When Data Zombies Attack

Judith Donath, The Rhythm of Salience, 2006, data visualization

Using Data and Bringing it to Life through Art


Data is everywhere. So how are artists using data to create new work? Richard Adams shares some fantastic examples of data inspired art and predicts what is next.

This is an introductory article that wanders across the creative possibilities of the data landscape. Some of you may know this tale, some of you may not.

Data is, as we know, everywhere. It is collected from us at almost all public points of our lives now. When we walk into a shop our retail patterns are gathered and analysed. When we go on holiday we become part of a massive data lake that is used to manage and predict air travel. The economy is managed via data, cars are repaired using data that mechanics gather. It’s everywhere.

Much of this data remains private and hidden behind company or governmental architecture but, often, data is made available to use by ordinary people.  These open data lakes provide raw materials for analysts to infer and uncover patterns of often dizzying complexity.

Artists using Data to Create Work

Many artists have begun to use data to create work that can be simultaneously informative, entertaining and aesthetically pleasing, which often results in visualisations of the data itself. Tate is one such organisation that has made data available, in this case on GitHub. Handily they have also added lots of links to various creations made from this data.

Any quick search on Google can pull up numerous artists whose work exposes the inherent beauty in numbers and text, often by mapping them to visual metaphors. There is often much of Modernism about these works. The artists experiment with form, in this case algorithmic structures that represent data, on top of which are used rendering techniques that draw attention to the processes and materials used in creating them.

What is perhaps less Modernistic is that once this is done, many of the works do end up with extra decorative layers added. In many ways, whilst undeniably interesting and often beautiful, the work that is done in this way is about representing the form and underlying structures in the data rather than defining a new aesthetic.

Arts Organisations and Big Data

In reality, when arts organisations talk about big data they are usually talking about the business of data. Last year the Arts Council funded a number of data projects, all of which were around the business of art.

There is of course, much more we can do with data. Applying this straightforward Modernistic approach to creativity in data can take us so far. What it will not do is create much in the way of a new art movements or new forms. For that we need to dig deeper into what data is and can do and the differences between information and data.

Data Needs to Be Processed

Data is simply raw, unorganised facts that need to be processed to understand them. Information is data that has been processed, organized, structured or presented in a given context. That is what makes it useful.

What we see when we see artistic work based in this area is information that reflects the data. Interestingly the marketers got there first and this is where lots of money is made in the marketing world.

Planners and analysts use data to create information that helps people do other things. For instance your shopping patterns can easily tell a company what type of offer to send you and when, in order to get you to buy more. In a very real sense, marketers have been building portraits for people from data for decades, long before computer artists.

Art has, of course, been pushing this approach too. Many artists are now using data to create portraits. I particularly like “Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s Artificial Biological Clock” and the group portrait by Judith Donath, “The Rhythm of Salience”. What these works do for me is move data out into a sphere of reality and into artefacts. They are, of course representations of data but by being expressed through different, physical channels they become something else rather than just data representations; they move away from being graphical representations of data to being reflections of reality and of people (just like portraits). They are not simply data versions of subjects, they offer more depth to the interpretation.

We are constantly being Tracked and Analysed

Every time we log in to Facebook, it chortles along in the background, building its picture of us. If anyone has done it, it is both fun and scary to look at the data Google has on you and to see how the profile it builds of you can be very very accurate. Every aspect of our lives is being tracked, monitored and analysed. If you think about it, this is the biggest sketchbook or palette we could wish for. Within Facebook is an army of billions of data zombies that with some careful work by artists, could be brought to life. I confess to having a personal interest here as my next sci-fi novel is based on this premise, data zombies coming to life and attacking and more. I have long felt that our data profiles should be given ‘life’ in films and books and perhaps the best opportunity for this lies in the emerging crossover between film and games.

Interestingly it has been gamers who have picked up the baton most fully to do this. Chromaroma was a game based on a player’s use of the London Underground Oyster swipe card. This built portraits of us filtered through our transport usage. There are numerous other examples of this type of use of data being used not as something to be visualised for comprehension purposes, but as something to be used to prompt interactivity and enjoyment, an aesthetic experience if you like.

Musicians too, use data but of course there is nothing new in algorithmic composition. What is written music if it isn’t a data visualisation? There are some great examples of pushing the envelope further. For example, I recently listened to a a good musical piece by Data-Driven DJ, visual artist Brian Foo, based on median household income levels. Often musicians try to capture the feel of events through music, this piece is one of many that does this from actual data.

Real Data and the Future of Film

Let’s look further ahead though. Now that advanced game engines are freely available and offer a good level of ‘reality’ in their rendering engines there is no reason why filmmakers can’t begin to use the possibilities on offer and indeed this is being talked about.  There is much about the output of games engines that might be classed as being cinematic. At the recent Games Developer Conference, Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney talked very lucidly about their plans for the Unreal Games engine becoming a prima facie film-making tool.

“Once all movies are made in a real-time engine,” says Sweeney, “and they’re experienceable in VR with some amount of interaction, it’s not going to be a separate industry. There will be a continuum from storytelling that’s mostly linear to user-driven games and everything in between.”

This for me is the likely point at which a truly new art form, based on data, will emerge.

Imagine a film created in real time, using a game engine as a studio but where the actors are created from data; from real profiles of real people, mixed with AI and created in real time in a truly immersive and interactive way. Once this collision occurs, there is no way of forecasting what the results will be and what these new art-forms will actually be like to experience. Looking back from the mid-twenty first century it may well look like we are, in 2015, at the start of an absolute revolution in art with data as the new paint, information as the pictures, interactivity as the experience and smartness as the primary aesthetic.

Written by:

Richard Adams

Richard Adams, Consultant and Program Manager, Royal Shakespeare Company

Big Data and Creativity

A digital veteran, starting in the early 90’s as a computer artist, Richard has made numerous interactive things across all channels. He founded a Digital Arts Dept, held a Visiting Professorship and worked with Marc Lewis to open the School of Communication Arts. Creative Director, Product Development Head and more, at BBC, BSkyB, Aviva and Microsoft (Xbox). Currently at the RSC, he is also Senior Fellow at University of Lincoln.

Image Credits. Top: Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen, Artificial Biological Clock, 2008, Below: Judith Donath, The Rhythm of Salience, 2006, data visualization

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