Illuminating Data

Nathalie Miebach
External Weather, Internal Storms, 2009
Reed, metal, wood, data, musical score, and audio
60 x 33 x 40 in.

A recent New York Times article on the deluge of data  described the office of the future – alive and well on some desks today – where three monitors, with as many as 10 tabs open on each, are the norm.

Our phones may be smart, our devices may talk to us, but can we keep up with all this data? Is anyone capable of reading all their e-mail? As we lament the demise of print media, the algorithms of Google and Facebook generate far more written language tailored for us than we can absorb.

Illuminating Data: Visualizing the Information that Moves Our World, on view at The College of New Jersey through April 18, is a multimedia exhibition exploring the emerging art of data visualization. In installations, sculpture, algorithmically drawn prints, video, animation and other forms of new media, more than 20 artists explore ways to visualize data.

These are not techies making art; these are artists, using tech to make art about technology.

Through computers, phones, and other electronic devices,  “people are increasingly connected to streams of data,” says Christopher Ault, chair, Interactive Multimedia Program at TCNJ who curated Illuminating Data. “On the one hand, convenient access to this data is empowering; however, the data can also be overwhelming and indecipherable.”

In 2005, 130 exabytes (an exabyte is 1 million gigabytes) moved through the global network, Ault points out in the exhibit catalog. “There will be about 20 times more megabytes swirling around us in 2015 than there are stars in the Milky Way,” he writes.

The artists in the exhibition employ imaginative approaches to managing and interpreting this data through the practice of art. They use computer code alongside or instead of paint, ink, wood and metal.

“The theme for this year at The College of New Jersey is innovation. In thinking about how art, which is always innovative in some way, is most connected to the cutting edge of innovative technologies, we realized that artists have a unique ability to visualize the world and to explore, explain, and challenge the masses of data that are currently being generated all around us,” says Gallery Director Emily Croll. “An exhibition of the art of data visualization is timely both for the college and for everyone who wants to make sense out of our increasingly data driven world.”

In “Murmur Study” by Christopher Baker, we see a row of 30 metal boxes lined up like crown molding at the ceiling, spewing streams of thermal receipt tape into an endless waterfall of text that ends in a tangled pile on the floor. You can hear the jeet-jeet-jeet each time the tape feeds. These tapes are filled with hundreds upon hundreds of Twitter messages. The technology has permitted millions of people worldwide to tweet billions of insignificant little messages minute after minute. Not only is it not possible to keep up with the stream of information, but who would want to? Everything from “Can we frigging close n go home?” to “boiling hot sausage and chilly [sic]” and a forgotten Mother’s Day card. Who cares? And yet we, in our moment here, are fascinated by this inconsequential chatter.

Riley Harmon, in “What It Is Without the Hand That Wields It,” has created a network of tubes and valves that dispense small amounts of fake blood each time a player dies in the video game Counter-Strike. The game is shown on a screen, where we see shooters running through beautiful landscapes, on rooftops, through tunnels, blowing each other up. “It’s a real, visceral metric of damage in the game,” says Ault of each drop of “blood” streaming down the wall.

Walking through the gallery, I am struck by something that at first makes me think a praying mantis is crawling along a wall, drawing. It is a Sharpie clamped to a wire that is creating an intricate drawing on the wall, controlled by some power greater than I can understand.

Searching for the explanatory panel, I peek on the other side of the wall and see a finished drawing like finely drawn steel wool in fascinating series of patterns. By Tristan Perich, it is inspired by “the aesthetic simplicity of math, physics and computer code,” I read. “The machines run indefinitely creating works that would take multiple days to complete.”

I start to read the information about Casey Alt’s work, but get mired in the technical jargon, so instead I just engage with the artwork – a magnificent shadow projection that moves and changes, grooves and oozes, sometimes like crystal and sometimes like something else.

The Interactive Multimedia Program at TCNJ, founded 10 years ago, is “the intersection of computer sciences, design and storytelling,” says Ault. The faculty is composed of computer science, art and English professors.

Yes, you can major in IMM at TCNJ. “It’s not a department, but an interdisciplinary program,” explains Ault. “You would get a degree from the School of Arts and Communication.” Learning to design mobile apps, video games and social networks is all about the communication of the world today.

With a background is in copywriting, web development and commercial music, Ault says he made a professional and academic career of not choosing any one thing: he became interested in IMM because it represented the intersection of the fields he was involved with.

Ault, who grew up in Detroit and Houston, the son of a management consultant for General Motors and an independent business manager, earned a master’s of professional studies from NYU in Interactive Telecommunications in 2003, and gravitated toward animation and digital media. He stayed on at NYU as a resident researcher in digital media, animation and music. “I have a passion in all the major areas of IMM, so I found a happy home at TCNJ,” says Ault.

Ault was inspired to curate Illuminating Data because he was seeing data visualization “all over the place. There is a whole new generation of professionals, from journalists and musicians to designers and visual artists, working with data as raw material for composition. I kept finding websites, books, conferences and festivals devoted to this new large field.” His colleagues were interested as well, and with “innovation” as the theme for the academic year at TCNJ, all the pieces fit.

Artists were selected by keeping tabs on Twitter, listservs, networks and websites, as well as from a recent exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Talk to Me. Ault refers to these artists the “Data Visualization All Stars.”

“These artists realize computational tools are not something to be intimidated by but embraced in their bag of tricks,” Ault  says. “They can create images through computer code, finding the creative potential of what used to be a tech tool.”

And while this is about art, scientists who are intrigued by and playing with the same tools and techniques are also looking at computerized data expressed through the tools of the artist. The exhibit is being marketed to art programs as well as computer science, math and engineering departments. “We’ve had interest from math, physics and journalism departments,” says Ault. “There’s rapidly growing interest in the subject from different angles.”

And so how does Ault handle all this profusion of data? “I personally have an avoidance approach,” he admits. “Twitter is just more stuff to ignore and feel guilty about.”

Pointing to “Murmur Study,” he says, “you’re supposed to be engaging with it and responding to it, and you see it piling up on the floor.”

Illuminating Data: Visualizing the Information That Moves Our World is on view through April 18 at The College of New Jersey, Arts and Interactive Multimedia Building. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Thursday, noon to 7 p.m., Sunday, 1-3 p.m. Admission is free. 609-771-2633.

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