Finding our bearings in a mass of data



Ach, who doesn’t wonder from time to time what will remain?  Not just of our individual selves, but rather of what we value, not just of an individual life, but of an entire age with its struggles & beliefs.

Anyone with some interest in (art) history, knows how sheer material contingencies play a crucial role in the survival of cultural artefacts and texts. (1)  The choice of supporting material (stone or organic), a wet or a dry climate, quality of varnish, …  And on the immaterial side – how transient fame can be, how difficult to predict the continued consideration felt for a tradition, or the continued belief in a metaphysically sanctioned message. 

Now, what will still be understood of our digital age, say, 1000 years hence? What posterity will there be for our massive collective,  distributed effort to digitize everything, to put “everything” on line – from fleeting private expressions to commercial banalities  - from a garish dark web to edifying massive online courses,  to scientific networks … 

What will happen with the ever swelling mass of digital data stored on numerous servers? (2) Will all data that haven’t been accessed for some time, at some point be systematically deleted?  (just as even so-called perpetual cemetery plots are finite, if no one renews the lease). Will there be an artificial intelligence able to make sense of the gigantic mass of data? Will “history writing algorithms” assess historical relevance of data based on numbers of views and followers?  So that a make-up video tutorial on YouTube or a contagious 15 sec goofy dance on TikTok will be considered as emblematic for our age?   

In the early days of internet much was made of its encyclopedic scope  - it was compared to a universal library accessible to all, hyperlinking everything  and easily searchable through search machines.  But since no single human is able to digest it all, on the internet the individual mind is  easily outdone by "big data" crunching algorithms. Will artificial intelligence create some sort of new collective mind, a "mind of the hive"?  (Not a coincidence that there’s an AI company called Hivemind).  

How different the 21st C Internet of everything & everyone is from a library purposefully built by erudite and sensitive individuals.  How different the Internet is from the 20th C archetypical library: the Warburg Library;  made up of pictures  & books obsessively brought together by an individual reflecting mind,  continuously seeking meaning, establishing affinities & correspondences between historical images.

 venir en aide à l’historien d’art qui a perdu ses repères dans une masse inerte de données  […] leur donner un sens dans le contexte de l’histoire de la culture […] Warburg n’avait pas de méthode, mais il avait un message » (3)

«  que l’histoire de l’art importe encore non pas en tant qu’accumulation de faits, mais en tant que témoignage des souffrances et des triomphes de l’humanité » (4)

In order to find their bearings in the massively accumulated data, future (art) historians will need the help of algorithms with superior data-digestion capabilities. 
But how could we expect from algorithms to understand the meaning - the aesthetic, moral and emotional meaning -  of the data they crunch?  
How will they be able to convert these big data again into testimonials that at some point in the future might still appeal to organic specimens of humankind?



Artificial Notes


  1) some figures  & thoughts on book production and survival, from “CrossRoads – travelling through the Middle Ages” by Marco Mostert :  

“from the sixth through the eighth century some 67.000  manuscripts were produced in the Latin West […] From the entire eighth century less than 2.000 manuscripts (or fragments) have survived”
 The cost of making books was high so  the early-medieval manuscripts that have come down to us all represent considered decisions to make a copy of a text or to write a text […] That is why every manuscript book from this period is worth studying."

(picture from Wikipedia page with list of key works of Carolingian illumination


2) some figures & thoughts  on 21st C “content production” : “As of May 2019, more than 500 hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute. This equates to approximately 30,000 hours of newly uploaded content per hourwww.statista.com. “More than 95 million photos are uploaded to Instagram every day.” “More than 1 billion videos viewed on TikTok every day”  . 
The trend may be versus more ephemeral social media (such as snapchat, instagram stories)  with eg  programmed deletion of content after it has been viewed – that would help stop the exponential  growth in saved data. 

