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Art in the age of “big data”


Lise Autogena + Joshua Portway, Most Blue Skies (2010)

I’m currently at ISEA2012, the 18th International Symposium on Electronic Art, a six-day international conference, this year taking place in Albuquerque under the glorious banner ‘Machine Wilderness’, which references the New Mexico region as an area of rapid growth and technology within vast expanses of open land.

Astrophysicist and President of the Leonardo Institute for Art, Science and Technology, Roger Malina gave a keynote to a packed auditorium, in which he discussed (in a rich and wide-ranging lecture) the epistemological revolution that is underway with the arrival of the era of “big data”. The amount of data in our world has exploded, Malina explained. Today, each day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data (source: IBM). This trend is accelerating so fast that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. Data sets have become so large and complex that it has become extremely difficult to process using current tools. Malina argued that there is a critical role for artists in creating new systems of data representation, visualisation, sonification, and simulation, across fields ranging from astronomy, geology, nanoscience and medicine, to business and finance. It’s not a field in which I am an expert, but it strikes me that – as well as the systems that Malina outlines – the key contribution that artists can make is in helping to create meaning and poetry from these vast data fields.

At ISEA, there are a few examples of artworks using large data arrays. Agnes Chavez & Alessandro Saccoia’s (x)trees, for example, at the Albuquerque Museum of Art & History is a socially interactive virtual forest generated from search words found in tweets and text messages, an experiment in data visualisation, video mapping and participatory art.

Agnes Chavez & Alessandro Saccoia, (x)trees

To give some other examples of data-driven art, below is a work by Jer Thorp, data artist-in-residence at the New York Times. It shows how often the times printed the words “hope” and “crisis” between 1981 and 2010. Each bar represents a month, Dates and mentions of specific events and key words are thrown in here and there to orient the viewer. It’s interesting to note those times when crises eclipsed hope.

Jer Thorp, Random Number Multiples

A famous work is Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin’s Listening Post, which culls fragments of text in real-time from thousands of Internet chat rooms and other virtual public spaces, identifying prevailing themes and topics of discussion. The texts are then read (or sung) by a voice synthesiser and simultaneously displayed across a suspended grid of more than two hundred small electronic screens. The communications include statements about nationality, age, gender, sexual preference, religion, politics or everyday life. At striking moments, the text washes rapidly across the screens in patterns before clicking to a halt. The work evokes the drama of our technological lives.

Mark Hansen + Ben Rubin, Listening Post (2002-6)

Two examples of artworks that use data sets relating to climate were shown by Arts Catalyst in the exhibition ‘Data Landscapes’ last year.  The exhibition arose from a network of the same name, coordinated by CREAM (The Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media, University of Westminster), which set up discussions around the use of the data and models of climate science within visual arts contexts. The data of climate science has come under intense public scrutiny over the last couple of years, and the network understood that art practices that concern themselves with environmental change need some understanding of how the knowledge of climate change is produced. After a series of fascinating workshops, a seminar and exhibition were held at Arts Catalyst.

The Southern Ocean Studies by Tom Corby, Gavin Baily + Jonathan Mackenzie (also later shown in ISEA2011 in Istanbul) was a projection showing the currents circulating the central Antarctic land mass. These were generated in real-time and mapped against other environmental data sets – tidal flow, wind direction, geochemical and atmospheric flux – to produce flickering constellations of carbon circulation and wind direction. Watching the artwork, it is tempting to see the swirling forms as representative of an Antarctic wilderness, however the patterning effect is as much a product of human activities as natural ecologies. Whilst respecting the underlying science, the work sought to develop a sensibility to the dynamics of ecological complexity as pattern and felt experience rather than quantity and measure.

Tom Corby, Gavin Baily + Jonathan Mackenzie, The Southern Ocean Studies (2011)

In the same exhibition, Lisa Autogena + Joshua Portway’s installation Most Blue Skies calculated the passage of light through particulate matter in the atmosphere and computed sky colours for five million places on earth. A specially developed lighting system then reproduced, minute by minute, the colour of the bluest sky in real-time and displayed its location. Most Blue Skies addressed our changing relationship to the sky as the subject for scientific and symbolic representation. The artwork used advanced real-time satellite and atmospheric sensor data, which was processed by custom-built software, simulating the passage of light through the atmosphere. It played with the tension between the simplicity and romance of the image of the blue sky, and the complex technology involved in measuring and representing it. A previous work of Autogena + Portway was Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium in which multinational stocks appeared as glinting stars in a night-time constellation, shifting and flickering depending on how the shares of each company were trading in real-time.

