Making visible the invisible is a key concept in Marxist and modernist aesthetics.
The arrival of the internet has given a new lease of life to this attempt to represent the dynamic of the real world of exploitation, violence and oppression behind the smooth surfaces of a society that freezes appearance and formally separates the world into artificially distinct categories.
The possibilities of rearranging and bringing together formally "separate" parts of the world by using new data-driven, network-based mapping techniques have been shown recently by two projects by two US media designers. In turn they are helping to create new forms of "mapping montage" that help us see the world around us with fresh, critical eyes.
What does a single moment in our world look like? If we could encapsulate an hour on earth as one image, what would that image be? How can we create a record of human history as it happens? These are the questions that inspired artist Jonathan Harris to create 10x10, a piece of internet art that automatically collects the top 100 words and pictures in the world, every hour, based on the information it receives live from syndicated news feeds.
By presenting them as an interactive ten by ten grid, 10x10 allows us, at a single glance, to perceive what's happening in the media view of the world, hour by hour. The result is often moving, sometimes shocking, and occasionally frivolous. By observing closely ranked words it tells us a great deal about our culture. "God" is one word from "began", two words from "start" and six words from "war".
Over the course of days, months, and years, 10x10 leaves a trail of these hourly statements, letting us browse through the past. 10x10 is building a global, real-time public archive of how the media represents human history.
In a similar vein, but with a slightly sharper political edge, socialist media designer Josh On created the They Rule website with the aim of revealing the murky, veiled relationships within the US ruling class. Choose two or more companies, institutions or individual directors, and then find out if and how they're related. See the connections before you immediately through beautifully realised graphical mapping and icons. What, for instance, is the human connection between Apple and Microsoft? Pepsi and Coke? Halliburton and the media (pictured)? All of this can be revealed.
Some members of the US ruling class sit on as many as five, six or seven of the top 500 companies. Each of the directors can be clicked on to see if and how they fund the Republicans or the Democrats. Humour is also used to good effect - the more companies' boards they sit on, the fatter the waistline.
Once users have browsed through these interlocking directories and run searches on the boards of companies, they can save a map of connections complete with their annotations and e-mail links to other people. The site includes a comprehensive list of maps which provide a fascinating starting point to understanding the potential of this project.
What marks this work out from work in old media is that it realises to some degree one of the goals of modernism - the work of art can be created by its public. The designers are less authors and more enablers, providing the framework for understanding, but not the understanding itself. As Jonathan Harris says of 10x10:
"I want to create programmes that live their own lives and go out and do things and develop a personality...
"It's interesting playing the role of creator but not creating the finished product.... What interests me is trying to find descriptions of humanity in very large data sets, creating programmes that tell us something about ourselves, we set them free and they come back and tell us what we are like."
And Josh On adds, "An understanding of this system cannot be gleaned from looking at the interpersonal relations of this class alone, but rather how they stand in relation to other classes in society. Hopefully They Rule will raise larger questions about the structure of our society and in whose benefit it is run."