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 fourth of five which explore the use of data in the arts (read "Data as Narrative," "Data as Mirror" 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 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 Truth
Most of us would say that we rate fact over opinion, and data appears to reinforce this. When we are presented with facts in the form of data, we often take them at face value. Of course, data itself is always interpreted — in order to create data, measurements are made, after which data is selected, structured, cleaned, filtered and finally represented, with decisions being made every step of the way. While showing correlations is easy, proving causation is the result of years of research. Some would say it is impossible — the German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that though experience itself is founded on the assumption that causation exists, we can’t ever prove that it’s more than just that — an assumption we make in order to make sense of the world. But despite this metaphysical disconnect, we have never lost the desire to transcend the limits of our own experience. The following projects use data as a vehicle to propose essential truths about the world — truths that can sometimes be difficult to accept but also pave the way for shared understanding in certain cultures.
Signal to Noise, 2012
Artist Casey Reas writes software to explore generative systems and forms. His program Signal to Noise treats television signals, captured from the air using an antenna, as a raw material. These signals are scrambled and re-arranged into new visual forms and structures using his custom-written software. The result, displayed as a screen-based media installation, is a complex geometric latticework, dynamically shifting and morphing between different views and compositions.
By leveraging content from the major US TV networks, Signal to Noise highlights the visual patterns inherent in content we consume every day. It deconstructs and recombines these patterns into an infinite number of new forms that allow us to imagine entirely new narratives.
Nadav Hochman, Lev Manovich and Jay Chow
Phototrails is a research project visualizing image data from locations around world. A joint project by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh, the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information, and the City University of New York, it investigates patterns in social media image data, focusing on the billions of photos shared by hundreds of millions of Instagram users every day. It aims to reveal social and cultural insights using a sample of 2.3 million publicly shared Instagram photos from 13 cities worldwide. In one exploration, the software highlights the brightness and hue of photos, creating unique “visual signatures” that reveal the prevailing preferences of users in each location.
Another looks at the frequency at which photos are uploaded, creating a “visual rhythm” that varies place by place. Further explorations focus on the daily routines of individuals based on their photo-taking activities.
Using methods developed in social computing, the digital humanities and software studies, Phototrails analyzes large sets of unstructured data from social media to create comparisons between locations, identifying patterns that capture a particular sociocultural essence of a place.
Aleph of Emotions, 2013–2014
Aleph of Emotions, a project by Singapore-based creative technologist Mithru Vigneshwara, lets us see the world around us through the lens of feelings attached to places. According to writer Jorge Luis Borges, the Aleph is a point in the universe that allows anyone who looks into it to see everything else in the universe with perfect clarity. Vigneshwara uses the Aleph as a metaphor for an infinite archive of emotions. In this work, emotions are derived from geocoded Twitter messages, mapped to their corresponding locations and made accessible through a camera-like device. The user can point the device in any direction, and the viewfinder screen will display a visualization of emotions attached to that place. Aleph of Emotions is compelling in that it links the physical environment to the emotions of others, which we can discover experientially as we move through the world. It contextualizes information that was previously abstract, revealing a hidden truth about the places around us.
A Chicago-based media artist, Jason Salavon develops software programs that look for patterns in varying forms of data, investigating relationships between the part and the whole, the individual and the group. Part of his Amalgamations series, Portrait involves a technique that combines a large set of images into a single rendering using point-by-point mathematical averaging. For this piece, Salavon’s software averages the bulk of the portraits created by artists Frans Hals, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Anthony van Dyck and Diego Velázquez, resulting in four composite images, one for each artist.
Salavon describes the resulting images as “meta-portraits” — ghostly and shroud-like, they capture a particular essence of the source material. Comparing the four masters’ images, it is easy to see similarities in composition. Yet, the real insight lies in the subtle differences in lighting and framing that characterize each artist’s style. Salavon’s interpretation of the old masters helps us separate form from subject matter.
Komar & Melamid
The Most Wanted Paintings, 1994–1997
The Most Wanted paintings are the result of a poll conducted by the team of Russian-born artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. The artists conducted an extensive market research survey in a dozen countries worldwide about aesthetic preferences and taste in the attempt to discover what a “people’s art” would look like. The poll was later extended to their website.
This project raises the question: What would art look like if it aimed to please the largest number of people? The results of the project speak for themselves in suggesting that the most popular work may not be the most culturally valuable. Perhaps with all of our enthusiasm for data, we need to preserve space for things that are inherently qualitative.
The next post exploring data art, "Data as Interface," will release 1 September.
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