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Art + Data = Darta?

I arrived fifteen minutes late to the V&A’s Decode exhibition. As ever, my friend Meng Ni Beh was already there, patiently waiting for me. It is a real pleasure to have a friend who is not just an artist but an artist whose work I really enjoy; it means my enthusiasm for her output is always genuine, never feigned for the sake of politeness. It also means I can look at my own conceptions about art whilst listening to hers. I would suggest you read Meng’s review over at her website, to get her take on it, but she has not posted it yet. I expect she will be looking at things quite differently to me. As ever, when looking at art I get more pleasure from the thoughts that the art provoke than the art itself. Whilst bouncing ideas around with her, it occurred to me that a more appropriate name for the Decode exhibition might have been ‘Encode’, or perhaps ‘Dadacode’. In the case of Decode I was as much concerned with my perennial concern – distinguishing the start, the intention, the means and the ends – as I was with exploring the potential for digital technology as a novel platform for artistic endeavour. Decode is nominally about art and design that creatively uses digital technology. As the works in Decode varied between the sublime, the obscure, the awful and the simple, I find myself unable to summarize the exhibition in any useful way, and will have to race at it pell-mell. In this respect, I am reflecting the pell-mell assault that the curators perpetrated on me.

We all know that technology opens up new worlds of possibility. But simply because a possibility exists, it does not mean it is worthily explored. Decode walked down cul-de-sacs as often as it opened new horizons. The motif of Decode appeared to be to present the work of artists who also double as explorers, but to my mind, some of these fellows were merely people whose techie skills did not compensate for their lack of a sense of direction. Others, though, showed glimpses of a truly new vision. The Dadaists might have found doodling a useful foundation for artistic expression. The trick was to raise the doodle to the form of art. The artists in Decode succeeded in this quest only half the time, and some of the work on display was merely technological meanderings. Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly most perennial, questions in art are about what art is and what art is for. Going round Decode, I saw some examples of the boundaries being tested and expanded. With such a varied mix, I will spare myself the attempt to group the works or even give a meaning to their sequence. Suffice to say that the three themes identified by the curators – code, interactivity and network – are themselves so amorphous and unconstrained in meaning that we might as well group more traditional art by colour, shape and width. Instead, I will (mostly) follow the numbered sequence given by the curators whilst talking about a sample of the works on display.

On Growth and Form by Daniel Brown

Beautiful flowers eternally bloom from stalks that grow ever upwards. The flowers and stalks are generated by algorithms, at once recognizably organic and unique whilst the product of digital probabilities. It is a beautiful work that also reminds us of the mathematics in how real organisms develop.

Because the work is peculiarly located relative to the other works, you might miss it completely. I only noticed it whilst leaving, but was thankful to leave on a high.

bit.code by Julius Popp

This work was number ‘0’ in the sequence of the exhibit. It is faux clever to start at ‘0’ when numbering digital exhibits, especially as the sequence did not continue as 1, 10, 11, 100, 101….

Anyhow, I demoted this work in the sequence of reviews because I did not want to start with a zero – the binary epitome of the negative. That the curators put this work up front tells us about an absence of coherence amongst the oeuvre on display. bit.code is so bad that I am not even going to tell you about it, other than it inanely uses clunky machinery to repeat strings of text from the internet. It is as pointless as a Heath Robinson machine, but with none of the charm.

Dune by Daan Roosegaarde

The narrow walk through to the main body of the exhibition naturally causes you to brush the plastic reeds of Dune, which bristle out of the floor around you. This provokes amusing light and movement from this interactive stick garden. And hence we are immediately drawn into the first contradiction of the exhibit. Art may be entertaining, but the entertaining need not be art.

Swarm Draw by Joshua Davis

Apparently you can use computers to create animated drawings. Will wonders ever cease? Every themed exhibition has a work or two which lies on the periphery of the theme and this work was definitely on the boundary if not outside it. The animation itself was a bit like the lightcycles game spawned by ‘Tron’ without being playable and with lines that were curvy instead of straight.

TI by C.E.B. Reas

If Swarm Draw was on the periphery, then TI exemplified the heart of this exhibition. Put simply, TI is the animated visualization of computer code being executed. Colour and geometric forms fold outwards from the a rapidly spinning centre – presumably because the core loop of the code is placed in the middle of the image. As the shapes move outwards, they change less frequently. These outer images are the lines of code traveled less often. TI is a program that takes programs as its input, and outputs them as kaleidoscopic maps. This is literally the conversion of code into aesthetically pleasing animated image, and each program generates its own picturesque signature. This is code as artistic material, like using a history as the input that will be synthesized into a Shakesperian play, or taking the input of a Shakesperian play and synthesizing an opera from it. One wonders exactly which programs were chosen as inputs and why the artist chose them. And there is one other question to ask: what would we see if the code of TI is itself input into TI?

Arcs 21 by Lia

More pretty images created by computer. Did I mention how the wonders never seem to cease? Apparently you can buy an app to show the Arcs 21 images on your iPhone. If this is art, then a parallel logic might lead you to conclude that the App Store should sell porno, because photos of naked women must have similar artistic merit to The Birth of Venus by Botticelli.

