our new Instagram visualization project opens at National Taiwan Museum of Fine Art

Taipei Phototime, the new work by Jay Chow and Lev Manovich premiered as part of the exhibition Wonder of Fantasy at The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts (NTMOFA) on May 17, 2014.

From 2014-05-19

Taipei Phototime continues our investigations into expressive possibilities of big visual data. In Phototrails (2013), Nadav Hochman, Lev Manovich and Jay Chow compared 2.3 million Instagram photos from 13 global cities. Selficity (2014), a project created by members of our lab and collaborators from New York and Germany (including visualization designer Moritz Stefaner) investigates the styles of Instagram self-portraits (selfies) in five cities.

Manovich uses the term "aggregate documentary" to describe large collections of social media images: "The photo-universe created by hundreds of millions of people might be considered a mega-documentary, without a script or director - but this documentary’s scale requires computational tools—databases, search engines, visualization — in order to be 'watched.'"(Lev Manovich, Watching the World, Aperture magazine #214, Spring 2014.)

While Phototrails created "aggregate documentary" from Instagram images downloaded by the team over a few months, Taipei Phototime captures and displays new Instagram images in real time. Two streams of images, one from Taipei and one from New York, are continuously updated on the screen as users in these cities share new images.

The display alternates between showing the actual photos and their abstraction - color squares representing images using their average hue. This abstracted representation allows viewers to compare temporal patterns and visual rhythms of Taiwan and New York. As images fill the screen, differences in color palettes, contrast, and other dimensions between the two cities become apparent.

Taipei Phototime screenshots (from live stream).

Images from Taipei (top) and New York (bottom) start streaming, represented only as squares with their average colors

More images continue to fill the screen

Display alternates every 15 sec between color squares and the actual Instagram images

The representation of city life and its patterns was an important subject of modernist art. From Pissaro's Le Boulevard de Montmartre (1897) and Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis (Walter Ruttmann, 1927) to Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie (1943), and Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967), artists experimented with ways to show modern city's rhythms. In these and other works, a city presented as a stage for social life, or as an energizing elixir, or as a gigantic machine which subsumes people in its mechanical work.

If steams of Instagram images give us a new representation of early 21st century metropolis, what kind of city do they portray? Can a representation composed from contributions of millions of people show us the city more objectively than single paintings, photos and documetaries by professional artists and filmakers? Taipei Phototime displays the images organized by their upload date and time, without imposing any ideas of its own. However, according to Manovich, just as other visual media before it, visualization is not a neutral vehicle:

"Our visualizations of human habits rendered through Instagram photographs do not reflect a single directorial point of view, but this does not make them entirely objective. Just as a photographer decides on framing and perspective, we make formal decisions about how to map images, organizing them by upload dates, average color, brightness, and so on. But by rendering the same set of images in multiple ways, we remind viewers that no single visualization offers a transparent interpretation, just as no single traditional documentary image could be considered neutral." (Manovich, "Watching the World.")

Wonder of Fantasy runs from 05/17/2014 to 08/03/2014. Our work will be running continusly during this time, displaying real-time streams of Internet images from Taipei and New York.

From Lev Manovich and Jay Chow in a visualization lab at Calit2

From Jay Chow's lecture at National Taiwan Art Museum

From 2014-05-18
Visualization of 5,000 Instagram images shared in Taipei, part of the initial data exploration by Jay Chow for Taipei Phototime.