July 5, 2013 5:44 pm

Gillian Tett: The art of Big Data

Some artists are starting to blend statistics, graphics and design into a new creative pastiche
Art of Big Data illustration©Shonagh Rae

A couple of years ago R Luke DuBois, a New York composer and artist, joined a clutch of American dating sites. He was not, however, looking for love. Instead, DuBois scooped up data about the words that would-be lovers used to describe themselves online.

Then he fed the information into a computer, which identified the most popular phrases used in different locations of America, and superimposed these results on to maps to create a new type of “art”. “I have an abiding interest in using information to investigate emotional value and the way that we are connecting [to each other],” DuBois earnestly explained to an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado last week, clad in the geek’s garb of black T-shirt and jeans. Or as Peter Hirshberg, the head of Re:Imagine, the consultancy, added, “What [people like DuBois] are doing is trying to convey the secret life of data in a way that is elegant and exciting … we have gone from a very literal view of data to a very emotional view.”

Welcome to a curious new twist – and collision – that is under way in the art world today. A decade ago, most people assumed that computer geeks and data scientists lived in a distinctly different mental world from bohemian artists. The task of slapping paint on to a canvas is very different from constructing computer algorithms; spreadsheets are not usually associated with wild visual creativity, least of all when they involve Big Data.

But these days this divide is starting to crumble in some trendy quarters of New York, London, Berlin and Aspen. Most notably, as the volume of digital data keeps exploding in size, some artists such as DuBois, Casey Reas, Siebren Versteeg and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer are starting to use Big Data as the raw material for their art, blending statistics, computer graphics and visual design into a new creative pastiche. The results are not just beautiful but also distinctly provocative, particularly given the degree to which data collection has become central to our lives, with or without the antics of Prism or the NSA.

In Aspen, for example, there were displays of cinematic art that have been created by collating data on all the flights that take place in American airspace over 24 hours; the places are depicted as moving streaks of light on a computer screen, which fragment and coalesce in hauntingly beautiful ghostly patterns. Another piece of art depicts all the hotels across the world, as captured by corporate hospitality data, as a pastiche of light. Artists have “painted” the Iraq war by streaming dots on a computer display that represent the military casualties, day by day. They have played with biometric data to create moving light displays and used corporate statistics to create beautiful lattice designs.

A team in New York is now using Twitter data to create digital “pictures” that capture how cyber conversations develop and topics trend on social media, in a visually arresting and beautiful way. “We can now visualise how conversations flow,” Jer Thorp, a computer-geek-cum-artist explained in Aspen, as he proudly unveiled his images of Twitter threads spreading through cyberspace. “We can say that’s a spiky conversation, or a bushy conversation.” Or to put it another way, what this art aims to do is give a visual form to a hitherto formless, abstract idea – and highlight the intrinsic beauty in those electronic flows.

Now, I daresay some FT readers might question whether this really counts as proper art. After all, these creations do not involve manual craftsmanship in the traditional sense. And in the interests of disclosure I should admit that when I saw that Aspen was debating the “Art of Data”, I assumed this was a management discussion about Big Data mining techniques, rather than anything truly creative; art and algorithms are not usually associated in the mind.

. . .

But there again, as men such as Hirshberg point out, artists have always tried to use new technologies and ideas for inspiration. Just think, for example, of how Andy Warhol used the (then) new medium of consumer advertising in the 1960s to create his iconic painting, or how cubists responded to imported African art a century ago to depict the world in new ways. I, for one, very much hope that this new field of data art keeps swelling in size. I also hope this trend helps us all realise that creativity does not always need to hang on a museum wall; smartphones can display art too. But most important of all, I would urge more companies and governments to let their raw data be used in this art (at present, the level of co-operation tends to vary wildly). Who knows? If artists could get inside that controversial Prism program, they might yet find some visual beauty there too; or, at the very least, force us to reflect on how data has stealthily become ubiquitous in our lives – albeit in ways that we rarely visualise, let alone gaze upon on with a truly contemplative eye.

gillian.tett@ft.com

This article is subject to a correction and has already been amended.

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