Traces of Culture

A Series of Interactive Art Events in Which SearchBots Scour the Web Looking for Visual Information

Stephen Wilson  Professor, Conceptual/Information Arts, San Francisco State University


The library at Alexandria, Egypt attempted to collect all the knowledge of the ancient world - it was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.  Seventeen centuries later the Encyclopediaists of the Enlightenment hoped they could arrange the grand text that encompassed all that was known.  The World Wide Web is our era's attempt.  Furthermore, in our mediated world, it seeks to collect images and sounds in addition to text.  The existence of this worldwide compendium is not sufficient in itself.  Its contents are mute and impotent without methods to search its fullness. 

Traces of Culturepresents a series of real time interactive art events that investigate this search process and the underlying compendium.  It reflects on:

  • The nature of search  (sometimes yielding what was expected and sometimes presenting surprises - either less or more than was anticipated)
  • The relationship between words  and images
  • The richness and diversity of the world's images stored on the Web
  • Our assumptions about what is on the Web and how it can be accessed
In seven events Traces of Culture unleashes custom-crafted searchbots to rummage the images stored in the Web. Tracesis available in installations and also as a web event.

Image derived from © 1996 Tamara Munzner (Stanford University), Eric Hoffma (Ipsilon Networks), K. Claffy(NLANR), and Bill Fenner (Xerox  PARC)

Physcial and Web Versions

Traces of Cultureis presented in several forms:
  • Gallery Installation - Physical installation with projector allows groups of visitors to interact with the searchbots and each other. 
  • Internet Linked Physical Installations - visitors in separate installations interact with each other via Searchbots carrying messages
  • Shockwave web version - can be viewed by anyone with appropriate Internet connections 
See documentation photos from installation presented as part of SFSU faculty show 2-3/04  doc1 doc2, doc3
View Shockwave Version
Warning - requires fast Internet Connection. 
3.5mb download and 
fast access for the Searchbots to gather images

Also requires Netscape 6+ or Explorer 5+ or equiv
and appropriate Shockwave plug-in
Best viewed at 800x600 or larger


Description of Events

Name that Search Term:Visitors are contestants in a gameshow.  They are confronted with a mystery target image.   Can they identify which search term resulted in the target image?  Can they beat the previous high score?  The flow of terms and images builds on a database of random searches by strangers (from the Alta Vista Searchvoyeur feature) to provide a glimpse of what the world is searching for, the relationship between concepts and images, and our assumptions about those relationships.

Cinema of Famous Texts: Visitors enter the virtual movie theater.  Click on one of the movie posters of great books.  The Web yields the text of that book.  Clicking on any word fills the screen with images that someone somewhere associated with that word.  Sometimes the images amplify the text and other times, the image reflects a tortured connection.
Parade of Opposites: Dyads of opposites flow across the screen.  Picking one summons the Web to find images that incorporate both terms. Is there wisdom of reconciliation in these images that derive from the dyad of terms?
Search Matrix: Collages generate themselves created from images connected to visitor selected terms.  Users pick from various archives of terms including random searches by strangers, 2003's most popular search terms, ebay's list of most searched for objects, Yahoo's list of most searched for people, or from random words used by the spammers to confuse spam filters.

Gallery of All Seasons: A venerable gallery of the Louvre becomes activated with the work of the artist chosen from the Web's database of the world's artists.

Search History: A visual record of all searches by visitors to Traces of Culture is stored.  Current visitors can browse backward and forward in time to revisit the search concepts and the images generated.  When there is no action, the images of past searches begin to fade - oldest ones fading faster.
NewsBot  - The imageBot in San Francisco has friends.  Other search robots located elsewhere on the Internet periodically communicate with the imageBot in San Francisco.  For example, NewsBot looks at news pages and extracts headlines of current news.  It then extracts search terms to send to the imageBot that will produce images related to the news for visitors to the installation or the Shockwave virtual installation. Other bots are under development.

LIVE - Web Visitors Can Activate ' Traces of Culture' from Anywhere

Activate from Afar:This 'activate from afar'  event allows you as a web visitor anywhere in the world to send search terms to the SearchBots in San Francisco.  These bots will then collect images releated to your terms and help shape the experience of visitors to the physical installations (if one is currently active)  or the Shockwave virtual installation. small afar

Please type your name:       Please type your location

Please indicate the term or terms that you would like the SearchBots to use as they hunt for images. 
Please separate them with the plus sign (+)  - for example,  gaugin+tahiti 

Issues Explored in Traces of Culture:

Images of the World:  The Web contains hundreds of millions of images.  If a picture is worth a million words, what are hundreds of millions of images worth?  It is said we live in a visual culture.  What kind of information do images convey as opposed to texts?  On the Web the sacred images of religion, the venerated images of art, and scientific explorations of the cosmos and the secrets of the cell co-exist with business presentations and snapshots of family events.  What do they tell us about similarities and differences across cultures?   The images from diverse cultures all merge in searchBot space.

