The Art of Tagging Relationships

17 February, 2005

I have a friend who is currently a senior art major at Reed College, my alma mater. She is a photographer and her thesis project involves collecting photographs from various sources (including her own practice) and assembling them into an ever growing installation on the wall. She arranges the photos into combinations derriving from many different properties they posses: commonalities of appearance (visual rhymes), of subject matter, of source, etc. In the couple of times I have seen the project over the course of its development it has been quite fluid with many, if not most, of the images moving around, changing their relationships with the others.

As soon she started telling me about her ideas for this project, I started trying to convince Lindsay -- that's my friend's name -- that she should learn some web design. I immediately thought that the kind of ideas that were driving her project and the kind of attributes she wanted it to posses would be most easily and best present through the kind of inter-connections that a website would allow.

At the time I was thinking of all of the ways she could attach additional information to the photographs and the way she could link them to each other and to various other material on the web (including, for many of the photos which were drawn from online sources, their original sources). Basically, I was thinking of the web's power for annotation. What hadn't occurred to me was its power for dynamic and multiplicitous organization.

Maybe it's just the fact that I had a long session today with Chris working on the last stages of nudging m4dz into beta, but tonight I've been having all kinds of interesting ideas for ways of presenting Lindsay's project on the web using a dynamic database driven structure and, especially, the power of tagging.

Let me explain what I mean. If Lindsay were to organize her images into a database that would include various categories of meta-data (size, quality, source, etc.) along with a capability for tags, she could then create a website that would allow her to dynamically re-arrange her images at whim in order to visualize new groupings of photographs along many different informational lines (anything contained in the meta-data or her descriptive tags) that would be very hard to imagine just looking at the photographs in piles in her studio. For example, she could immediately group together all the photos captured from web dating services that she'd tagged with the terms "leftward" and "gaze". This would give her a group from a common source that would have a strong possibility of having compositional attributes in common, or rhyming visually. At the very least this could act as a powerful tool for composing the actual installation itself, in visualizing different potential combinations of photographs and generally managing the collection. At best it could be a way to create a dynamic interactive version of the project on the web that would allow users to participate in visually re-arranging the collection in order to explore the connections Lindsay made between the images along with, potentially, making their own.

All of this is great, but it's not what is really exciting me in thinking about the potential here (this is maybe where it gets more interesting for web-heads and slightly less interesting for Lindsay): what about the idea of tagging the relationships between these images rather than attributes of the images themselves. Here's the point. Say, in laying out the installation, Lindsay knows that she wants two photographs to go next to each other in a particular way (say that Photo A should be directly above Photo B). Instead of having to fabricate a tag like "aboveCorner" to apply to both photos in order to -- poorly -- describe the relationship between the two, the database could treat the relationship between the two as a single entry and then use tags to describe that entry. So the entry would look something like: Photo A Photo B (tagged: rhyme).

Now we're beginning to have a system that would be really powerful in terms of allowing a unique arrangement (or at least a finite number of options) arise organically from Lindsay's process of looking at and thinking about her images. As she went through and linked up images in relationships and described those relationships, the database could be forming an image of the work as a whole by building the units she defines into ever larger structures. Of course, the relationships should be nestable so that units like (Photo A Photo B) (Photo C Photo D) could receive tags as well.

Tagging networks individually has the promise of allowing simple human readible and producible systems of knowledge (i.e. folksonomies) to extend over vast terrains of data wihtout becoming alienating or unmanageable. They do this because they are so easily and painless extensible, ever changing with the whims of rapid tagging to fit whatever new items are discovered and then totally flexible in recalling these items. The system I am trying to describe of tagging a network via its relationships has a very different benefit. Instead of rendering the web of items easily accessible along any unkown future lines of search or methods of discovering new relationships (a great example of this would be the way del.icio.us gets individuals bookmarks kept for their own reference to transform into powerful indexing and churning engines) it facilitates the process of mapping observed existing current connections and knitting them tightly together into an object which uniquely represents the network of objects as you experience it while tagging it.

I can't, tonight, think of any applications where tagging relationships would make social bookmarking systems more useful, but if they facilitate the combining of loosely joined webs of diverse information from the outside world into a coherent and individual product, they might just make for better art.

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