The Great Ladybug Animation

The word "database" is a fairly recent addition to the English language, its roots extending only so far as the birth of computer science. However, as an ontological category, the database is an old concept referring to any collection of information which has been organized to facilitate quick retrieval or comparison. Victoria Vesna, a media artist and professor at UCLA, recognizes the Library of Alexandria (circa 100 B.C.) as an early incarnation of the modern digital database. In the same essay, Vesna writes that digital databases collapse the space that traditionally separates word from image, encompassing both under the inclusive rubric of "data." The photographic database, then, is neither a collection of images nor of data, but a set of images meant to impart information about all of the images as a unique set. The way in which visual databases are organized reveals much about the way we classify knowledge, how we define entities, and how we interpret difference between them.

Because an integral aspect of the database as a medium is the comparison and analysis of its components, the database necessarily assumes an intelligent viewer who can navigate its infrastructure and synthesize its data to draw meaningful conclusions. Vesna's "aesthetic of navigation" is both a structural and temporal aspect of photographic databases such as the Great LadyBug Animation and the Visible Human Project-both projects animate their collection of images to create the appearance of travel between and through bodies, respectively. This sense of movement draws the viewer's attention to the fact that he is actively engaged in experiencing the database, and that it is the viewer's consciousness which animates the database, transforming it from a jumble of data into a structurally coherent tool for information-gathering. In order to gain a better sense of how these visual databases alternately draw attention to and obscure diversity, even how they contribute to the very definition of what "diversity" is, it is necessary to look more closely at the databases and their history.

The Great LadyBug Animation is a database of photographs of ladybugs that have been ordered in quick succession to create a short animation that reveals the intrapopulational variation in the patterns of spots on the insects' wing covers. Natalie Jeremijenko, a design engineer and technoartist at Yale, photographed 200 ladybugs out of a total population of 4,000 insects. She then scaled and color-corrected the images before ordering them by similarity using computational algorithms normally used in face recognition software. The result is a fluid animation of the ladybugs' spots-while the bodies of the ladybugs remain uniform, the spots on the wing covers alternately grow larger and smaller, increase and decrease in number, and migrate across the ladybugs' thoraces. There is no definite beginning or end to the animation. Each image constitutes one short moment in the overall representation of population diversity, which can be viewed as a continuous loop. Having compiled the foundation of her LadyBug database, Jeremijenko is now creating a flipbook using the animated photographic database. The flipbook will demonstrate the diversity exhibited within the ladybug population as a function of time which can be manipulated by the individual operating the flipbook.

The LadyBug Animation does not present its viewer with an archetypal image representative of the "ideal" wing cover pattern. Rather, the animation is a technology for seeing that which is normally invisible: that each population exhibits a profusion of diversity. This fact is often obscured by technologies which use visual archetypes as a tool for identifying whole populations. An example of such a technology is the Audubon Guide, which shows photographs of archetypal entities to aid in the easy identification of birds, trees, insects, or minerals in the field.

The photographic database originated at the end of the 19th century as a disciplinary technology designed to assist criminologists and eugenicists in positively identifying individuals predisposed to a life of crime. Francis Galton, a British gentleman and science enthusiast best known for coining the term "eugenics" in 1883 and founding the forensic study of fingerprints, published "Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons Into a Single Resultant Figure" in 1879, in which he details the process of creating composite portraits and posits that composite portraiture is capable of "extracting the typical characteristics" of a group of individuals to create a realistic "portrait of a type" (Galton 132-3). To create his composites, Galton exposed between two and one hundred photographs on a single photographic frame, giving "each successive image…a fractional exposure based on the inverse of the total number of images in the sample" (Sekula 368). Galton claimed that these portraits were "generic images" which exposed the physical characteristics of the criminal, the Jew, and the consumptive. The resulting images were blurred photographs which revealed, upon careful investigation, that the photographic subject has two distinct hairlines, shirt collars, etc.

Galton's composite portraiture was a surveillant technology meant to eclipse individual difference in favor of visualizing broad, archetypal characteristics. Galton assumed that the categories he was investigating were natural ones, and not determined by socio-economic status, racist thinking, or other culturally mediated constructions. Furthermore, he argued that individuals exhibited physical marks that betrayed their inner attributes. Whereas Galtonian composites collapse difference so as to emphasize a set of general signifiers, Jeremijenko's Great LadyBug Animation is a method for visually expanding difference within a population.

In adopting the flipbook as the medium of the Great LadyBug animation, Jeremijenko combines the scientific, evidentiary purpose of the visual database with the mode of the flipbook, which is often associated with children's entertainment. Historically, the boundary between scientific experimentation and entertainment has often been blurred, most famously in the history of the air pump, which was used variously in the experiments of Robert Boyle and in the parlors of the Enlightenment elite. The same tension between experiment and play is present in Galton's composite portraiture. While Galton claimed his composite portraits were statistically legitimate and objective indices of population characteristics with potential scientific applications, Robert des Ruffieres points out in a response to Galton's article in The Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland that:


Both experiment and play are methods of knowledge-production carried out outside of "real-world" conditions, whether from the variable-controlled laboratory or the safe haven of childhood dissimulation. I point out these similarities between experiment and play in order to draw attention to the fact that visual databases tend to occupy the productive area in which the two overlap-the medium of animation exists comfortably in both realms.

