Data as Culture

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A couple of weeks ago I was pleased to take a look at the ‘Data as Culture’ art commission coordinated by MzTEK, which supports the engagement of women with technology/new media/computer arts. The aim of the commission was to highlight the use of data in an artistic context and to challenge our perceptions of what data can be. Unofficially, it also provided some office decoration for the newly-formed Open Data Institute. It was an interesting collection of work — some of which were decidedly better than others — most of which used publicly available “open” data at their core.

 

20 Hz by Semiconductor, part of the Data as Culture commission

 

The idea that data might play a role in art was the spark that opened my eyes to the possibilities of intersections between science and art. At the time, I was teaching geology at a liberal arts college in the US and spending most of my free time painting. I started to look at the remote sensing images that I was giving to my students as data, but began wondering what could be done with them in my own art. Ever since then, I’ve been asking myself questions such as: How can one transform data into art? What separates a good data visualisation from a piece of art?  Or can data itself be art?

To provide some perspective on where I’m coming from with this, I first need to make a confession: although I am now curating an exhibition on scientific data visualisation and am obsessed with beautiful diagrammes, I find it rare to see a data visualisation that crosses into the realm of art. In the same way that scientific images in themselves are not art, neither are good data visualisations. My thinking on this issue is informed by the way that disciplines such as photography or sound recordings are treated in relation to art.

Breathtaking photographs are not automatically ‘art’: photojournalism certainly isn’t, nor is nature photography  (much as I love you Wildlife Photographer of the Year), and definitely not my carefully framed snapshots. Indeed, there has been an argument raging over the past century as to whether any photography is ever art (rather than ‘just’ craft or science). The answer is almost certainly yes (particularly as evidenced by a new show at the National Gallery), and the same is true of sound: not every sound recording is art, but ‘sound art’ certainly does exist.

It is, I would like to suggest, the same with data—it can inspire art, be subverted by art, and change how we think of ourselves in relationship to the world. In short, it’s part of our culture, but the fact that it’s in a gallery does not automatically make it art. I felt that the most successful (as art) pieces in the Data as Culture collection were the ones that were not straightforward visualisations of data, they were ones in which the data became something ‘other’. In the spectacular video piece 20 Hz by Semiconductor (above), data from a geo-magnetic storm is interpreted as audio and patterns that are reminiscent of scientific visualisations — but which most definitely are not charts, maps, or figures — oscillate before your eyes.

 

Phil Archer, Three flames ate the sun and big stars were seen, 2012, laser on photochromatic pigment. Image courtesy of MzTEK and ODI

And Phil Archer’s piece, ‘Three flames ate the sun, and big stars were seen’ uses NASA solar eclipse date to calculate solar eclipses through history and then uses a laser to ‘paint’ a re-representation of the eclipse on to a canvas covered in photochromic pigment. It’s an incredibly simple work (the photo really doesn’t do it justice) where an arc is ‘painted’ by the laser, fades, and is replaced by a new arc, but it’s also incredibly beautiful and oddly mysterious. So although both pieces are underpinned by scientific data, you experience the data in a way that is fundamentally different from the way that you would ‘experience’ (or, more accurately, read) a chart of solar eclipses throughout history or a direct representation of the interaction of a solar storm with the Earth’s magnetic field.

Whether coming from environmental observations or medical experiments, data is necessarily an abstraction of the real world, but I wonder if it can only really become art when it becomes in some sense reflexive. In becoming analogue, becoming a physical object, or becoming a representation of the process of representation itself, ‘data art’ gains a perspective from which to observe and comment on the links between the real world and its abstraction as data. Short of that what we have is, in essence, a very pretty picture.

In a recent conversation with the students on the RCA Information Experience Design MA programme, I observed how many of them were turning their attention to the new ways that information might be expressed through sound or physical objects. I was shown a delightful device through which you could swipe your credit card and hear a tune — based on your number — played on chimes). At first glance, this may seem trivial, but it is doing something profoundly different from traditional data visualisations: those are designed to communicate information (well, the good ones anyways), but art should make you feel and this is what this tiny card reader accomplishes. In order to provide that transformative experience, some translation of the data is nearly always necessary.

At the moment it is an incredibly exciting time to be a data artist. The field is wide open and it seems that there is real potential for some fantastic new projects (some even from people who haven’t previously regarded themselves as artists). The open data movement does not just benefit scientists and innovators– but also artists, who can use this data to comment on our changing environment, economy, etc. So, what should we look for in good data art? Something that transforms how we think about our world. Something that is emotionally moving. Something that actively dazzles or dulls our senses, but which does so with intent.

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