Below is the ARCADE feature/essay "Data Culture" from the spring 2015 issue of ARCADE (after releasing in print, this feature was initially published online in installments).
“In the future, everything will share data — our heartbeats will be recordable; everyday appliances like cars and refrigerators will stream data online; if a device processes information of any kind, it will soon have the ability to share it.” — Aaron Koblin, head of Google’s Data Arts team (from Think with Google)
Data is on the ascent. In particular, the last decade has seen the dramatic rise of data in society. There is more digital information in the world than ever before, and we create more every day. Along with the exponential increase in computer processing power, the Internet’s explosive growth is fueling this new age of information, making it ever easier to collect and share data. As a result, quantification is infiltrating seemingly all corners of the world. Things that have never been measured before are now being converted into data, including aspects of life as amorphous as our personal relationships.
We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Data’s rise and the effects of quantification are profoundly impacting our communities and our lives. We now create and consume large amounts of data in our personal lives through our use of search engines, fitness trackers and social networks. In society at large, data is driving new insights in sectors such as science, education, healthcare and business. As history has shown, societal shifts can be the cause of frictions that provide incentive for critical inquiry among artists and others. This ARCADE feature section will explore the ways in which data has infiltrated culture, including case studies of works that utilize data for critique or as a new method of generating artistic forms.
The Quantification of Society
Four developments in particular characterize our current data-driven climate.
One important development in recent years has been “big data.” The popular, almost catchphrase-like term refers to large and often semi-structured or unstructured datasets. Though difficult to analyze, big data promises insights previously impossible to obtain. In healthcare, it will enable researchers to analyze millions of health records to provide new and more effective treatments for diseases. In education, governments and schools will be able to gain information about the learning abilities of millions of students. Practically every sector stands to benefit from insights gleaned from vast amounts of data.
Big data is made possible by the digitization of information. In 2000, only one-quarter of the world’s information was digital; today only two percent is not. And not only is more of the world’s information digital, there is also more of it overall, as the world’s data doubles every two years. In 2013, the world’s total data was equal to 4.4 zettabytes, or 4.4 trillion gigabytes, according to a study by EMC Digital Universe. By the year 2020, it will be close to 44 zettabytes — 44 trillion gigabytes of data.
Yet big data’s value is not about quantity. It’s about what we can do with it through the use of improved statistical and computational methods. We can learn things from large amounts of information that we can’t from smaller datasets, but making sense of big data requires special skills, or at least the right tools.
With this in mind, Thomas Davenport and D.J. Patil wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled “Data Scientist: The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century,” which describes the demand for specialists suitably equipped to harness the power of big data. Furthermore, business intelligence software is quickly gaining popularity, as products and services like Tableau and IBM’s Watson Analytics promise to unlock insights in data without requiring a specialized skillset in data science. Through big data, quantification is becoming more and more ingrained in society, as we strive to measure and analyze anything from the nationwide performance of school children to government efficiency.
The drive towards quantification is also apparent in the emergence of data journalism. Spearheaded by the New York Times and the Guardian, as well as newcomers FiveThirtyEight and Vox, the discipline combines traditional journalism with data analysis. Its objective is to use data and the design of quantitative information to inform the public about important issues, and data journalism is largely responsible for bringing data visualization to a mainstream audience.
Open data — datasets that are free to use, from government to crowdsourced information — has been instrumental in advancing data journalism. In the 2013 Wired article “How the Global Open Data Movement Is Transforming Journalism,” Jeanne Bourgault of Internews writes that the success of early data journalism projects is helping to shift the media’s tone from “he-said, she-said sound bites to solid data sources.” An example she cites is Data Dredger, a platform that allows Kenyan journalists to download ready-to-use data and accompanying visualizations for their stories. The increase of data visualization in the media is fueling our desire for quantification by giving us information from which we may draw our own conclusions.
Quantification has also permeated our interpersonal relationships. As Shea Bennett reports for Adweek, over 67 percent of Americans are now active on at least one social network, and over 58 percent use Facebook. Social media has become so pervasive that “likes” and “retweets” are a form of social currency, and Facebook friends and Twitter followers are new standards for popularity. These metrics have become a primary way by which we measure the worth of our friendships and social lives. And as social media plays an increasingly central role in our culture, its use is generating terabytes upon terabytes of unstructured data that, while challenging to analyze, promises fundamentally new insights for entire industries.
THE QUANTIFIED SELF
Perhaps one of the most widespread examples of quantification is the “Quantified Self,” a movement based on self-tracking that adheres to the motto “self-knowledge through numbers.” In addition to health and wellness, the Quantified Self also includes areas such as productivity and education. Although the movement was officially founded in 2007 by Kevin Kelly (creator of Wired) and journalist Gary Wolf, self-tracking or “life-logging” began as early as the 1970s. However, the field only started to gain mainstream acceptance once computing technology had progressed far enough to enable commercially viable, wearable devices supported by online services, which could store and visualize personal data.
From counting steps to measuring our sleep patterns, products such as FitBit, Nike FuelBand and more claim to help us improve our health by tracking our behaviors and giving us strategies for achieving better outcomes. Visualizing progress is a motivating factor for self-trackers, and an increased awareness of one’s behaviors can be the first step towards positive change. In addition, the new Apple Watch promises to continue the widespread adoption of wearable technology; wearables are one of the most vivid examples of how quantification is infiltrating society from the ground up. Quantification promises to help us control aspects of our lives that may have previously seemed elusive.
The Cost of Data
It is hard to recall any other time in history when we have been this infatuated with information and numbers. But with all the ways we capture and access new troves of data, are we becoming more knowledgeable? Or are we just processing more noninformation in search of insights that are increasingly hard to come by? Does data help us connect more with who we are as a society, or is it pulling us further apart?
While we may exuberantly welcome data’s rise for the unprecedented possibilities it brings, our new data-fueled culture is also causing psychological discomfort and societal friction. In many respects, information technology is advancing faster than society can keep up.
Humans innately pursue knowledge. Curiosity is in our DNA. From our earliest days as children exploring our surroundings, we spend our lives building an understanding of what’s around us. And yet, as we strive to understand, our world is growing increasingly complex, and its complexity is rapidly outpacing our capacity to comprehend it.
In his 1989 book, Information Anxiety, Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conference, wrote: “Information anxiety is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand.” Today, information overload and information anxiety are realities of contemporary life, due largely to the prevalence of the Internet. Search engines like Google have played the biggest role in connecting us to its seemingly never-ending stream of information, but while Google’s PageRank algorithm is getting better and better at interpreting our queries, the quality of online material we encounter is as varied as ever. With such a sheer volume of information at our fingertips, it’s increasingly difficult to separate signal from noise. As Wurman points out in a Scenario Journal article, “Information Anxiety: Towards Understanding,” information anxiety is based not on too much information but, rather, too much
noninformation, which in turn is leading to increasing friction in our lives.
Most would agree that social media has had empowering effects for individuals. For many, however, social media also causes or increases anxiety. As journalist Alissa Quart reports in the PBS Frontline episode “From Gen X to Z: Teens and the New Cool,” an attachment to numbers and statistics is producing increasing competition for social media followers and friends, particularly among teenagers. Rivalry based on these new, astronomically high standards of popularity can quickly lead to anxiety as people strive to improve their rankings. Furthermore, Quart asks, in the quest to amp up their numbers of Facebook friends, are teens losing the understanding of what a friend really is?
Studies have also found that social media can actually make us lonelier. In the Atlantic article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Stephen Marche quotes MIT computer science professor Sherry Turkle: “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” According to Marche, Facebook use is correlated with a rise in narcissism — the flipside of loneliness. In all of our efforts surrounding self-presentation, are we losing the capacity to form meaningful connections with others?
LOSS OF PRIVACY
Privacy is another area of friction created by the rise of data, growing in importance every day. With its 1.62 billion users, Facebook is becoming increasingly valuable to marketers. Because of the information contained in people’s profiles and the content with which they engage, social media can target specific demographics better than other forms of online advertising. Similarly, as suggested by the 2014 Symantec study “How Safe Is Your Quantified Self?,” businesses, marketers and governments alike would find data from self-tracking quite valuable.
This raises questions about the privacy of personal information, a growing concern among Americans. As the Whitney Museum of Art’s director of digital media, Sarah Hromack, points out in the frieze article “Safety in Numbers?,” we are increasingly allowing ourselves to be defined by data due to our willingness to disclose personal information online. As a result, personal data can be used as a source of power and control. This is confirmed by the evidence published on WikiLeaks and through classified documents provided to the media in 2013 by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden; among other things, the documents Snowden leaked showed that the NSA was collecting millions of email addresses and searching email content, as well as tracking cell phone usage and locations globally.
As reported by Dominic Rushe in the Gaurdian, Apple CEO Tim Cook warned about the consequences of giving up our privacy at the recent Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection in Palo Alto:
We still live in a world where all people are not treated equally. Too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or express their opinion or love who they choose. [We live in a] world in which [the protection of] that information can make a difference between life and death. If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life.
The loss of privacy is one of the largest threats and sources of friction we face in our increasingly data-driven society.
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.
The following five sections — Data as Narrative, Data as Mirror, Data as Truth, Data as Equalizer and Data as Interface — 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.
THE IMPACT OF DATA
Quantification is quietly changing the world. The new kinds of analysis made possible with data’s rise will lead to greater insight but could also result in greater predictability in all areas of life. Artist Martha Rosler writes in her contribution to the frieze article “Safety in Numbers?” that quantification is an “essential bureaucratic tool” delineating all aspects of human activity. She warns that quantification may be pushing the humanities into decline. What if the quality of TV programming was determined solely by audience share rankings? Or what if student achievement was determined on the basis of test grades alone? The insights data offers may be insufficient for the creation of meaningful cultural output, especially in those areas that are more nuanced — and human. Is the quantification of the world stifling free expression? Or, conversely, is it possible for quantification and the humanities to live side by side, even become intertwined? Could the production of data itself be a creative act? As data works its way deeper into our society, culture can be a powerful lens through which to view its impact on our changing world.
