Our ‘digital civilisation’, as Jacques Ellul coined in 1964, is climaxing, and so data itself is becoming the brush with which we paint the world around us. It became a pigment that can be overlaid, mixed, and remixed with infinite outcomes that generate themselves. It has limitless horizons and potential, but are we merely mesmerised by an alien algorithmic aesthetic or is it a viable and lasting reflective human and sociocultural mirror?
One can appreciate the role of data visualisation in translating important data in ways that we can comprehend. We are also seeing new computer-generated artistic expressions that draw their raw material from data. But is that enough to justify the abundance of these aesthetic exercises?
Art always explored new techniques and mediums to push (and reflect) the boundaries of culture. But art also aspires to reach out to the divine. It is about our finite selves attempting or realities, and depicts possible futures, that it becomes more than a tool, representing a true artistic voyage that conveys a human experiential value that validates both the medium and the outcome.
Linda Lauro-Lazin is a New York artist, technologist, and educator. Her toolkit comprises computers and surveillance equipment along- side brushes and paint. In her work, Lauro-Lazin creates speculative landscapes that are based on satellite images of glaciers taken recently and as far back as 30 years ago.
It is a way of working that is achieved by tracing and layering those images with drone photography, maps and painting, she creates impossible landscapes of a disappearing natural world. The analogue and digital marks record her visual wandering and desire for what has gone (or never existed). “In some ways this body of work, even my very process could be seen as a search for something lost: a place within myself marked by a certain emptiness; bearing ‘the impression of something that used to be there’.”
Linda Lauro-Lazin, Interpolated Search, 2016 / pigment on Belgian linen
Her body of work has sprouted from a culture of digital technology but marks a personal and global sense of loss. And in her landscapes, the physical and the digital are inseparable. The satellite perspective she uses with little horizon line references helps the viewer gain a new perspective about the landscape and their place in it. Through that vastness, Lauro-Lazin conveys a new sense of scale and fragility. “Within the context of generational time, working with images of glaciers has become more poignant – the glaciers that owed on the terrain of ancestral time have melted and receded... The planet's environment is our greatest loss. We are creating our own terra incognita.”
Nathalie Miebach draws her data from ecology, climate change and meteorology, and (literally) weaves it into three-dimensional pieces. Some parts of her sculptural work are didactic – blue flags represent 5mph units, red beads equate to temperature, etc. But other sculptural elements bring in a more metaphorical context to the data, such as when the structures that the data are building are sitting on rafts or are surrounded by houses on stilts.
Her structures explore the role visual aesthetics play in the translation and understanding of scientific information, treating weather not just as a scientific phenomenon that can be quantified, but also as a human experience. Miebach says, “My work is never just about numbers.” Adding, “I begin a piece by doing extensive research – gathering weather information and reading articles and books about the recovery efforts after the storm; to dig into a nuance of human experience that a scientific visualisation cannot tap into. A story that can create a context of empathy around the data I am looking at.” And maybe it's artists that can bring this much needed empathy to data.
Miebach challenges the limits of the traditional two-dimensional data visualisation tools (just as we learned to love desaturated blue-hued PowerPoint diagrams) by adding an addition- al sensory dimension via the use of sound and musical notation. The pieces are also used as part of a musical performance, created in collaborations with emerging composers, forming a multi-sensory installation that explores further how human emotions and experiences are influenced within the perception of weather.
Technology is a unique system where we both play digital gods and the devoted followers. It might be synthetic, but we can find human and metaphysical fragments in it, and the more we use it we can create richer dimensions and stretch the human experience.
This is where Martha Fiennes explores the intersection between film, storytelling, art and technology. Her recent AI-driven generative piece Yugen (2018) mixes pre-recorded action sequences, musical scores, and digital backgrounds into a custom-built game engine, which then applied AI to composite layers, determine the image sequence/order and add effects such as weather and lighting. The result is a unique ‘moving image artwork’ which has no start, no finish, and never repeats a specific composition.
Nathalie Miebach, The Watchers of Copley Square, 2016, Reed, wood, paper, weather and surveillance data
For Fiennes, the focus is not on the technology or the visual technique: “AI is just one of the tools I’m using to create an experiential moving image. I am borrowing from cutting-edge technologies, but it’s the tool to connect to the human element. I want to see if it is possible (and I will never know) to use this medium to trigger an archetypal aspect of the conscious- ness that is not the intellect.”
Is it a film, or an AI generated digital art piece? It seems to be both and neither, rather
it presents the viewer to experience a ‘living space’ for contemplation that melds together human imagination and machine intelligence. Without a leading narrative, determined sequencing or aesthetics (as you would have in film-making medium), it also becomes a ‘perfect’ experience which represents the ultimate anti-FOMO of our contemporary culture; your engagement with it is always unique and perfectly fits the time you have for experiencing it.
We will see plenty of digital expressions that represent nothing more than a mesmerising, yet hollow, alien aesthetic – a computational magic trick. But we are also discovering new ways of seeing the world, of peeling and revealing deeper layers and even reconnecting with nature and spiritual layers using data-driven tools. We should keep walking towards the creative unknown, and keep exploring the value and depth that is concealed underneath the shiny algorithmic facet.