What is artistic about plotting a graph or drawing a chart? Is there anything creative about collecting, analysing and articulating data?
Graphs and charts show relationships between qualitative and quantitative variables; they draw out patterns from raw data. They are representational in a way that traditional art often is not; rather than reproducing the visual world around us, they unveil unseen realities.
As technology grows around us, art evolves with it and an increasing number of artists use data as their subject matter, working on the dissolving boundary between science and art. The data artist is not just a simple conduit between raw data and its expression; though they don’t draw or sculpt directly from life in the traditional sense, they still exercise a great deal of creative control. Artists who work with data can be sculptors, composers, activists and kinetic artists; they comprise a diverse group of practitioners.
The weather artist Natalie Miebach’s work illustrates environmental change while also playing with visual language. She works with meteorological data (barometric wind and pressure readings) and translates it into complex sculptural forms made of twine and beads. This is how she sums up her practice: “[w]eather is an amalgam of systems that is inherently invisible to most of us, so I use sculpture and music to make it not just visible, but also tactile and audible.” She posits that “numbers control the forms, not me”. Nevertheless, her aesthetic decisions are clear to see. Working with raw data presents an interesting confluence of the pure factuality of scientific data; inherently satisfying in its orderliness; and the aesthetic intuition of the artist. Both speak to us on a visceral level.
Miebach also uses that same data to compose music. This gives her creations an interesting plurality: if one is placed in an art gallery, it is called a sculpture; place it in a music hall and it is a musical score; place it in a science museum, and it’s an articulation of data. These artworks that defy easy categorisation show us how the context of a thing can transform the way we look at it, and perhaps by extension, our willingness to engage with it. Miebach says her work illustrates environmental change, one of the biggest issues of our time, and yet scientists still have trouble making people believe in global warming. The visceral effect an artwork can have on its viewer could act as a catalyst for people to want to understand the realities that underpin the work and the data.
Heather Dewey-Hagborg is an artist whose subject matter comes not from the environment, but from the body. In her 2012-13 project Stranger Visions, she created portrait sculptures from analyses of genetic material collected from public spaces, donning latex gloves and tweezers to harvest stray hairs from the New York subway. She often adopts a deliberately provocative, almost satirically fear-mongering approach to the issue of data surveillance, in this instance using the tagline “We don’t know how our DNA might be used against us in the future.”
When broken down into the sum of its parts, her process is comparable to Natalie Miebach’s: she too has a pattern of data collection (latex gloves and tweezers), analysis (DNA extraction) and translation (CGI generation) and synthesis (3D printing). But aesthetically, the two artists may as well be chalk and cheese. With her labcoat, her deadpan gaze and her sleek, blue-tinged, fictional product launch videos, Dewey-Hagborg adopts the now-hackneyed aesthetics of CSI, or that scene at the beginnings of shoddy sci-fi movies in which a deadly man-made virus is set loose on the population. She seems to warn “the future is really happening, and we are responsible for it”. She reminds us of the strangeness of the present, and of knowing as much as we know: science is becoming stranger than science fiction. We are living in an age when our biology can be interpreted as data, and our biological data can give other people access to information about us, without our permission.
“Data” can be collected about almost anything – data-based art can be personal, environmental, political, etc. So in that respect, art using raw data can be about almost anything. It is the process itself that’s the most fascinating. The increasing adoption of aspects of scientific practice by artists reflects the omnipresence of technology in our society today. Artists will continue to respond and interact with it in previously unimaginable ways.