Search Processes: Search processes are simultaneously smart and dumb. They are 'smart' because sometimes the association is exactly what was expected. They are dumb because sometimes the association is the accident of strange references.  They take the terms presented and find all the images that somehow have those terms associated with them using a brute, mindless algorithm.   For example, the term nirvanamight produce images from the sacret Eastern traditions that generated the term.  It equally might produce every loose association anyone, anywhere in the world might have made with the term - for example, nirvana perfume, the nirvant nightclub, or some teenagers photo of an event that was seen as an experience of nirvana.  These last examples might be considered bastardizations of important terms that distract from the intention of the search.  They also can be seen as an anthropologocial tour of how the term has entered discourse around the world.  Sometimes the unexpected strange associations provide an insight on new facets of the terms meaning. 

What the World is Searching for:  Several events in Traces of Culture make use of databases of terms entered in the search engines.  These include:  the top 100 and top 500 search lists, the ebay auction top 500 items people search for, and the Yahoo list of most popular characters searched for in various countries (US, England, France, Spain, and Italy).  They also include the Alta Vista Search Engine's  Search Voyeur database, which is a record of randomly selected seaches that people have initiated  These databases are windows into what people of the world desire to know about. 

Reconciliation of Opposites:  The Parade of Opposites event incorporates lists of opposities used to instruct people who are learning English.  Opposites are provocative because they confront us with a glorious array of ways things can differ.  Opposites are an important tool in the Western mind's analytic approach.  Other eastern traditions suggest that higher levels of thought can dissipate the apparent distinctions. The philosopher Hegel suggested that civilization advanced through the resoultion of thesis and antithesis into new syntheses. 

Great Texts and Great Art:  Among the resources available on the Web are the great texts from literature and poetry.  For example, the Gutenberg Project is a coordinated effort to enter all well known texts that are out of copyright.  Using a distributed access strategies volunteers around the world agree to enter their favorite books and poems into the database.  It  currently has over 10,000 texts. Other commercial and non-commercial effors are underway to pick up the pace.  (Wired article)    The Web also provides instant access to hundres of thousands of images from the work of the famous and the not so famous artists.  Museums are rushing to put their collections online including works that are in storage and not commonly available to the public.  Some analysts believe that these art and literature databases will result in a great dissemination of knowledge. The Gallery of All Seasons and Cinema of Great Texts events reflect on these resources by asking viewers to focus attention  on particular texts or artists. 

Information as Entertainment:  The What is my Search Term GameShowand Cinema of Famous Texts events explore the relationship of entertainment and information.  They are based on the premise that thinking about this treasure house of stored knowledge and focusing on particular items can be quite amusing. 

The Semantics of Words and the Semantics of Images: Text and images convey information differently.  The flow of images and related terms in Traces of Culture invites reflection on that difference.  To provide a flow of terms to inspect, Traces introduces words that were not originally intended as search terms.  In the Cinema of Famous Texts, all words are activated and can be chosen as search terms to bring forth images.  In Search Matrix, one of the databases to access is the 'Random Words Used by Spammers'. Spam has become a major problem in the world's email.  To defeat the flow of spam software developers have developed spam filters that look for common words and phrases in order to assign a spam probability index to each message.  For example the term 'get rich quick'  is likely to indicate spam.  The spammers have combatted this by introducing paragraphs of random words accessed from online dictionaries.  These non predictable words confuse the filters.  For one month I saved all these paragraphs to build the database of random words from spammers.  Each of these words can be a gateway to a sometimes bizarre flow of images.

Acknowledgements:  The developers and researchers at the Search Engines have created marvelous tools that have cultural implications beyond the utilitarian motives for their creation.  Thanks to the people at Google for creating the image search capability that our Searchbots call upon to do their work.  Also thanks to Alta Vista, Yahoo, ebay, and the other services that share the records of what people are searching for.  Thanks to SFSU Gallery for assistance in creating the installation.

More information about Stephen Wilson art works: