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…