Alphonse Bertillon, a Parisian criminologist, founded the first modern criminal identification database a year after Galton's Composite Portraits. Bertillon's database combined "photographic portraiture, anthropometric description and highly standardized and abbreviated written notes on a single fiche or card" (Sekula l8). Like Galton, Bertillon's goal was to create a statistically quantifiable method for identifying those Parisians predisposed to criminal behavior. By collecting exhaustive data on the physical characteristics of Parisian criminals, Bertillon hoped to filter out idiosyncratic characteristics and determine which physical characteristics disclosed criminality.

While the examples of Galton and Bertillon emphasize the eugenic history of composite photography, the same theoretical assumptions of archetypal classificatory schemata are still embedded in recent databases which index human bodies. The founding supposition of the Human Genome Project was that the sequencing of one "generic" human genome created by combining sequences derived from numerous samples would lead to a profound understanding of and mastery over the genetic sequence found in every human (note that the project sequenced the archetypal "Human Genome", singular). Similarly, the Visible Human Project compiled "complete, anatomically detailed, three-dimensional representations of the normal male and female human bodies" by combining cryosection images to create a fluid animation of the human body's interior (emphasis added). This quote from the National Library of Medicine website betrays the normative assumptions of the Visible Human Project, which Lisa Cartwright characterizes as the exhibition of a "digital Adam and Eve" (Cartwright 33). The Human Genome and Visible Human Projects, the prime examples of modern bioinformatic mastery, are predicated on an archetypal classification of the human body which both projects suggest is not only accurate, but also medically salient.

Watching the quick procession of cryosection images of the Visible Human Project, one gets the uncanny feeling of traveling through the interior of the human body, speeding through tissue and bone in a disembodied realization of the science fiction film "Fantastic Voyage" (1966). By animating the photographic database of cryosection images, the Visible Human Project makes the invisible visible and the internal external. Revealing what the inside of our bodies looks like, the Visible Human Project draws attention to the invisible terrains that exist in us all, and engages the viewer in a pornographic aesthetic of alternate concealment and revelation, calling attention to the viewer's voyeuristic role in this bioinformatic surgical theater


So too, Galton's composite portraits engage their audience in an act of voyeurism, albeit more demurely. Because Galton posits that an individual's external features are signifiers of immutable internal characteristics, his portraits are not depictions of physical characteristics, but of external reflections of internal conditions. The tension in Galton's portraits exists not only between the individual and the type, but also between that which is seen and that which remains invisible. Furthermore, Galton's composites are not images of real individuals, but of "ideal types," unrealized fantasies of the prototype standing in for an entire class of people.

The Great LadyBug Animation is singular in its representation of polymorphic diversity within populations. The theoretical difference between the Great LadyBug Animation and other photographic databases is best illuminated by John Taylor's definition of Aristotelian vs. prototype classifications (Bowker and Star 61-64). Whereas Aristotelian classifications are organized according to a "set of binary characteristics that the object being classified either presents or does not present," prototype classification operates by presenting us with a "broad picture…and we extend this picture by metaphor and analogy when trying to decide if any given thing…counts" (ibid 62). Databases ranging from Galton to the Visible Human Project are aligned with a prototypical classificatory schema which metaphorically expands upon the ideal to create an exclusive notion of the category "human". In contrast, the Great LadyBug Animation is a technology for visualizing an Aristotelian, polythetic (i.e. having several classificatory criteria) classification of the category "population" by standardizing characteristics such as color and size to reveal those variations which span a single population.

It is not accidental that all of the visual databases examined here have living things as their subjects. The dialectics of individual and population, specific and general, visible and invisible are intrinsic to the very notion of "life" as a category of surveillance, investigation, and control. Foucault differentiates between the anatomo-politics of the individual body and the bio-politics whose site of application is the population in The History of Sexuality: An Introduction: "the great bipolar technology-anatomic and biological, individualizing and specifying, directed toward the performances of the body, with attention to the processes of life-characterized a power whose highest form was perhaps no longer to kill, but to invest life through and through" (139). The digital database, then, can be understood as a technology which "invest[s] life through and through" by allowing for translation between surveillance at the level of the individual body and at the level of whole populations.

Current technologies for visualizing and classifying populations render differences invisible while highlighting the archetypal features that characterize the population. Such technologies abound, and are so embedded in the way we classify objects and organisms, that they are not readily apparent. A cursory glance at a biology textbook, an Audubon field guide, or a trip to a natural history museum reveals the prototype classification schema used to catalog plants and animals into family, genus, and species according to their visual archetypes. More importantly, humans continue to be slotted into racial categories despite the fact that "race" as a biological category has long been invalidated. Indeed, genetic research has shown that the fundamental site of human genetic variation is within populations, accounting for 90% of all human genetic variation. The amount of genetic variation between human populations, in contrast, represents a negligible amount of total human variation (Chakravarti).

However, because such information is in direct opposition to the classificatory infrastructures which undergird our society, it does not "count" as knowledge worthy of being known and disseminated. Thus, technologies for visualizing diversity are scarce. It is for this reason that the Great LadyBug Animation is both a novel and essential site with which to begin troubling the traditional definitions of difference, variation, and diversity. As a tangible representation of difference within the ladybug population, the Great LadyBug Animation forces its audience to recognize the incredible amount of physical variation that exists within a population and refutes the notion of prototypical population classification.

Mr. Galton's discovery has been spoken of elsewhere as a toy, but the same was said at the time of the Kaleidoscope, which has done such good service in the Arts, and very recently of the Radiometer, which it has been shown can be successfully applied in Climatology for testing gas-light, and other purposes (Galton 144).