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 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4 discuss the rise of data and its cultural impact. This post is the last of five which explore the use of data in the arts (Read "Data as Narrative," "Data as Mirror," "Data as Truth" and "Data as Equalizer"). Subscribe to our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for notice of future posts.—ARCADE
"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 Truth," "Data as Equalizer" 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 Interface
Access is a critical factor in relation to data. Since data is inherently abstract, giving form to and allowing people to interact with it can be a powerful, enabling force. This also raises issues about control and responsibility regarding who owns a given dataset and who is granted access. Our interactions with data also present opportunities to look beyond prevailing formats. For instance, transforming data from one mode of representation to another may call into question certain established conventions or protocols, lend permanence to something ephemeral, or how the boundaries of something that may be thought of as limitless. These projects present data interfaces that deal with the notion of access in a variety of different ways.
Media artist Lisa Jevbratt explores the expressions that result from the protocols and languages of the Internet. Her project 1:1 consists of a database containing a reference to every website in the world in 1999. She wrote a program to index each website using crawlers that probed every possible Internet Protocol (IP) address, checking if a website was hosted there. Whether or not the site was accessible to the public, if a site was found, the address was stored in the database. The result is a comprehensive display of every website on the Internet.
Navigating the web using 1:1 is different from using a search engine. 1:1 presents the web as a space, a territory that can be navigated and traversed. It is at once a map and an interface—the title 1:1 refers to 1:1 scale, a metaphor famously explored in Jorge Luis Borges’s essay “On Exactitude in Science,” which describes a map the size of the territory it charts. While the Internet consists of servers connected to one another by infrastructure, the web doesn’t have a physical dimension. By staking out the territory of the web, 1:1 is also, in a certain sense, the web as well.
Facebook Demetricator, 2012–present
While other data-driven artworks give form to numbers, Ben Grosser’s project Facebook Demetricator removes the numbers altogether. Most Americans use Facebook, the world’s largest social network, every day. We have become accustomed to the numbers strewn through Facebook’s interface representing amounts of friends or likes a post has received. Numbers on Facebook have become a new form of social currency, placing emphasis on how many friends a person has or how many people like a status update rather than on who a person’s friends are and the content of their messages.
Facebook Demetricator is a browser add-on that hides all numbers in the Facebook interface. For example, “16 people like this” becomes “people like this.” Grosser’s intent is to disrupt Facebook’s social protocols and allow for interactions that are not dependent on quantification. This work raises questions as to why we value numbers the way we do and whether they indeed undermine our relationships and social interactions. Put differently: is quantification the cause of social anxiety, or is it merely the outcome?
Ebru Kurbak and Mahir M. Yavuz
News Knitter, 2007
News Knitter by Ebru Kurbak and Mahir M. Yavuz gathers information from daily political newsfeeds and transforms them into clothing. Global news data is parsed within 24 hours of a particular timeframe, forming the basis for the creation of visual patterns unique to every sweater produced. The project essentially turns the process of designing garments into a worldwide collaboration—the sweaters become records of what happened in the world on a specific day or during a certain time period.
The project began with the desire to find an alternate medium for visualizing live data, as well as an interest in translating digital information into physical artifacts. As abstract data is converted into clothing, its significance changes. Clothing becomes the interface —data becomes style.
Type/Dynamics is a media installation by LUST, a Dutch graphic design studio working at the intersection of design and technology. Designed for the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, the installation is a response to the work of designer Jurriaan Schrofer — in particular, his exploration of what he called “moving typography.”
Type/Dynamics treats typography as a carrier of data. Projections covering the entire surface of the gallery walls depict constantly moving textual information fragmented by grids. The grid patterns are derived from Google Street View panorama images for specific locations in the news — for example, “Ground Zero” or “Tiananmen Square.” The grids are then filled with real-time information about the locations. The projections respond to visitor movements in the space, selectively opening up typographic layers for inspection. As visitors approach a specific piece of information, the grids surrounding it open up, rendering it more legible.
The work is predicated on the idea that form is always unfinished and changeable. As an interface, Type/Dynamics is a vessel for a vast multitude of narratives all represented simultaneously. It is pure information overload. As the designers explain on their website, the result is so overwhelming that you see everything at once without seeing anything at all.
Monochrome Landscapes, 2004
Laura Kurgan’s work explores the ethics and politics of mapping and the visualization of urban and global data. Monochrome Landscapes, a series of 40" by 84" digital prints, reflects the idea that places on Earth that appear as single colors when seen from above are also contested and fragile territories. The high-resolution satellite images in this series show almost nothing but snow, water, trees and sand. A white image shows the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, a protected space caught in the debate over whether or not it should be opened to oil drilling. A blue image depicts the Atlantic at the exact place where latitude and longitude are both zero. An image of an old-growth tropical rain forest in Cameroon, which has become a target for illegal logging, is green. The Iraqi desert is yellow.
In her book Close Up at a Distance, Kurgan describes working with the NGO Global Forest Watch, for whom she identified an illegal logging road traversing the rain forest in Cameroon. The road interrupts the continuous aesthetic of the green forest, prompting the viewer to ask questions about it. Here, and in the case of the other three prints, the image becomes an interface for the investigation of fragile environments.
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