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.
Data as Mirror
Data can reveal things about us that we didn’t know were there. Quantification can provide evidence, which causes us to see our own behaviors from a different perspective. Data can act as the bridge between our inner and outer selves, allowing us to see and measure the impact we have on our surroundings and the people in our lives. This can be enlightening and sometimes uncomfortable as we discover things about ourselves that may be difficult to acknowledge. The following projects use data to cast reflections of ourselves relative to the world, bringing to the surface points of connection between individuals.
Time Scan Mirror, 2004
Daniel Rozin, media artist and associate art professor at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University, creates reactive installations and sculptures that respond to the viewer’s presence. His “software mirrors” reflect an image of the viewer in a variety of media, from wood to metal, causing focus to shift from the reflected subject matter to the technique used to scan and recreate the environment. Time Scan Mirror investigates time through the process of scanning a single vertical line of whatever crosses in front of the piece. The scanned line, one pixel in width, is continuously shifted horizontally, creating a visual log roughly 30 seconds in length.
Quotidian Record, 2012
Through exploring alternative geographies and experimental music, media artist Brian House aims to deconstruct and make sense of what’s happening in the world.
House’s Quotidian Record is a manifestation of his interest in the rhythms of everyday life. A limited-edition vinyl recording, the piece translates an entire, continuous year of the artist’s location data into music. Each rotation of the record is one day’s worth of data, and a full year takes approximately eleven minutes to play. House created harmonies representing each place using latitude/longitude data. As places are converted into sound, routine translates to higher consonance.
House gathered the data for Quotidian Record via OpenPaths, an online service from the New York Times that allows users to track their locations via a mobile app. OpenPaths, to which House contributed, was created to give people back agency over their personal location data, otherwise stored, analyzed and monetized by corporations, while the individuals it belongs to have only limited control. Quotidian Record capitalizes on the notion of agency through a highly personal and surprisingly resonant application that maps physical location to abstract data to sound, juxtaposing the tangible and intangible, the digital and analog.
Antony Raijekov and Katharina Köller
10VE is an audiovisual composition for two performers that converts and quantifies body signals, measuring how the individuals respond to each other as well as being in front of a live audience. During the performance, Austrian artist Antony Raijekov and performer Katharina Köller sit on stage, their backs turned to the audience. A custom apparatus tracks each performer’s biosignals and translates them into sound and image. The performers’ heart rates and other biosignals drive audible, rhythmic beats and sounds and a projection of oscillating waveforms, while movements in the audience are similarly captured via a motion detection system and turned into sound.
In 10VE the performers’ bodily states are both the result of the act of performing as well as the show itself. The piece makes visible the emotional state shared between the audience and the performers as each influences the other. By measuring these “psychophysical” processes, 10VE also raises the question regarding the agency that data affords, in that it not only documents behaviors but also facilitates behavioral change. Here, that cycle is taken to the extreme, creating a real-time feedback loop and a confluence of synergistic forces that exemplify the visceral impact that data can have.
iCal / uCal, 2012–2013
As stated on his website, the work of Dutch artist Willem Besselink investigates “natural laws and man-made rules, the regularities of the world and the exceptions to them.” These parameters shape Besselink’s art; he avoids making decisions based on his own subjective impulses, embracing work that quantifies his behaviors or external conditions, both of which result from structures present in the world.
iCal is a series of 52 paintings capturing the artist’s daily activities, week by week, throughout 2012, meticulously documented using the iCal application. Activities are color coded according to six categories. In a parallel series, uCal, Besselink created paintings from similar data for 41 individuals, each based on a week of his or her choice. Together, both series visualize 2012 through recorded activities, enabling the comparison between individuals and how they spent their time. In the data’s overlaps and differences, Besselink’s work highlights patterns that define how our days are structured, describing the ways we choose to spend our time, not only as individuals, but also in a larger community.
Pockets Full of Memories, 2003–2007
Pockets Full of Memories is a participatory installation dealing with the topic of memory through the lens of an archive. Created by George Legrady, professor of interactive media and director of the Experimental Visualization Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the installation reflects the voice of a community.
Visitors digitally photograph objects in their possession and add descriptions through a data collection station. The project’s database, initially empty, fills over time as visitors add images. The archive is displayed on a large projection surface, and objects are continuously reorganized based on similarities defined by visitor descriptions and visualized according to several views, including their reorganization over time.
The result is a record of the exhibition, a specific event, including the visitor participants who are represented by the objects they chose to contribute. The piece forms a collective portrait built from personal memorabilia, yielding a unique composition every time the installation is shown. By creating a database of objects and associations, the piece demonstrates that the things we own constitute part of not only our individual but also our collective identity.
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.
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 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
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.
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 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.
Measuring the Universe, 2007
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.
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.