  3) quoted from the  French translation of Gombrich’s book “Aby Warburg – Une Biographie intellectuelle”.
Translated again into English by an algorithm – which doesn’t understand the meaning of language but is uncannily competent all the same : “to help the art historian who has lost his bearings in an inert mass of data […] give [the data] meaning in the context of the history of culture […]  Warburg had no method, but he had a message “ 

  4) “ that art history still matters not as an accumulation of facts, but as a testimony to the sufferings and triumphs of humanity (also translated by ab algorithm)


Echoes & Affinities (uncovering voices)


Worn out by the day I leafed absentmindedly through the evening paper (1) – with no expectation whatsoever to find there anything remotely soothing or uplifting (2).

 Even before registering the title of the article, the accompanying picture stimulated some optical & memory nerves in my drowsy brain - 4 people standing upright with arms around each other’s shoulders, exchanging gazes : up popped the association with that sculpture of the late Roman Tetrarchs’ embrace, projecting outward harmony in a threatening world. 


An incongruous association (3) so it turned out, when I read the article. Far from being a nightmarish last stand in the face of danger, it was about a truly collaborative initiative from the four nominees for the Turner art prize:  forming a collective in order to become together “the winners”.   

 It made me smile –  a subversive part of me was cheering, happy for once to get the better of my rational self who has been conditioned into admitting that competition can spur people on to excel (2).

 The next morning, waking early and looking for something fortifying in order to brace myself for the day, I turned again to the picture of the "4 winners". I looked them up on the web and soon got fascinated by what I found on Helen Cammock, and more particularly on a recent work of hers: “Che Si Può Fare” (What can be done) - which gets its title from a cantata written by Barbara Strozzi, a Venetian baroque composer.  

 I’m moved when hearing Cammock explain in a video how her projects are about “uncovering voices” and I cherish this particular coincidence. In fact I first read about Barbara Strozzi only a few months ago, in a book on Venetian music (4) , and have been listening to some of her songs &lamento's    (5) over the past months. 

Reading on in the interview with Cammock, I feel grateful for her words on “laments”, which somehow restore the dignity of all those who feel defeated, struggling with loss and longing.

 I think what I  was looking  for was an understanding of lament being about loss and longing – but also resilience and resistance - lament as survival strategy, lament as strength”  
        
   

    
  uncovering hidden notes

  1.   looking back to 2019,  I can note with satisfaction that I managed to curb my day long digital overconsumption of the world’s real time calamities & banalities – finding mostly that reading old news in the paper in the evening  suits me well enough
  2.   it’s  a matter of increasing alienation from a world characterized by competition & consumption and by unmediated sentimentality instead of shared meaning & beauty – well, there it is, my hushed lament
  3.  unless my subconscious pattern seeking mind was associating the  late Roman empire’s transformation with the current predicament of  a fraying traditional western world?
  4. "De klank van de stad - Een cultuurgeschiedenis van Venetië", Eric min & Gerrit Valckeneers    
  5. thanks to the young woman at my favourite classical music shop, la boîte à musiquewho, with infinite grace and erudition, delves up CD’s with even the most obscure music 

Meditations on a 90 year old Belgian paperback





It must have been lying around on my windowsill for over 10 years – a frail old paperback migrating from pile to pile over the years, unread.
But its moment had come  - “Méditations devant des images” - yes, meditativeness was welcome now. 
I tested its weight in my hand (heavier than expected), appreciating the soft texture of the paper cover, then passing my fingers over the roughness of some of the cut pages. A previous reader obviously had never gotten further than the chapter on Van Eyck, beyond which the pages were still uncut.


Enthralled by the opening sentence, I carefully, though inexpertly, started cutting open the rest of the book with a kitchen knife, page by page - an oddly tactile ritual for accessing a book.

Les plus grandes œuvres des Primitifs flamands sont silencieuses. Tout y est immobile : la nature et les hommes. Cela est surprenant quand on évoque les temps pleins de tumulte dans lesquels ces œuvres furent conçues, temps de guerres incessantes, de meurtres politiques, de soulèvements, et temps de mœurs bruyantes, de fêtes pompeuses […]

The greatest works of the Flemish Primitives are silent. Everything is still: nature and men. This is surprising when one remembers the tumultuous times in which these works were conceived, times of incessant wars, political murders, uprisings, and times of raucous habits, pompous feasts [...]


