As the editors of Art Practical and Daily Serving get ready to take their end-of-summer vacations, we find ourselves swapping reading lists—the articles we’ll dive into once have some uninterrupted time to catch up on what our colleagues have been writing. We’ve gotten so excited about what’s on our lists that we want to share them with our readers. Between now and Labor Day, Daily Serving will feature the efforts of our fellow chroniclers of art and culture as part of our Summer Reading series. Today we are pleased to bring you an excerpt of Dan Weiskopf’s essay on data and representation: “In the digital age, the truest portraits are drawn in data.” This article was originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Art Papers, and we thank their editors for making this series possible. Enjoy!
Traditionally, portraits were guided by the ideal of likeness to their subject—by the notion that “the human body,” in Wittgenstein’s words, “is the best picture of the human soul.” An apt portrait would capture the appearance of a person in a way that produces recognition; having seen the picture, you would know its subject, and vice versa. Portraiture’s representational tool kit is an expansive one. Good likenesses include more than bodily appearances, and good portraits differ from mere pictures of persons: They attempt to visibly capture an individual’s distinctive and essential character. Invisible mental and moral qualities shine forth in natural signs manifest in the person’s bodily traits. Posture, intensity of gaze, and other expressive details convey aspects of character, just as occupation, marital status, and economic class can identify a person’s place in a matrix of relations through visual codes, icons, and symbols.
The stereotype of the portrait may be grounded in the figure, but throughout the last century, the genre has drifted deeper into abstraction. Francis Picabia’s series of machine portraits dispensed with human forms entirely in favor of symbolic, mechanical proxies. In Here, This is Stieglitz Here (1915), the photographer’s apparatus—that is, Alfred Stieglitz’s camera—stands in as the best representative for the subject himself. Later, bioscientific works such as Gary Schneider’s Genetic Self-Portraits (1997–1998) or Marc Quinn’s A Genomic Portrait: Sir John Sulston (2001)—in which a sample of the sitter’s DNA in agar jelly is mounted in stainless steel—took the bearers of identity to be images of chromosomes, enlargements of microscopic hair samples, retinal images, and even mounted DNA itself.
The notion of a “portrait” is thus sufficiently labile to admit potentially any abstract substitute that can convey identity—including those grounded in scientific theorizing about the nature of identity. Changes in our self-conceptions are driven not just by social, political, physical, or economic factors, but also by technology. As Picabia’s portrait of Stieglitz suggests, the machines we operate shape our conception of who we are. Contemporary selfhood has inevitably been shaped by the emergence of that most ubiquitous technology: the networked computer.