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Statistical Material: Globalization and the Digital Art of John Klima
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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.2 (2003) 67-89

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Statistical Material
Globalization and the Digital Art of John Klima

Rita Raley
University of California, Santa Barbara


Since all presence is presence only at a distance, the tele-presence of the era of the globalization of exchanges could only be established across the widest possible gap. This is a gap which now stretches to the other side of the world, from one edge to the other of present reality. But this is a meta-geophysical reality which strictly regulates the tele-continents of a virtual reality that monopolizes the greater part of the economic activity of the nations and, conversely, destroys cultures which are precisely situated in the space of the physics of the globe.
—Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb 1

THREE WORLD MAPS ARE ALIGNED ON THE OPENING SCREEN OF DIGITAL artist John Klima's Political Landscape, Emotional Terrain: one political, one topographical, another emotional. Color-coded in accordance with data [End Page 67] culled from the United Nations, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the World Health Organization, respectively, the three maps register global reports of human rights abuse, geophysical data, and life expectancy statistics. 2 The cartographic display, which is interactive and three-dimensional, renders the political and emotional components of individual lives in different colors and tonalities, and makes it possible to compare incidents of UN-classified political oppression and life expectancy. He describes the work in these terms: "Frequently, we use the metaphor of a landscape to describe a seemingly unrelated human condition, be it political or personal. . . . I decided to create a series of global terrains that relate to the aforementioned metaphors. . . . The result is a compelling visual comparison and representation of a particularly intriguing source dataset." 3 His methodology for the graphing component of the project is the A* (A-star) algorithm used for Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the gaming industry. This algorithm allows a character/sprite to avoid artificial and physical obstacles and to navigate the most efficient solution path through a terrain, which creates the appearance of intelligence. 4

In the context of this work by Klima, the A* algorithm functions as a graphing technique that produces a visual analysis of the data sets and makes the links among them paradoxically concrete. As a consequence, biopolitics is rendered in the interface of the game. 5 In Political Landscape, Emotional Terrain, "life" is brought into the arena of knowledge, management, and calculation. The integrated maps register biopolitical control of the individual body and of populations, while also articulating statistics as the mechanism of that control. They function as a visual illustration of the modern Foucauldian regime of power, which is "situated and exercised at the level of life, the species, the race, and the large-scale phenomena of population." 6 Occluded, but still suggested, by the data Klima integrates into a global biopolitical terrain is the range and proliferation of techniques required to coordinate control of the individual body and of the species body. The global management that Political Landscape suggests has been accomplished by the instrumental rationalization of medical, economic, and political systems.

For its general theme, this essay takes Klima's computerization and visualization [End Page 68] of global data and statistics. Klima's aesthetic practices in computer media involve elements of data and information visualization, interactive computer-animated 3D graphics, elementary robotics (using non-autonomous agents), gaming paradigms, and data manipulation. 7 Like the network-based data visualization artwork of Lisa Jevbratt, Klima tends to focus on larger social processes, rather than on real-time personal experiences. 8 Klima's work revolves around representations of global events, processes, and statistics. Working within a tradition of electronic art that takes data as its material—signals that it then aestheticizes, modifies, interrupts, negates, and/or returns—Klima's particular source material includes financial market data and "terrain, topography, and geographic information systems." 9 As he notes with regard to one of his recent works, Terrain Machine, Klima works toward "an aesthetic investigation of the world as it...