So here we have a Gustave Vanzype, back in 1929 caring about how artists of previous eras could produce works of intense stillness and noble elation amidst the clamor & materialism of their times. It’s what a brooding blogger, writing in 2019, can only wistfully recognize as an almost shameful longing (a longing for an art stepping out of its rowdy age, expressing deeper seated human longings, edifying works of beauty and truth beyond pressing everyday realities).

 

This elated trust in what high art can achieve is clearly the common theme of the different essays in Vanzype’s book, covering both Italian and Netherlandish artists. Gustave Vanzype (1) also turns out to be an elated Belgian. He is unashamedly proud of “our school” (examples in the book span Bruegel, Rubens, van Dyck and Belgian ‘modern’ painters such as Henry Leys, Jan Stobbaert and Franz Courtens) but explains how the works of "our masters" have gotten dispersed all over Europe, following the historical upheavals that so often have upset our provinces.



Il n’est pas pays plus européen que le nôtre. A son action comme à sa pensée, toujours l’étranger participe. Et c’est miracle que subsistent des caractères particuliers à nos provinces. Ils subsistent, intenses et permanents dans le langage que, toujours, nous avons parlé avec le plus d’éloquence : le langage de la peinture. Mais pour nous en rendre compte, nous devons sortir de chez nous, parcourir l’Europe, aller au Louvre, au Prado, à l’Ermitage, à Vienne, à Munich, à Berlin, à Dresde, à Florence. Nous ne pouvons nous bien connaître en demeurant sous notre ciel. […] Pour ma part j’avais quarante ans quand j’ai entendu le vrai langage de celle de Bruegel. Il a fallu que l’occasion s’offrît de voir Vienne. (2)


It’s a startling passage to read in 2019, by a mind brooding about the state of the world, and of Europe and Belgium in particular. Who would, today, in our fragmenting countries, still dare to evoke a shared historical language of painting (and of music)?





A Belgian Biographical Note


(1) The Belgians amongst us – for as long as there still are any – may smile affectionately when pronouncing his name – it sounds so endearingly familiar & prosaic: “Gustave Vanzype”. The solid sound of his name makes for a lovely contrast with the sensitive & erudite character of his writings. One imagines a typical Belgian francophone Flemish bourgeois of the end of the 19th Century. Which is indeed borne out by the first paragraph of his on-line biography biography.

Gustave Vanzype naît à Bruxelles le 10 juin 1869, d'un père d'origine brugeoise et d'une mère née en Hollande, à Maestricht. Mais c'est le français que l'on pratique dans son milieu.

Gustave Vanzype was born in Brussels on June 10th, 1869, of a father of Bruges origin and a mother born in Holland, in Maastricht. But it's French that is spoken in his circles.



What follows next, surprises and humbles. Here is a boy, abandoned by his father, utterly poor but so devoted to literature and art that he runs away from a sensible training in business. So poor, even, that after a failed stint in Paris, he has to walk back home, on foot, all the way from Paris to Brussels. Désargenté, c'est à pied qu'il effectue le trajet Paris-Bruxelles.

In today’s world, a “Gustave Vanzype” might write freely in Dutch – so that’s good. But then, maybe in today’s world our Gustave would never have dared to give up a training in business to go and write about art. At the most, idling away a Sunday – today’s Gustave might write some arty stuff on the social media, maybe in some sort of English.


(2) a startling passage - in translation
There’s no country that’s more European than ours. In its actions as in its thoughts, the foreign always participates. And it is a miracle that our provinces still retain a particular character. It subsists, intense and permanent in the language that we have always spoken with the most eloquence: the language of painting. But to be aware of it, we must leave our homes, travel across Europe, go to the Louvre, the Prado, the Hermitage, Vienna, Munich, Berlin, Dresden, Florence. We cannot know ourselves well by staying under our skies. [...] For my part I was forty when I heard the true language of Bruegel's. It took the opportunity to go and see Vienna