Subtract the Sky

Subtract the Sky (2003) by Sharon Daniel was a public artwork conceived as a Web-based environment for producing maps.

Subtract the Sky

Sharon Daniel: Subtract the Sky

SUBTRACT THE SKY provides individuals and groups with an online environment for collective and emergent methods of mapping. The project takes its name from a method used in astronomy. Astronomers must eliminate the light of all the stars they don't wish to see in order to capture the light of a single star. Effectively, astronomers must define what "sky" means for every observation. In other words, there is no single meaning for "sky", but many, given the perspective of the observer. To "subtract the sky" is to interpret data from a subjective perspective. We use the phrase as a poetic and literal metaphor for the process of collecting, authoring and contributing data.

SUBTRACT THE SKY invites participants to become cartographers, enabled with the tools they need to produce an archive of maps that trace their own histories and re-map their own social and political worlds. Mapping is inter-subjective communication - the visualization or representation of data and information. To "map" is to locate -- position is always "relative to" - associative and perspectival. Members of the general public are invited to create a map of any subject as seen from their own individual or community perspective. The definition of "map" in this context is inclusive across a broad spectrum from geographical maps employing GIS and GPS data to the purely conceptual maps. Participants will re-map their worlds by contributing and classifying new data, creating new categories and associations between data objects, and re-interpreting existing data. The classification system includes highly contested terms like nature, culture, aesthetics, public, private. The maps contributed under these categories will collectively inflect the meaning of the categories themselves and create new associations for them, thus re-locating and re-mapping language from multiple perspectives. The project interface, a real-time visualization of Subtract the Sky's evolving database, is a map that dynamically expresses changes made by participants collaborating across the network in real time.

SUBTRACT THE SKY by Sharon Daniel and Mark Bartlett, with John Jacobs, Olga Trusova, Adam Hiatt and Victor Dods. Project development has been supported, in part, by the Daniel Langlois Foundation, the Banff Center for the Arts, the France-Berkeley Fund and the University of California.



The Hidden Potential of Mapping

Even though the technological applications of the Internet are rapidly expanding, when traditional practices are digitalized it is often in the same structure that was used before. Although the technology permits different options, most of the time those options are not deployed and the traditional methods are being transmitted to the digital application.

The developers of the Subtract the Sky project show that it is worthwhile to create alternatives for the traditional way of creating and using archives that are digitalized. A talk with the developers of the project during Open Territories at the DEAF festival, started to convince me that their idea might in the future revolutionize the functionality of the archive. The idea is quite simple and logical. Instead of simple lists of information like a normal search engine produces after a search task, they want to show web like maps of relevance. A search, as far as I understood, would go like this: Say you want to know more about Max Beckman, and specifically about his work before the Great War. You could start the search with the category arts and the search term Max Beckman. The Subtract the Sky system would then show you a node displayed as a small window with a picture or a text in it that is about Max Beckman. A node is a combination between a data file and a hyperlink that connects the data to a web of relationships, for instance of the nodes about other artists that worked in the same style, or the same time. The connections are made visible by simple lines between the nodes. When you then click on the Beckman node, you kind of zoom in on your subject and a new web appears with nodes that are directly linked to the life and work of Max Beckman. Those nodes can contain texts as well as images. So instead of the more traditional search engines that show you a list of hits, you get a system that can show the relationships between those hits as well. And while normal search engines do not distinguish between relevant sites and sites that are only indirectly related to the search objective, a search with the Subtract the Sky system would visualize which information is the most relevant. A search would become more efficient because you can see at a single glance how the different pieces of information relate to the subject.

But this is only part of the project. The Subtract the Sky system is not just a way to retrieve available information; it is also a way to build personal maps of data that can, in turn, easily be made available for others. You could for instance create an archive of your photographs that offers multiple routes through the material. Selection criteria might be to show all the photos that are related to one person, or every photograph that shows water. Some photos might come up with both approaches, say the person at the beach while other photographs stay invisible at one approach but do come up with another.

Creating a data map is quite simple; to create a node click on the toolbar and select 'add node'. The next step is selecting the new node that appears on the map, click on the option modify node and download the data you want into it. After that, connections can be made between the new node and other nodes by clicking on the node with the mouse and then dragging the line that appears to another node. Useful applications include creating bibliographies that show the relationships between the different texts, or artistic portfolios that visualizes the connections between the different works. And it might be just the tool art historians need to create a transparent map of the artistic developments of the twentieth century, visualizing the different styles and directions that developed and where exactly they intermingle and split off again.

Right now the project is in the stage of testing. A team of programmers and artists has been working on the project for about a year and it will be some time before all the bumps are worked out of the system. It will certainly be worthwhile though to keep track on their progress. Once finished, the storage of and the search for data might reach a new level of efficiency.

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