Analytics and Aesthetic: The Artistic Representation of Data
In a technology-driven world, we’re surrounded by an unprecedented and overwhelming volume of data. A growing group of artists is helping us find beauty in the midst of that data overload, and their responses are bridging the gap between the analytical and aesthetic in breathtaking ways.
Edward Tufte – Envisioning Information
Edward Tufte is a trailblazer in the world of data visualization. As an artist and a statistician, he is moving beyond charts and tables so data can tell deeper stories. In the introduction to one of his seminal works, Envisioning Information, he explains, “The world is complex, dynamic, multidimensional; the paper is static, flat. How are we to represent the rich visual world of experience and measurement on mere flatland?”
Among his innovations is the sparkline, which allows simple, information-rich graphics to flow seamlessly with text. His bigger works — data-dense depictions of maps, dance choreography with musical scores, railroad timetables and the like — transform data into works so beautiful that they’re available as fine art prints.
Ben Shneiderman – Finding Art in Algorithms
In the early 1990s, computer scientist Ben Shneiderman needed a compact way to visualize directory tree structures. His solution, the treemap, shows hierarchical structures as sets of nested rectangles, creating a fundamentally simpler way to see the data. In creating treemaps, he also revealed stunning patterns — an unexpected convergence of data and art. For an exhibit of his work, Every AlgoRiThm has ART in it, he removed the descriptive text altogether to illuminate the simple elegance of his data.
Refik Anadol – Creating Virtual Depictions of Data
Refik Anadol, a media artist, is also interested in data, but his first goal isn’t to clarify it. Instead, he uses data as the raw material for his installations.
“We need meaningful and multi-dimensional communication,” Refik says. ‘That’s why I found myself engaging with data as substance, and trying to use custom software to understand how data can be poetic.”
One of Refik’s biggest installations is a massive data wall built into the architecture of a downtown San Francisco building. “Virtual Depictions: San Francisco” brings in massive amounts of information from the city’s data archives and Twitter’s realtime API service. Using algorithms Refik developed in collaboration with computer scientists, it transforms the data into a dynamic, site-specific sculpture.
Refik created a similar installation in L.A. It listens to RSS feeds from the newspaper, social network activity, real-time public transportation data, winds, currents, and traffic information. Like the piece in San Francisco, it gives visual reality to site-specific data that might otherwise be invisible. Although the idea is similar, the result is as unique as the data that feeds it. “Each city is unique. It says something different. It’s site-specific,” says Refik. “It’s a fresh inspiration every single day.”
He’s also exploring the data around live music events. In In/Sight, a collaboration with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Refik used an algorithm for sound analysis to represent music visually in real time, along with Microsoft Kinect to capture the movements of the conductor.
On the horizon, Refik’s looking to continue his collaboration with the Philharmonic, this time to explore the emotional reaction of the audience. For the project, called “Phenomena,” the team will team tap into data and machine learning to explore how a live music performance in a communal atmosphere impacts the body and the mind. They plan to measure the audience’s reactions to performances using wearable sensors to track heartbeats, skin conductance, and body movements.
How are you exploring poetry you see in data flows and algorithms? We’d love to hear about the projects that inspire you.