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May 23, 2013

When Big Data and Art Collide

Isaac Lopez

Data and art aren’t typically thought of as going hand in hand. Data, with all the numbers, logic, and algorithmic thinking is a more right brained domain, where the abstractness of art is more of a left brain mode of thinking. However, at the UK’s Open Data Institute (ODI), they’ve combined the two in order to create what some might consider thoughtful pieces.

The first “sculpture” is actually a vending machine which delivers its payload of potato chips (or “crisps,” as it were) based on search terms related to economic recession in the BBC’s News RSS feed headlines. When a recession-related search term is found, it drops a bag of chips, and someone in the office forestalls going hungry. They say that during a recent budget announcement, the machine dumped its entire payload.

Interesting – but is this art?

“Really it’s about how can we translate data into something that is more meaningful and relevant to people’s lives without having to talk about the data all the time,” says Gavin Clark, the CEO of the Open Data Institute.

In that context, the mash-up between data and art becomes somewhat fascinating, as the works that they are displaying at the ODI can be viewed as thought experiments where people are challenged to think about the data attached to these pieces in more physical terms.

In one piece, an artist constructed a representation of his own body in which he wired hundreds of lights that react based on sensors that have been distributed throughout south London picking up things like noise levels, temperature, and other environmental data. When the data is registered, one of the lights blinks – though no one knows what each light represents. “It really asks the question, what is the ambient data around us that we can internalize,” explains Clark.

One of the more compelling pieces is called The Obelisk by Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, which is a translucent pillar that goes from clear to cloudy whenever references to genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of aggression, and crimes of war appear in a monitored news stream online. The constant real-time flickering of the piece gives a chilling representation of the data that it’s collecting considering that each one represents victims of these crimes.

With so many open data initiatives popping up around the world, artists have a new medium to integrate into their canvasses. It could be interesting to see how data gets creatively applied to new works of art as we move into the data-driven era.


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