Art and Data

Ava Benbow tracks the intersection between art and scientific data at the height of technological innovation

Image(s): medium.com


You’ve probably seen more COVID-19 data in the past months than you can remember. Graphs with projections, actual numbers, different ages, and countless other factors have crowded our collective consciousness for the past year. There have been color coded maps, infographics, and live graphs to click along to with every new test result logged. To me, it has been a crash course on how we handle data. With huge amounts of data coming in, we have to find a way to interpret it, and often, this is done through visuals. Sifting through huge amounts of data is tedious, but looking at a graph can give us an instantaneous impression of millions of data points.

We are truly living in the world of big data now. The real question now is not how to collect data, but how to use it. Every day, there are quintillions of data points that are being recorded and endless possibilities of how to use them. Not only on things like weather and travel but also on ourselves. And there is no doubt that big data is becoming an increasingly important part of society. The availability of big data to anyone with an internet connection only serves to amplify the effect. One of the expressions of big data is in artistic representation. Art based on big data is a rapidly emerging field with diverse interpretations of the data that is all around us. While people have been using art to represent data sets for decades, data art really emerged in tandem with both the invention and commodification of the internet and the rise of conceptual art. Data art forces us to decide what is important and how to present extraordinarily complicated relationships. How we present data is hugely subjective and can reflect how we see the world. Initially, it may seem strange to make art out of data, but artists are pushing the boundaries of what art can be made of. To find beauty in something that can seem cold and artificial is remarkable.

The intersection of art and data spans the space between art and science. It blurs the line between truth and expression in a captivating way. In a way, data art shows us that any presentation of data is subjective. However data is represented, it is through the lens of who is presenting it. There is increasing scrutiny on data and data presentation in the age of fake news, and data art pokes at this idea by using factual data creatively. Data art asks us why we can’t create something human and imperfect out of something objective.

Take the art of Aaron Koblin, whose works transform data into works of art that feel deeply personal. One of his most famous works ‘Flight Patterns’ forms a sort of moving map out of the air traffic in North America over 24 hours. The video shows the moving flight paths in brilliant colors over a black background. On its surface, it feels detached. But watching the multicolored lights make some sort of shape that is familiar and feels very human. The lines are anything but random, based on where people were going on some given day. The silhouette of North America appears and disappears from view as the domestic flights arc between cities. It's based on 24 hours, but it encompasses an enormous amount of information. Where cities were formed and where people want to go, its thousands of years of history compressed into a single day. Every line is based on years of history and human nature. ‘Flight Patterns’ captures what I think is one of the most interesting aspects of data art. It shows a soft combination of the individual and the collective. Each of those flights was populated with real people who chose to travel that day, but the bigger choices were made years before. The glowing hubs of cities that were destined to be full of airports and planes before the idea of a plane had even been dreamt of. There is an organic kind of beauty in a deeply inorganic process. The paths of thousands of big metal birds going against the forces of the universe resembles something wholly natural.

But not all data is based on such huge swaths of people, so neither is all data art. Another artist utilizing data is Laurie Frick. She creates abstract art using data points from all facets of her life. Frick’s art seems particularly relevant with all of the attention on personal data protection. In a world where your data is a hot commodity, we are constantly monitored. Frick’s work seems to come from a place of observation of the ways in which we track ourselves. Making her own sleeping schedule, step logs, and moods into art pieces feels like a reflection of our own need to monitor ourselves. Creating beautiful abstract art, her pieces feel personal and distant at once. These pieces feel personal, they are compilations of her life, but they also feel detached. Isolating one part of your life and inspecting it requires an enormous amount of honesty, treating your own life as a series of data points. Even though Frick’s pieces are data-driven, they are marked all over with humanity. Using found objects and hand-cut materials, there is a distinct blend of coldness and warmth, the cold data and the warm hands that put it together. It brings the duality of all of the personal data together. While we are unique, three-dimensional people, to the devices that collect our data, we are nothing more than a series of values. Big data technology has transformed people into data, and we have to decide what to do about it. Frick seems to be viewing herself through this lens and it feels self-aware to do so. Her art seems to be taking the flattening of people by data and turning it on its head, creating deeply personal works by using the very methods used to make people into numbers. Frick’s art also exposes flaws in this personal data collection, that you can’t reconstruct a person from data points.

These are only two examples of data artists, but there are many more with extraordinary growth in the field. Data art feels especially relevant today. More and more, we are reduced to something less than ourselves. It would be impossible to live without this simplification, there is no way to process all of the information available to us, but data art reminds us of what we lose when we view the world this way. To me, data art feels like reading the summary of a great book. The patterns that are laid bare are only scratching the surface of understanding the data and what it represents. Data art embraces the shortcomings of how we represent data and exploits them into making art that is thoroughly intriguing. We are curious people, and data art begs us to ask questions about it. Instead of a graph positing a clear-cut point of view, data art has more ambiguity. It trusts the viewer to think about why. Why are those the flight patterns? Why have someone’s moods fluctuated? Their steps? Their sleep? Information overload is made engaging with the trust in the viewer to make meaning for themselves.