PRINT February 2016


“Data Drift”

Dominikus Baur, Daniel Goddemeyer, Lev Manovich, and Moritz Stefaner, On Broadway, 2014, mixed media. Installation view, Kim? Contemporary Art Centre, Riga, Latvia, 2015.

TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY lives are inescapably defined by the data generated through an endless accumulation of transactions and actions, no matter how minor. Indeed, many denizens of the developed world find themselves enmeshed in a net of information gathering that they have willingly extended to every footstep and heartbeat. Access to data is a basic prerequisite for exploiting this ever-growing electronic treasure trove, but so, too, are techniques for sifting through and merging available information, including strategies for giving it visual form.

This is the scenario addressed by the recent exhibition “Data Drift,” whose curators, Rasa Smite, Raitis Smits, and Lev Manovich, boldly proclaim: “If painting was the art of the classical era, and photography that of the modern era, data visualization is the medium of our own time.” Smite and Smits are cofounders of RIXC, the Center for New Media Culture in Riga, Latvia, and Manovich is a City University of New York professor and director of the Software Studies Initiative; the three are themselves representative of emerging data-driven models of scholarship and creative practice, and their group show convened a wide range of responses to our changing information landscape, from political activism to poetic abstraction. Their selections evoked the information aesthetic of earlier Conceptual art practices, while also highlighting the shifting tactics required to engage with or subvert the metrics of contemporary life.

If Conceptual artists often mined analog archives, the starting point for these new practices is the virtual realm of the data set. And given its value today, such information can be closely guarded or shrouded in secrecy. Some of the data sets underlying the works on view come from free application-program-interface (API) access provided by social-media companies in order to encourage synergistic extensions of their business models; others reflect wily attempts to maneuver around corporate and governmental controls. Out of Sight, Out of Mind, a video projection based on an online interactive visualization released in 2013 by Pitch Interactive (a US design team) of US and Coalition military drone strikes in Pakistan, presents an unfolding time line of date, location, and fatality statistics. Yet the information itself came not from official US government records, but from the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, whose constantly updated drone-war database relies on cross-referenced press reports supplemented by legal records, leaked documents, and other research sources.

Echoing Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1990 Untitled (Death by Gun), Periscopic’s US Gun Killings: The Stolen Years, 2013, animates traumatic statistics by combining rapidly advancing counters with an increasingly dense network of arcing lines, each corresponding to one American killed by a firearm. Whereas Gonzalez-Torres used the gallery site as his interface for physically redistributing printed sheets of information, the work by Periscopic—a data-visualization company based in Portland, Oregon, with the tag line “Do good with data”—evinces a more incidental relationship to the exhibition venue, since the project resides mainly on the Web. The group’s first version deployed the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting homicide statistics for 2010 (the latest then available), together with World Health Organization demographic statistics, to estimate the effect of gun violence on life expectancy. However, a subsequent update relied on the far less official work of a Twitter user, @GunDeaths, who collected and tweeted reports of firearm mortality across the country from summer 2012 through early 2014.

A number of works in the show posed an inventive interplay between the cultural phenomena the authors addressed and the types of data they draw on to support their premises. Maximilian Schich and Mauro Martino’s Charting Culture, 2014, employs information about the mobility of notable individuals from 600 BCE to 2012, derived from the locations specified in birth and death records, to compress more than 2,600 years of history into a five-minute-long animated mapping that highlights cultural hot spots around the globe. Kim Albrecht, Boris Müller, and Marian Dörk’s Culturegraphy, 2014, tracks quotes and allusions between movies, revealing an increase in shared cultural memes that Albrecht attributes to the fact that today both producers and consumers can rewatch favorite films on demand. However, both of these works relied on crowd-sourced databases—the first used Freebase, a no-longer-active “community-curated database of well-known people, places, and things,” for information about notable historic figures, and the second used the “references” and “referenced in” lists (under “connections”) in IMDb film listings—which are certainly shaped by the assumptions and interests of their self-selected contributor pools. For starters, the demographics of IMDb reviewers, like those of Wikipedia editors and many other Internet communities, skew not just young but sharply male—as does this exhibition.

The Exceptional and the Everyday: 144 Hours in Kyiv, 2014, a collaboration between Manovich, Alise Tifentale, Mehrdad Yazdani, and Jay Chow, was particularly indicative of both the compelling power of data sets and their limitations. A compendium of 13,208 Instagram photos shared in central Kiev during Ukraine’s Maidan revolution, which took place from February 17 to 22, 2014, the visualization is striking for its admixture of newsworthy protest scenes with many more unremarkable images. While the subset of people who post to Instagram certainly doesn’t constitute a balanced cross section of Kiev—and their uploaded photos can’t be construed as illustrating anything like “real life”—the compilation does present a powerful corrective to the conflict-focused mythmaking of media reporting. With multiple iterations in gallery and Web versions, this work, as did the exhibition as a whole, proffers an invitation to explore unexpected paths through available information, crafting creative responses to the brave new world of big data.

Martha Buskirk is a professor of art history and criticism at Montserrat College of Art in Beverly, MA, and the author of Creative Enterprise: Contemporary Art Between Museum and Marketplace (Continuum, 2012).