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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Comments and Responses about Axis

Published online at the Whitney Artport Website.
Golan Levin, August 2002.

I was among a dozen artists invited to create interactive applets for the Codedoc project on the Whitney Artport. After we all uploaded our artworks, we commented on each others' projects. Below are the comments I received from Martin Wattenberg, Scott Snibbe, and John Klima, and my responses to their observations.

Martin Wattenberg:
This witty and interesting piece is impressive on many levels. It represents a creative interpretation of the assignment and shows the highest level of craftsmanship. (Witness the amount of code devoted to ensuring flowing syntax in the labels.) It is also suited to a shared-source project, since the program itself holds surprises. Skimming the code, you may at first think the "world.gif" image is simply the map in the applet's background—but it's something more.

Scott Snibbe:
Your piece is very entertaining. It seems that the ties that bind axes of evil are very loose indeed. My axis of Germany, France and Spain was held together by Olympic judo Silver medal winners. Your code was very elegant -- searching through the code, there are no drawing routines that create the countries or axes. All of the connection is made through palette manipulation of a single image. I think this adds a nice layer of commentary onto the piece — these labels we place on countries have nothing to do with their intrinsic nature, but are merely our minds imposing an imaginary order (in this case conspiracy) onto the planet.

John Klima:
Indeed, as Martin said, VERY competent programming, runs like a charm and is a pleasure to look at. I notice that Golan uses the "official" United Nations map projection, rather than a strict lat/lon projection. Don't you think it over-emphasizes Europe and Africa? I love the sense of humor (if you can call it humor) and the very "professional" code comments ("...and a secret handshake. Ours is wicked cool."). I also very much appreciate the content-driven approach. Sometimes the axis "description" is a little forced and redundant, but often it is quite funny, and certainly points to the redundancy of political agendas in the first place. The funniest descriptions depend on the countries one chooses. This highlights a certain property common to many interactive and generative pieces, it really matters what the user does. This is not a bad thing, I think it is ultimately very much the point.

Golan Levin:
John Klima observed that 'the funniest descriptions depend on the countries one chooses,' and Scott Snibbe pointed out how tenuous the connections in the 'axes' can get. I think these comments are dead on, and point to the greatest weakness of the piece.

From the standpoint of creating an interesting reactive browsing tool, the task of developing a database which could report commonalities among any three countries turned out to be harder than I expected. The reason had largely to do with combinatorics: for a map with 188 countries, the total number of unique threesomes turns out to be well over 6 million. Although we were able to populate more than half of this possibility-space (it turns out that nearly all countries produce oil, produce vodka, and are involved in some sort of border dispute), the size of the combinatoric space still suggests that some of the most interesting axes are unlikely to be discovered in casual interaction.

To take one example, there are only six countries which have laws that permit the execution of juvenile offenders: Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and the United States (see http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org). With six countries, only 120 unique threesomes are possible. So this means that the chances of randomly encountering one of these threesomes in "Axis" is something less than 0.002%, which is too bad if you happen to find this information interesting. There are a lot of features like this in the database.

John also asked about my choice of map projection. It's interesting how the choice of a mathematical warping function can have serious political implications! Of course, there's no one "correct" way to flatten a sphere. I used Tony Steinke's excellent online Map Maker to generate a Robinson projection, which is the same projection used by the National Geographic Society. It's a compromise map in which countries and continents more closely match their true size, at the expense of some distortion in the polar regions.