Haunting down data

Black Haunts in the Anthropocene began with a map, or more specifically, a chance encounter with a data visualization.

cropped-MauryMetadata.pngThis image, in which the fact of ships’ movement itself comes to simulate the winds that powered global trade routes, is compelling because it elicits a sense of truth and evidence while simultaneously demonstrating nothing. It is suggestive because we are left to imagine the histories fanned by those dark wisps.

I am reminded here of a course I taught a few years ago, titled Representing Slavery. In that class, students were asked to spend a semester researching archival primary documents about the enslavement of black people in America, and to construct native digital presentations based in that research.

k1I remember one student, Katrina Gonzales, who was especially and rightfully overwhelmed by the preponderance of data. Huge books filled with shipping logs. Box upon box of receipts. And massive ledgers populated with every data point pertaining to thousands of enslaved peoples. In her project she eventually had no choice than to focus on the names, on what wouldn’t emerge as visible despite the overwhelming amount of data and information. What would it mean to bring that to life? What model, whose faces, would animate the record loss of an astounding magnitude?

Years later, a different student from that same class, Elizabeth M. Alexander, produced a native digital undergraduate thesis, My Weak Frame, that similarly took up the question of what it would mean to interact with an obdurate archive, and to grapple with what is at stake in animating data’s traumatic substrate.

In addition to thinking about our affective response to data, and also, again, toward a critique of the aesthetic narrativity of its visualization, it is useful to seek a method toward critiquing expressions of data that we often forget are data driven. I am thinking here of the work of someone like Fox Harrell, who reminds us of how narrative video games are driven by data. Even what might be experienced as the greatest moment of gaming freedom is absolutely constrained by an underlying database. The best that one can hope for then, is an exemplary remix, or the emergence of an especially compelling path.

Taken together, we are left to wonder what new ways we might constitute the archive of black experience in the New World. From where is such data collected? How is it processed? How we articulate an experience of data?

cropped-assassins_creed_wreckage_custom.jpgIn one of my digital workgroup labs, The_Critical_Is, we have been spending several months with a set of games from UbiSoft’s Assassin’s Creed series, Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry and Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, each of which is backdropped with an experience from New World slavery.

At one point in Freedom Cry, the protagonist you play, Adewale, is tasked with rescuing enslaved Africans from a sinking slave ship newly arrived from the Middle Passage. They cannot all be saved. What kinds of data will we as players be motivated by? How do we configure a critical praxis when the work of neo-slave narratives is being taken up by a wholly new, deeply hybrid genre?

Affectively, an important element of  Black Haunts in the Anthropocene is an attempt to come to terms with an informational uncanny, to address what an encounter with data might elicit from us, and to wonder what “brings data to life.” How will be parse our encounters with what would otherwise, eventually, be left aside. The reemergence of the drowned? Is something new? Or is this sense of what I experience today as animation simply an effect of improved representation? What do we mean when we insist that visualizations bring our data to life, and how are we to respond to this liveliness?