Lise Autogena + Joshua Portway, Most Blue Skies (2010)

Lise Autogena + Joshua Portway, Black Shoals Stock Market Planetarium (2004)

Sonification is another technique used by artists to re-present data. Sound artist Ryoji Ikeda’s project datamatics was a series of experiments that used pure data as a source both for sound and dynamic imagery. From 2D sequences of patterns derived from hard drive errors and studies of software code, the imagery transformed into rotating views in 3D, whilst the final scenes add a further dimension as four-dimensional mathematical processing opened up new vistas. The soundtrack used layering of sonic components to produce acoustic spaces.

Ryoji Ikeda, data.tron, photo: James Ewing, courtesy of Forma

The challenges of big data are huge. But to develop new systems and tools to deal with big data, developers need to be able to play with data. That means data needs to be protected only lightly by copyright and it needs to be delivered in formats that are useful to people. The idea that data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other controls, is called “open data” and it is rapidly gaining support, particularly in areas such as science and government. Dealing effectively with big data demands an open data approach, whilst the movement towards open data requires new tools to make sense of large data arrays.

Other examples of good ‘big data’ art? Do let me know.

How to get started with data-driven art? A few tools and tutorials (and please suggest additions):


AV Festival: unfolding installations, incremental car crashes and unhurried soundscapes

A small white car in a gallery, its front end against the wall, car bonnet beginning to buckle

Jonathan Schipper, Slow Motion Car Crash, 2012

I had 24 hours of frantic slowness at the terrific AV festival last weekend. This year, the theme of this excellent festival of art, technology, music and film was As Slow As Possible. As I spent much time with our own contribution, Agnes Meyer Brandis’ Moon Goose Analogue, at the Great North Museum (formerly Hancock), and only saw perhaps half of the visual and sound art works – leaving almost unsampled an enticing programme of film and music – I can hardly review it, but I will just note a few highlights from my own small sampling:

Torsten Lauschmann‘s delightful exhibition at the Laing Gallery, Newcastle: standing enchanted waiting for a piano to play by itself, slide projectors to come to clattering life, waiting for snow to fall …

John Gerrard’s large-scale projection Cuban School (Sancti Spiritu), a transfixing slow-moving portrait of an existing school sited in the countryside in Cuba. The work is a virtual representation of the building, its 1960s Soviet-inspired architecture incongruous against tropical trees and light. The scene unfolds in real-time, panning slowly around the school, recreating the light conditions of each day. The scene was empty of people, although I read that a caretaker occasionally appears to switch on the lights. I never saw them.

Image of a large school-type building in a landscape

John Gerrard, Cuban School (Sancti Spiritu) 2011

Yoshi Wada‘s wonderful sound installation in the dramatic architecture of the Discovery Museum’s Great Hall, alternating calm and thunder with foghorns, alarm bells, a ship’s ventilator, and the clang of metal. It felt like a raucous if tuneful way to go down with one’s ship.

My sneak preview of the gorgeous sound sculpture, Flow, on the River Tyne, created by Owl Project (Antony Hall, Steve Simons & Simon Blackmore) with Ed Carter. This floating, wooden waterwheel-powered organ and dynamic sculpture. Hall and Simons explained to me, combines traditional and new technologies to circulate and process water from the river, analyse it, and transform it into energy and sound. It opens later this month and I’ll write more on it nearer that time.

A modern wooden waterwheel and mill on the River Tyne

Owl Project & Ed Carter, Flow, 2012

Imperceptibly edging towards inevitable disaster, Jonathan Schipper’s small car in a shop, moving steadily at 7mm per hour towards its doom. At the opening, the bumper had made contact with the wall of the shop in which it is installed. Since then, its front end has started to crumple.

The rumbling sounds of Jem Finer’s slowed record player, Bob Levene’s leisurely boat trip between Finnish islands as the light fades, On Kawara’s reading of a million years at the Baltic, Benedict Drew’s hallucinogenic walk-through installation … just some of many wonderful artworks, too fleetingly viewed and experienced when I should have been going as slow as possible.

