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Big Data: there’s no escape

At a new show in London artists make the virtual real – but can data really be art?

Leo Mirani | December 10th 2015

The first thing you see as you enter “Big Bang Data”, a new exhibition at Somerset House in London, is “Internet Machine”, a video installation by Timo Arnall. Projected over three screens, it occupies an entire room on its own and shows slowly tracking shots of the vast interior of a warehouse-like data centre for Telefonica: its breeze-block walls contain thousands of humming machines, but no people. Arnall says it is a way to “look beyond the childish myth of ‘the cloud’”. But this is by now an old conceit: the fact that the internet is a real thing in the real world and requires real infrastructure – though few people – will come as no surprise to even the most clueless Snapchatter.

“Internet Machine” sets the tone for what is to follow, serving as something of a justification for going into a physical space to look at an exhibition about virtual information. The show is divided into themes, but one thread runs through them all: the tangible reality of data. This is sometimes mundane. Philipp Adrian’s “#oneSecond”, a four-volume collection of all the tweets sent in a single second, is neither a gripping read nor an interesting object to look at. As a hard copy of what all those digital words looks like, it lacks the impact of the 1,222 pages of personal data that Max Schrems, a lawyer and privacy activist, discovered Facebook held on him in 2011. Nor does it manage the sheer scale of a 7,473-volume printed version of Wikipedia that the artist Michael Mandiberg produced earlier this year.

Many of the show’s attempts to translate data into the real world suffer from a similar lack of punch. Looking at a mini-planetarium of stars that represent financial markets in real time is fun (pictured, below). Interpreting one year in an artist’s sex life represented by 365 colour-coded horizontal lines is mildly amusing. These pieces show new ways of looking at familiar things. But none of them answers the much more important question: “so what?”

“Black Shoals: Stock Market Planetarium” by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway

There are some spectacular exceptions. The most striking is a set of masks made from metal rods that represent the lines used by facial-recognition algorithms to map faces. These “Face Cages” by Zach Blas bring to life the disturbing reality of facial recognition more effectively than Facebook’s slightly creepy but largely annoying exhortations to tag your friend. In an age of mass surveillance and increasing biometric identification, these metal cages are a good reminder that we cannot be anonymous anymore. We are trapped in our faces. Even more satisfying is “London Data Streams” (pictured, top), a wall projection by the data-visualisation studio Tekja. The piece is a projection of three dense columns of text showing the application programming interface (or API) for Twitter, Instagram and Transport for London. This is the raw data used by, for instance, the app Citymapper, to plan journeys for its users. As you stand there hypnotised by the text, your silhouette blocking the projection and intruding on the columns, you are awash in data.

“London Data Streams” works because it remains true to the medium: virtual bits of text on a screen remain virtual bits of text on a screen. Attempts to show data as artifacts fail because physical things are finite. A book can be read. A printed chart will find a wall big enough for it. But an endless stream of information that no human can process, let alone completely consume, is hard to fit within the three-dimensional confines of an object. With “London Data Streams”, Tekja achieves the impressive feat of immersing viewers in data in the real world.

Indeed, the curators tacitly acknowledge this. One exhibit, towards the end, is an interactive data visualisation of sky-high house prices in Britain, originally published in September on the Guardian’s website. It is presented in its original form – on the web – and explored by visitors using an iPad mounted on the wall. The interactive shows a map of England, divided by postcode. Enter your salary and it shows where you can afford to buy a house at the median price. For all but the highest salaries, much of the country turns a deep shade of red. This is a clever and simple way to show complex data. But as you stand there playing with it, you might ask yourself why you have come to a gallery to look at something already available on your computer or mobile phone.

Big Bang Data Somerset House, London, until February 28th

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