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The below is from the ARCADE feature/essay "Data Culture" in the spring 2015 issue of ARCADE. The feature/essay has been releasing online in installments. "Data Culture" Part 1Part 2Part 3 and Part 4 discuss the rise of data and its cultural impact. This post is the third of five which explore the use of data in the arts (read "Data as Narrative" and "Data as Mirror"). Subscribe to our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for notice of future posts.—ARCADE

Measuring the Universe

Roman Ondák, Measuring the Universe, 2007. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY


From "Data Cutlure: Part 4: The Art and Impact of Data":

"The rise of data is disrupting the core of our society, impacting us deeply as both individuals and members of communities. Throughout history, frictions created as societies undergo change have spurred innovative responses in the arts. New artistic forms and statements examine the fabric of society as well as the role of the individual, and the artist, within it. The arts, and more broadly, all manner of cultural production, provide ways for society to process change. One particularly poignant example is the Italian futurist movement, which preceded the Bauhaus and modernism in its celebration of technology and the machine at the height of the industrial era. A more recent example is net art, an art form leveraging the web as a distribution channel and a response to the proliferation of the Internet. Poised as we are today at the dawn of the information era, we are witnessing the coalescence of another movement — data art.

In the coming weeks, we'll be sharing a series of posts — "Data as Narrative," "Data as Mirror," "Data as Equalizer," "Data as Truth," and "Data as Interface" — which will focus on the use of data in the arts to generate new forms of creative output as well as critique our data driven world. Despite the issues that data presents, many of the following projects represent the unexpected moments of humanity that arise from quantification. The work speaks to a shared human condition and proposes questions and observations that may help us come to terms with our changing society."


Data as Equalizer

Our actions have consequences. No matter how small we think our influence is in society, what we do matters. While the effects of our individual actions may seem minor, they can be truly breathtaking in aggregate. As a people, we are greater than the sum of our parts — together our different perspectives can create a pluralistic vision that lets us see beyond the present to where we may be headed. Data allows us to see both the forest and the trees — both the individual as well as the shared space we inhabit as a community. The following projects use data as an equalizer to identify points of overlap between the individual and the group, shedding light on shared experiences.

James Coupe and Juan Pampin
Sanctum, 2013–2015


Image courtesy of RJ Sánchez | Solstream Studios

Sanctum is a public art installation by media artists James Coupe and Juan Pampin, commissioned by the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle and installed on the façade of the museum. The installation consists of a grid of 18 screens and a series of video cameras that record people passing by while also identifying them by age and gender. As a person approaches the video wall, he or she becomes the installation’s focal point, triggering automated readings and the textual display of Facebook status updates, contributed by participating individuals, that match the age and gender profile of the passerby.

Most of us are peripherally aware that social networks such as Facebook build profiles from our demographic information, behaviors and preferences. Online, we may take these activities for granted, giving away the rights to our personal data in exchange for access to services. When recontextualized in a public sphere, these activities seem grossly intrusive. Sanctum leads the viewer to question the effects of constant surveillance and the impact of personal information becoming public

Chris Milk in collaboration with Aaron Koblin
The Johnny Cash Project, 2010–present

Johnny Cash Project

Image courtesy of the artists

The Johnny Cash Project is a collective online art project created by hundreds of participants worldwide. Participants make drawings based on a set of Johnny Cash–related source photos chosen by a software program at random. Contributed drawings are then sequenced by the software to become the individual frames of a constantly evolving music video for the song “Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash’s final studio recording. Frames can be viewed in this linear narrative and also by visual characteristics, including frames with the most brushstrokes, frames that are rendered realistically or abstractly, frames that are gestural or pointillist, or frames that are rated highest by viewers.

Johnny Cash Project

Image courtesy of the artists

Through these ongoing contributions, no version of the video is ever the same — it continues to evolve, referencing the themes of mortality and resurrection present in the song’s lyrics. While every frame of the video is an expression of each participant’s contribution, as a whole, the work becomes a shared tribute to Cash and a slice of popular culture.

Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar
We Feel Fine, 2006

We Feel Fine

Image courtesy of Jonathan Harris

We Feel Fine by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar visualizes human emotions by gathering phrases from blog entries containing the phrase “I feel” or “I am feeling,” amounting to approximately 15,000 feelings each day. These phrases are rendered as colored bubbles in an interactive, online visualization. The color of the bubbles represents the type of feeling — dark dots show sadness, while bright dots indicate happiness — and the size of the dot corresponds to the length of the phrase. The bubbles are presented in a variety of different views and visualized in clusters according to feeling type; by demographic information such as age, gender, location and weather; or based on photos that occur in the same source blog entry. This project resonates because it not only provides a platform for each individual voice but also a representation of the common emotions we all share. It presents a portrait of how the Internet is feeling at any given moment in time.

Roman Ondák
Measuring the Universe, 2007

Measuring the Universe

Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Slovakian artist Roman Ondák’s work involves viewers in the process of art making, aiming to bridge the divide between the work and the viewer. Measuring the Universe is an installation first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Over the course of the exhibition, attendants marked visitors’ heights on the gallery walls using their first names and the date they were measured. The result is a dense pattern of thousands of black lines concentrated in the center of the gallery wall, framed by pure white space at the top and bottom. Measuring the Universe records both the presence of the individual visitor as well as the collective and alludes to the innate human desire to visualize the scale of the world.


The next post exploring data art, "Data as Truth" will release 11 August.


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Data Culture

Photo: Cole Benson