There is an old folk tale people tell their children, called “Stone Soup”. It has many variants, but it goes roughly like this: a beggar arrives in a wealthy village, and starts knocking on doors and asking for food. Nobody will give him anything, so the ingenious beggar comes up with a plan. He knocks on one last door and instead of asking for food offers to cook a very unique soup: stone soup. All it needs is water and a special stone! The owner of the house is curious and goes for the experiment. Quickly the beggar starts asking for additional ingredients to make the soup even better. Eventually every single vegetable and meat ends up in there, and the soup is, of course, delicious. However, the proverbial stone had, in fact, nothing to do with it.
When one becomes interested in the use of “Data” in art and design, one inevitably starts learning about the work of the great designers, programmers, and artists such as Edward Tufte, Ben Fry, and others.
If you spend any time reading news media, it becomes hard to avoid the use of “data viz” as a tool to explain complex ideas that involve large numbers, shifts in time, vast geographical distributions, or even the various correlations between them. Nicolas Feltron even popularized the idea of data to harvest and visualize your personal life.
So it wouldn’t come as a surprise that “data” is now treated as a magic ingredient that will spice up any design or artwork. It immediately smells or relevance, of hard facts, of visible connections to the invisible layers of our world and (co)-existence.
As with any popular idea, “data as art material” has produced mixed results. But there is one case, I want to focus on here, and that is the use of data as “fake” ingredient. In other words, when data is used on the marketing material for the artwork, but in fact does nothing noticeable or meaningful in the work itself.
Why bother? One could ask that about any point of critique of an art method or practice. In this case who cares if the data is really well used, or actually does anything? I think it matters for one reason only: the marketing of art vs the art of marketing. We see this with words like “interactivity” and “immersion”. People who market new media art activations dig its grave when they overpromise to “immerse you” in “interactive environment” where you will be able to “be creative” with others. Artists who support this type of hype speak are creating a condition for their work to live in which distracts from the quality of the work itself and send their audience on a wild goose chase that they will inevitably come out of frustrated. Why not just focus on the work?
This is a question I’ve often asked of the work of Refik Anadol. Since 2015 he has been producing large-scale particle animations that look quite pretty. In themselves, they are of the ilk of work produced by talented motion designers such as Maxim Zhestov. But what Anadol adds to the mix is the magic ingredient: “data”.
The best example of this is his work “Virtual Depictions”. Let’s look at this one sentence from the copy describing the work on the artist’s website :
Through architectural transformations of media wall located in 350 Mission’ lobby, main motivation with this seminal media architecture approach is to frame this experience with a meticulously abstract and cinematic site-specific data-driven narration. As a result, this media wall turns into a spectacular public event making direct and phantasmagorical connections to its surroundings through simultaneous juxtapositions.
This grandiose statement seems to be creating a powerful set of correlations between a city, its people and its architecture. But looking at the animations one sees a series of motion graphics tropes that only work in this case because they have been enlarged to architectural scale.
Similarly, in the piece “Winds of Boston”, the artist states
Wind of Boston: Data Paintings is a site-specific work that turns the invisible patterns of wind in and around Boston into a series of poetic data paintings within a 6’ x 13’ digital canvas. By using a one-year data set collected from Boston Logan Airport, Refik Anadol Studios developed a series of custom software to read, analyze and visualize wind speed, direction, and gust patterns along with time and temperature at 20-second intervals throughout the year.
Despite the fact that ESI Design had used the same concept (wind analysis) in their installation at 177 Huntington (also in Boston), this seems like an interesting idea. But what we see in Anadol’s work are nice animations where the “data” brings so little that you would wonder if it is doesn’t serve as a fake premise to create visually striking work.
This is even more apparent in his piece at the Charlotte airport, which is supposed to “portray the troves of operational data” from the airport. But what does that mean? Do his animations actually create any kind of understanding of the data? Not really, but they do appear as a very large scale display with animations that any motion graphics artist would be proud of.
To be clear, Anadol’s work is impressive in its scale, but where he disappoints is in using trendy motion graphics techniques that hype up some mysterious “data” ingredient that doesn’t, in fact, resolve in any viewer satisfaction. You are told its there, and you can move on if you don’t see it, it’s art.
I’ve always had a huge respect for the work of United Visual Artists. Their work’s conceptual rigor is only matched by their aesthetic virtuosity. It is because of my admiration for them that I felt disappointed in their latest offering at A/D/O in New York this summer. Once again, we were promised to see a “data-driven” art piece, but the data was really nowhere to be found (much less “seen”).
The installation consisted of a series of rotating golden mirrored monoliths. They were enclosed in between 4 walls — which rendered the claim that they were “mirroring the city” a bit dubious — and served as a perfect selfie playground. The work (titled “Spirit of the City”) could have been admired for its aesthetic qualities, but that was not what was on sale. It promised to be tied to “data streams” from activity in the city, traffic patterns or “amount of energy used” (by who? where?) and tie the rotation of the columns to that data. I saw the piece about ten times, and I don’t think I ever saw the slightest speed difference in their rotation.
The problem we encounter here is one of poor marketing. In the case of UVA, a commercially commissioned piece can force the artists to introduce elements that help PR people make the offering sexier, but when artists do it deliberately and fool their audiences, the effect is much more pernicious. If the artwork is good, you wouldn’t need to expose its attributes, the audience will pick them up. It is only when the work lacks a strong internal structure that these marketing tricks are needed, and the sad thing is that they seem to work. This is how the hungry beggar in the story of the Stone Soup, one we tell our children, managed to eat to his/her heat’s content. But only at the expense of the naive audience it entertained with the idea of the stone as the magic ingredient.