From designers trawling climate change data to photographers swapping cameras for computers, information is at the heart of an aesthetic revolutionby Charlie McCann / July 28, 2014 / Leave a comment
On a cool Saturday evening in late June, the audience at LSO St Luke’s, a former church turned music venue in east London, heard the premiere of “Change Ringing.” Composed by Laurence Osborn, resident at the London Symphony Orchestra’s Soundhub, the 25-minute piece was performed by nine string players and a percussionist sounding six bronze bells.
But these aren’t your average bells: the shape of each bell matches one of six graphs, which together chart the global rise in temperature over the course of the 20th century. The later in the century, the hotter the earth—and the steeper the bells’ slopes (the statistical term for this shape of graph is, appropriately, a “bell curve).” That Saturday, as the hammer-wielding percussionist coaxed resonant music from his instruments, ranging from 8cm to 23cm in diameter, the audience heard something akin to an aural representation of global warming.
These “data bells” were designed and cast by Peter Shenai, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art’s Master’s programme in Information Experience Design (IED), which explores ways of using data in art and design. Shenai’s aim was to render the climactic changes wrought by global warming tangible: too often we think of them as abstract and irrelevant to our daily lives.
What IED is doing can be seen as the latest iteration of a long-standing tradition in the worlds of art and design: data visualisation, or data viz. Data viz is the process by which information is expressed in visual terms. Data journalist David McCandless’s bold, bright diagrams—showing, say, how much music artists earn online, or how many nuclear warheads are required to destroy the world—have, in recent years, familiarised the public with the notion that hard facts and figures can be communicated in forms that delight the eye as much as they educate the mind. Communication is at the heart of data viz. For those interested in opening up the art world to new kinds of people, this is one reason why the form is increasingly popular.
But data visualisation has been around for millennia, says Paola Antonelli, a senior curator in the Department of Architecture and Design at MoMA. “Even the Lascaux cave paintings [the Paleolithic cave paintings in southwestern France]—in a way, those were infographics.” So was John Snow’s 1854 map of cholera outbreaks in Soho; so, too, Florence Nightingale’s “rose diagram,” published four years later, which illustrated reasons for patient mortality. You don’t always need a computer program to depict a fact, pattern, or idea. Sometimes, paper and pencil—or a cave wall and some daub—will do.
Kenneth Cukier, data editor at The Economist, thinks we are “at the outset of a new movement in art that is built around data.” Digital information is now doubling every two years, he says, so it’s natural for artists to gravitate toward using data as a medium. Antonelli, the MoMA curator, sees it as a case of “people needing to make sense of data.” This accounts for why, she says, data viz has become “an established form of design and an absolutely important one.” But only in the past ten years, in the estimation of Shenai’s tutor, Karin von Ompteda; in this time the use of data visualisation in art and design has “exploded,” she says. And this “big data” revolution is already changing the way new programmes like IED (in its second year) are structured. “The training of the artist is changing,” says von Ompteda. “Programming is part of the curriculum now. Working with spreadsheets and numbers and statistics—that’s a huge shift.” The Masters in Art and Science at Central St Martins, a leading art school in London, uses similar techniques. Von Ompteda says that including some data techniques in the art curriculum is now considered “mainstream” among universities worldwide.
Von Ompteda teaches her students to research open-source data sets, identify patterns and stories in them, and translate their data, often using software, into images, objects, installations and experiences. At the IED’s recent graduate show, held at the RCA’s Kensington campus, Shenai’s bells were exhibited alongside a diverse group of pieces. For instance Breathe, a series of images, used clusters of green tessellations to convey the effects of air pollution on respiratory health. Others were more playful. In Computers In Love, two monitors, about a foot apart, faced each other. With their cameras turned on, their screens displayed an endless feedback loop.
“I like this idea of designers giving data back to people… I want to release data back into the real world.”
