the room, and the relative position to each other – all meta-data for the human psyche and which helps a lot in telling what is being talked about there.

On the other hand, very informative online discussion forums, mailing lists or chats are not really expressive of those qualities. The sociable media group at MIT has done a great deal in researching on different ways to represent those lost signs. Social Circles then approaches the same problem in a similar way, but focusing only on mailing lists and feeding them live data, so as it can display near realtime snapshots of the current states of the mailing lists it is being pointed to. It also ironically inverts the paradigm that sets that mailing lists are closed discussion places, as it presents those conversation patterns in an open way. Even in unmoderated lists there’s always a natural moderator, no one elects it, they simply arise naturally. That is the person who starts and participates in most threads. It was very interesting to see when the people on the lists where first presented with these graphs. I also saw big discussions starting up. Some people liked it a lot, others suddenly restructured themselves. Others hated it as they felt it was an invasion to their private space, others simply died. Some people would ‘fight’, sending more emails and participating in most threads, so as to stand in the center of the graph, while others, when they realized they where the center of the list, may have felt shy and slowly faded away.

Treemaps are not a new invention. I first came in contact with treemaps the day I bumped into the book “Readings in Information Visualization” where the work of professor Ben Shneiderman from the University of Maryland was featured.
Back in 1990, he came up with a new visual algorithm to represent the directories of his hard drive and current state of all files and folders. Treemap resemble very closely the work of Piet Mondrian, and it was for me the visual impact they had, the mix between science and art that got me into deeply researching about them. When I first saw google news, and realized how information was structured in the aggregator I immediately thought about viewing all those thousand of news sources through a treemap.

In Newsmap the size of each cell is determined by the amount of related articles that exist inside each news cluster that the google news aggregator presents. As professor Golan Levin points out, sometimes a simple visual reorganization of information is all that is necessary in order to perceive a familiar whole in an entirely new way. Newsmap does not pretend to replace the google news aggregator. It’s simply an application that demonstrates visually the relationships between data and the unseen patterns in news media. It is not thought to display an unbiased view of the news, on the contrary it is thought to ironically accentuate the bias of it.

Could you introduce your other favorite project?

When we worked together with Bascule we experimented with the first version of Remote Driver where users from the web where accessing tiny RC cars we had on a table and driving them around. We later put them on a white paper and attached some markers to them. People where then drawing, driving on the white paper. I think I still have those drawings somewhere. I should post them to my site one day.

Habitat Perspectives is another project I did a while ago. I started that one as an attempt to make my first steps into augmented reality. I had been experimenting with GPS for a while and originally wanted to build a system where people could simply virtually drop information in real spaces. Like tagging your whole neighborhood with post-it notes, which you could share with your friends. Of course when I started working on it I realized it wasn’t that easy, and decided to move to something rather simple. I’ve had a slightly nomadic life since I came to Japan, and I noticed whenever I stepped into a new neighborhood I just couldn’t simply build a mental map of it. After some time of repeatedly going to the same place and walking the same corner I would slowly start building a mental map of it. I later came through the work of Yi Fu Tuan and all his ideas behind the spaces that make places. Yi Fu Tuan pointed out how people differ in their awareness of space and time in the way they elaborate a spatio-temporal world. In the process of transforming a space into place, historical data of events that took place in previous times play a big role in creating an intimate connection with people. It was pretty clear for me then that with the combination of Images and GPS data I could somehow come up with a map of how much that mental map of the city differs from participant to participant.

You also seem to be trying to “connect virtual world and reality” through a project like Remote Driver 2. What is your object to do so?

Remote Driver 2 is just the second part of a technological demo that we originally worked together with the guys at bascule.
It doesn’t really have any other expressive value rather than explicitly connecting the real with the virtual. For me one of the biggest qualities that the network offers is the possibility of having feedback loops along every single step in the communication process. Especially when that feedback hops on input and output from media to media, linking them all. My interest is in creating works that don’t utilize the network as a mere distribution medium for sharing out, where a piece is delivered to a client application, and simply die there. Rather than that utilize the network to it’s maximum potential, as a two-way communication apparatus. Bring the listeners into relationship, make them feel there is real people out there instead of isolating them. Let them speak as well as hear. In traditional media it is very difficult if not technically impossible to bring the receivers into action, with the emergence of a medium as egalitarian as the net where everyone can be a producer as well as a consumer of media, we can experiment with new interaction paradigms.

Is there anything which you would like to visualize in the future?

That’s a tough question. There’s so much information out there, invisible to our eyes. Think about the amount of information that the whole human race creates per hour. multiply that in a year. I bet there’s a lot to work out there. I definitively want to work on physical installations, information in context-sensitive environments. That’s an area where I’ve been experimenting a little bit and find really exciting. Of course when you talk about installations that includes dealing with physical space, something that maybe we are not really fond of here in Japan :)

You’ve been working in Japan for six years. Could you pass the message to Japanese creators?

Well, I think one of the best messages I heard was when I went to see David Carson when he came to the University of Buenos Aires. He said his father was a test pilot for the Air Force, where a little mistake will simply cost his life. In Design, there’s no really high risks (other than maybe getting your boss really mad one day) So, why not experiment, break things, put them back together, try new arrangements, plug things inversely. Of course you first need to learn the rules to break them with elegance, so do a lot of reading, maybe not necessarily related to the web. I mostly find all my inspiration in books and everyday things.

American and European art feed themselves in cycles and constantly incorporate elements from other cultures. Today everyone is trying to imitate Japanese art while Japanese keep on feeding themselves on western art. There’s an incredible amount of culture here in Japan that everyone seems to be turning their back to. Find inspiration in that part of your culture that the entire western world doesn’t know about and that is not deeply being paid attention in Japan.

Marcos Weskamp

Text: Naoko Fukushi

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