A seascape at sunset with islands

Bob Levene, Inertial Frame, 2009

A tale of singing worms

Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera (2011). Photo: Jan Sprij

I’m just back from Leiden in the Netherlands, where the Waag Society had invited me to give a presentation at the award ceremony for the Designers & Artists 4 Genomics Award, a collaboration with the Netherlands Genomics Initiative and the Centre for Society and Genomics. This was the second year of the award, which can be won by artists and designers who graduated no longer than five years ago.

The jury handed out four awards of €25000 to designers and artists to work with partner scientists with whom they were matched at an earlier stage in the competition process.

The winners were Lionel Billiet (BE) who proposes to develop lichen graffiti on buildings, Susana Cámera Leret (ES) and Mike Thompson (UK) who want to explore the metabolomics of urine and develop metabolic paintings, Tiddo Bakker (NL) who will give plants a voice through measuring their activity with a tension meter, and Zack Denfeld (US), Catherine Kramer (AU) and Yashas Shetty (IN), who plan a series of recipes that imagine near and far future diets of ageing Netherlanders.

The final works of the winners of last year’s awards were exhibited upstairs at the Naturalis, Leiden’s Natural History Museum (on until 8th January ). I liked Matthijs Munnik’s ‘Microscopic Opera’, an audiovisual installation in which tiny nematodes perform an abstract opera under microscopes. Munnik developed a system to translate the movements of the c.elegans worm – a model organism often used in research labs – into sounds in real time. I found the “music” of the worms’ opera rather appealing and I enjoyed the simplicity of the concept and the effectiveness of its execution.

A Mexican space opera – Juan Jose Infante

A man stands in front of a launch site in the desert

Juan Jose Diaz Infante, initiator of “Ulises I”, a Mexican artists’ satellite

Mexican artistJuan José Díaz Infante came to visit us in London the other day, to take part in Kosmica and to talk to us about his project to build and launch an artists’ satellite.

You can watch his talk at October’s Kosmica.

In a mid-life crisis, says Juan, some people will buy a Lamborghini, “but I said no, I’m building a satellite”. There have been many satellites launched, but very few launched as an art piece. Juan José’s inspiration was in response also to Mexico’s drug war, which has made everyday life in Mexico very difficult – there have been over 30,000 deaths relating to the drug war. He wanted to make his own reality. The idea of future is different for different generations, he says, and for a child of the 60s, the future had hope, and space was connected to that future.

He read an article in Scientific American on how to make your own satellite, and his talk at Kosmica told us of his achievements, in less than a year, towards making a satellite, and in identifying and securing a launch site for it (he has booked a launch slot at the new Tonga spaceport). He also discussed the satellite as a “poetic experience”. He has put together the Mexican Space Collective – including artists Arcangel Constantini, Iván Puig, Cabezas de Cera, Arturo Márquez, Hugo Solis, Francisco Rivas, Marcela Armas, Gilberto Esparza, Omar Gasca, and Ariel Guzik – who are making works for the satellite. He is using the term ‘opera’ for a new hybrid. The opera will be written as an algorithm, and the satellite designed as a musical instrument to ‘play’ the opera and to interact with the composition.

You can read more about the project here.

Troubadors and truth drugs

Cracking conference accompanying the Sk-interfaces exhibition at FACT, Liverpool, on Friday and Saturday, which managed to subvert my expectations nicely. Frankly, I’d expected some pretty dry media theory. Instead, media theorist Richard Cavell played his presentation as a stand-up act and had us all laughing. Scientist Denis Noble said he was going to demolish some cherished beliefs of biology but first he would sing us a troubadour’s love song, which he did, beautifully, with highly-accomplished guitar-playing, and there was a succession of terrific presentations from the Sk-interfaces artists, including Maurice Benayoun‘s powerful media art practice, artist Kira O’Reilly‘s provocative live art, Marion Laval-Jeantet of the intriguing Art Oriente Object, and Neal White (Office of Experiments) withNicolas Langlitz from the Max Plank Institute who slapped ‘truth serum’ patches onto their necks and proceeded to recruit volunteers for self-experimentation. Other speakers included artists Stelarc,OrlanJill Scott and Oron Catts of SymbioticA.

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