The worlds of art and design, in short, have been paying attention to the rise of “big data”. Artists and designers have always been receptive to new technology. Cukier gives the example of early 20th century French artist Fernand Léger, who painted splotches of colour that were inspired by both the automobile (which, because of its speed, was blurred to the human eye) and the “patchwork quilt” view one gets from an aeroplane window. But, Cukier says, artists now need different skills: once they matched pigment and mixed colours in oil on canvas. Now their skillset could include the use of computer code.
One of the most celebrated works in this field, Wind Map, is by Fernanda B. Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, co-directors of Google’s “Big Picture” visualisation research group, a team set up by the search company to explore how data can be made more accessible and fun. Viegas is a computational designer, Martin a mathematician and journalist.
Wind Map (see gallery, below) is a “living portrait” of wind currents in the U.S. Updated hourly with surface wind data from the National Digital Forecast Database, line after squiggly grey line wends its way around the black map. Where currents are strongest, these slender strands converge into tightly-wound worls of white. “Wind” is mesmerising, and has been shown at MoMA in New York. The visualisation has also been used for various practical purposes. According to Viégas and Wattenberg’s website, “bird watchers have tracked migration patterns; bicyclists have planned their trips; and we’ve even seen conspiracy theorists use it to track mysterious chemicals in the air.”
Photographer Dan Holdsworth’s work has a similarly scientific bent. In an ongoing project, Transmission: New Remote Earth Views (pictured, top), Holdsworth uses data gathered from laser scans of the Earth’s surface by the United States Geological Survey. Working with a geomorphologist, Holdsworth applies an algorithm to his “parcels of data” that “gets rid of all the vegetation, all the houses and buildings, leaving infrastructure like roadways.” The effect is eerie. The resulting images are detailed but look as if they were shot from a great distance.
Holdsworth, Viégas, and Wattenberg work with images. But with his bells, Shenai made sculptures—and, eventually, music. Technically speaking, aren’t the bells more data objects than data visualisations? This distinction is at the core of von Ompteda’s workshops. A desire to break free from the 2D led von Ompteda and her colleagues to coin the phrase “data manifestation.” We’re used to seeing data that’s hemmed in by flat quadrilaterals, from sheets of paper to canvases to screens. But because of our over-exposure to the 2D form, it can sometimes be less effective than it used to be. By conveying information through physical, three-dimensional objects (like Shenai’s “data-bells,” or Colony, another project which stemmed from one of Karin’s workshops in which honey drips from a honeycomb at rates which correlate to the daily activities of Londoners) or physical, four-dimensional experiences, von Ompteda hopes to better engage audiences. “I like this idea of designers giving data back to people,” she says. “I want to release data back into the real world.”
Change Ringing is one example of how artists who work with data see their work as having a public benefit. These developments seem to be encouraging a new sort of relationship between the artist and their audience. More often than not, these data manifestations make a clear statement—and it’s incumbent on these artists to successfully convey that point to their audience. Sure, you’ll probably have to read the accompanying text, but after looking at and touching Shenai’s data-bells or after listening to Osborn’s orchestral piece, it would be difficult to gripe: “but I just don’t get it.”
Another reason for the growing appeal of data viz (as the entire practice continues to be known), though, is more orthodox. Data visualization makes new expressive forms availableto the artist (and designer). As everyone I have spoken to has said, data is a new medium. From the undulating squiggles in Wind Map to the stark topographical models in Transmission, information, and the technological tools used to manipulate it, data has exploded the aesthetic possibilities of art and design.
Artists and designers, then, are using this medium “to create entirely new ways of conceptualising the world,” according to Cukier, The Economist’s data editor. This, he says, “forces us to contemplate the sublime. Not from an ephemeral, spiritual place, but from a very practical, physical dimension, one that uses specific data referring to a specific phenomenon: rising temperatures [in the case of the bells]. That itself becomes an aesthetically wonderful and novel way of thinking about the world.”