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 first of five which explore the use of data in the arts. 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 Narrative
Data can tell stories. Just like in traditional storytelling, data can unfold over time in a linear progression. However, a database allows narratives to move between different properties, pivoting effortlessly from time to other characterizing dimensions, such as location or category. The power of data narratives lies in breaking free from a singular viewpoint. Some data narratives make use of metaphors, allowing the information itself to tell the story. Others tell stories by drawing on a multitude of individual perspectives. Yet others involve the viewer directly, enabling people to find their own narratives by filtering and sorting information in a variety of ways. While this departure from traditional, linear storytelling can feel disorienting, it also opens the door to participation and representation of a community’s voice. The following projects present different perspectives on data as narrative.
Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin
Listening Post, 2001
A media installation by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin, Listening Post consists of a suspended, curved grid of hundreds of small screens that dynamically display, in real-time, text fragments collected from Internet chat rooms. Simultaneously, a chorus of computer voices recites the content, accompanied by musical chords. The work cycles through a series of scenes that highlight different phrases and adopt various arrangements of sound and visual treatments.
Messages are organized into topic clusters based on content, causing a data-driven narrative to unfold that reflects the flow of communications on the Internet. Although the displayed text is determined algorithmically, at times it seems as if the screens are responding to one another. According to Rubin, the piece reflects an innate human yearning for connection. As he said in the New York Times article “Making an Opera from Cyberspace’s Tower of Babel”: “There are an untold number of souls out there just dying to connect, and we want to convey that yearning. I hope people come away from this feeling the scale and immensity of human communication.”
Douglas Coupland with Paul Humphreys and Helios Design Labs
Electric Ikebana, 2012
Electric Ikebana is a collaboration between Generation X author, Douglas Coupland, and Paul Humphreys of the British synth-pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. The piece’s concept is a musical track that interacts with Internet traffic data, resulting in visual artifacts — unique for each viewing — that reference Japanese flower arrangements called ikebana. Internet traffic is translated into particles, their shape, color and quantities varying depending on the type and volume of the underlying data. User location and time affects the outcome as well; for example, 12 colors are associated with various times of day, causing the environment to look different for every person viewing the piece.
The resulting experience gives voice and form to something as abstract as Internet traffic. The ikebana reflect the content of network activity and align it with the piece’s soundtrack in a way that tells a different story with every viewing. Electric Ikebana references and humanizes the narratives contained in the Internet’s constant stream of traffic data, suggesting new possibilities for expressing this data in a delightful, uplifting way.
Golan Levin, Jonathan Feinberg, Shelly Wynecoop and Martin Wattenberg
The Secret Lives of Numbers, 2002
Numbers hold a certain fascination. They convey confidence and authority. But while numbers are considered objective and indisputable, they are actually a reflection of our culture — our ideas, our interests, our behaviors. The Secret Lives of Numbers is an interactive Java applet by Golan Levin, Jonathan Feinberg, Shelly Wynecoop and Martin Wattenberg that visualizes the popularity of every number between 0 and 1,000,000. The work is based on an automated Internet search for all numbers in that range, counting the web pages that contain each.
Certain numbers are more popular because they are used as area or ZIP codes (212, 911, 90210), while others are used to represent years (2000, 2001, 2002, etc.). Some numbers are used frequently in technology specifications (286, 386, 486), while others are popular sales tools (98, 99). As the authors speculate, some numbers like 12345 or 8888 may be popular because they are simply easy to remember. The Secret Lives of Numbers tells countless stories through the lens of numbers, in essence forming a snapshot of our culture.
Pixel Is Data, 2013–present
Pixel Is Data, created by Matthieu Savary, is a photo-taking application for iOS. Instead of representing photos as a program traditionally would, it can rearrange the image data based on a number of parameters. In addition to organizing pixels in their photographic order, the application can recompile them based on their red, green and blue components as well as in a variety of other ways, including a choice of pixel shape and the introduction of randomness via a noise slider. The application disrupts the narrative conveyed by a single photograph, enabling countless interpretations by reorganizing the image’s pixel structure. This project highlights data’s potential to tell a multitude of stories in the hands of the user, who is given control to find new narratives from within a single data source.
Sound artist Ryoji Ikeda’s work is concerned with sound in a raw state, as pure data. Datamatics is a series of artworks that use data in audiovisual concerts (including the two variations of data.tron featured here—also see the image at the top of this post). Visuals are rendered in stark, minimalistic black and white with color accents, mirrored by a data-driven soundtrack. A variety of scenes cycle through visualizations of data from hard drive errors and code studies as well as mathematical processes. Data is used as texture to create spectacular, immersive landscapes and vistas that tell sonic and visual narratives. Ikeda’s objective is to make visible and material the data that permeates the world. What does the invisible substance of data look like when given form? The artist interprets data as cold, distant and dystopian, enveloping the viewer and invoking an uneasy sense of the sublime.
The next post exploring data art, "Data as Mirror," will release 30 June.
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