Columbia University Press, 2020.
$35.00, 336 pages.
When we watch the news, stream a podcast, or even scroll through various social media platforms, we are faced with data: dizzying statistics of climate change, land use, and species threat; visualizations illustrating distinct portraits in which information constructs worlds and shapes form. Heather Houser in Infowhelm describes this dizzying state of being as “the abundance and ready availability of information as well as its contestation . . . it evokes emotional inundation without specifying the content of emotion.”
Consider the timely data and information around COVID-19. The data are constantly changing and do not come to us unmediated; they are challenged by individuals in power, whether political leaders, researchers, or perceived experts in the field. They are mediated by scientific representations, mediated by our own responses, reactions, and reflections, and mediated by sociopolitical conditions relating to class and status in our country. In respect to the mediation and outpourings of information publicized in media, we must respond daily and continuously to data on two dynamic levels: as individuals and as a collective.
Within Houser’s frame of data and information, Infowhelm might be read paradoxically, as presenting a reparative, or restorative, work. Historically, artists and scientists have blurred the lines of curiosity and exploration despite the held degrees that separate their imaginative minds in academic spaces. Like scientists, poets are investigators. A poet-reader may dissect this book by asking: how does content inform form? Houser’s writing form embodies a synthesis method to highlight the crux of artistic-scientific undertakings. Fusing the past to the present, Houser uncovers how artists alchemize scientific information into aesthetic material in contemporary environmental art. Her writing method reveals that wonder is the essence of inquiry. As a result, a deluge of contested data on crises provokes artists to ruminate on the limits of knowledge and of all that the data cannot communicate.
Houser describes environmental art as the intersection of art and data visualizations. Data visualizations provide a lens in how art can entangle scientific data with aspects of lived experience, from emotion to doubt and uncertainty. Conditions of infowhelm not only assess our tolerance to consume data, but also, our proficiency in data literacy. Data literacy entails an examination of how data entangle with emotion in visualizations. In response to critical data consumption, Houser argues that contemporary environmental art merges scientific information to make meaning of the data. The repurposing of data from butterfly migration to oil spills and experimenting with data collection, classification, and remote sensing become the raw material for poetry. Houser’s synthesis of multiple artistic—literary and visual—works not only offers new ways of seeing environmental change, but also challenges traditional types of knowledge. The artists’ responses sheer toward the apocalyptic side but are not the main tone. When Houser integrates Maya Lin’s digital memorial, What Is Missing, the shades of extinction blend extinct species and extinct experiences, like the echoes of birds. The duality of extinction and the open-source memorial uplifts the trilling mood to imagine other futures. And so, artists engage with environmental knowledge by responding and reacting to as well as reflecting on environmental injustices in an age of climate crises and information overload.
Andrea Rehani is a poet, writer, and researcher in Chicago.