Enerugii Wa Antee Shite Inai and Social Collider, both by Karsten Schmidt

Did you hear the one about the pretty images made by computers? Enerugii Wa Antee Shite Inai uses a software engine that can render very colourful 3D forms. Nice enough – but how interesting is this as an idea? After all, Pixar has been around for a while. I think I would rather just stay at home and watch WALL-E again, if the alternative was to suffer the London rain and to wade through the hordes on the London Underground just to see computer graphics that look just as good on my laptop… which leads me to my next question of why half of this exhibition is not merely reproduced in cyberspace so I can enjoy it whilst sat on the sofa. The answer must have something to do with the social expectation that says art must live in a gallery. Apparently the images in Enerugii Wa Antee Shite Inai can be ‘remixed’ and ‘recoded’ by the public, and will then be shown on the aforementioned London Underground. But however the images are manipulated by the public, they still will mean much less than Buzz Lightyear proclaiming ‘to infinity and beyond!’

Social Collider is initially a more intriguing work. Essentially it is a graphical plot of a sample of Twitter conversations. Intriguing for a while. And then you get quite bored of the idea, much like people get bored of Twitter too. Whilst trying to eek out the interest, I mined the detail and found one of the conversations was essentially the repetitious plugging of a web domain available for auction. Hmmm. The creators of Social Collider said it might ‘catch the Zeitgeist at work’. Based on this miserable example, one hopes it failed.

Stockspace by Marius Watz

Real-time financial data is presented as a series of different kinds of images. A bit like the graph capabilities of Microsoft Excel but way more powerful. Is it art, or just a colourful way to present data, with any indicators of source, any legends and axes all conveniently omitted?

Digital Zoetrope by Troika

Very clever machinery upgrades the old idea of using a zoetrope to animate an image by adding the ability to morph and change the light-enscribed images that are presented. This is then linked it to a feed of data where words used by Londoners are randomly selected and presented to the viewer. For all the effort, the result is profoundly shallow. A victory of techno-geekery over any sense of artistic purpose.

Everyone Forever by Universal Everything

I cannot remember this whatever-it-was and I only went to the gallery yesterday. So much for everyone forever because it did not last me a single day. I tried to refresh my memory by browsing the web, but only concluded that the V&A probably stuffed up the exhibition programme and did not write in the actual name of the work that had been on display.

At the conclusion of my web trawl, and having seen a lovely video where I hear about how Universal Everything’s creativity is supported by the munificence afforded by the Apple Macintosh, I found myself feeling rather down to earth. Universal Everything seems to be solid proof that you can make a living by mucking about with fun techno-geeky stuff. The only question is that if everyone in the universe could do this forever, then why would anyone buy the output, instead of just making the art for themselves?

Solar by Flight404

A very interesting and attractive attempt to give an animated feedback of the noises made nearby was spoiled only because the images did not interact or vary enough in response to the environment. My best falsetto singing seemed to generate similar graphics to a dull thud on the outer casing of the display. As the artwork opposite featured Thom Yorke’s warblings, I suddenly realized that half the works in Decode could be lined up so that the output of one would become the input of the next, creating a chain of interactive art insanity.

House of Cards by James Frost and Aaron Koblin

This artwork was essentially a Radiohead video made responsive to anyone wanting to paw on the screen. iPhone-style zoom in and out did not work, but you could spin the 3D line graphic images around, which when you let go would then spin back to where they should have been in the video’s sequence of, well, spinning around and around. Playing with this artwork is the metaphorical video equivalent of DJ’s ‘scratching’ a vinyl record, except done by ordinary members of the public with no idea of how to count the BPM.

Flight Patterns by Aaron Koblin

By far the best piece on display, this was the only work that truly transcended both data and art to hint at the possibilities for how humans sensations can profitably be enhanced by machines. Koblin used real data of US aircraft flights to build an animated map of all the flights that occurred over the space of a day. The familiar outline of the US borders were lost in darkness over night. As activity increased, the vague ghost of the countries outline would be hinted at, whilst international flights skidded off to the edges of the screen. Then the US explodes into light along its East Coast, as rush hour breaks, filling the void with golden hops of flights jumping from north to south and vice versa. These then increasingly traverse to the West, mirroring the path of the sun. The hubs of Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Houston and Miami are visualized as colourful fountains of flight. Flight Patterns is at once both aesthetically sublime and rich in information. It is highly suggestive of how novel visual forms may be used to intuitively present very large volumes of complex data through a pleasing engagement of the eye. An example of brilliant design, if not art, and very possibly the work most likely to be copied in practice.

Make-Out by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

Walk too close and you instigate a video wall of people kissing, with all the clips downloaded from the internet. That 50% of the clips showed girl-on-girl action tells us more about YouTube’s policies on ripping down soft porn than it will ever tell us about love or society.

Dandelion by Sennep and YOKE

This was a visually stunning and interactive recreation of what it would be like to point a hairdryer at a giant dandelion. One wonders if they will turn it into a relaxation aid for the Nintendo Wii.

Body Paint by Mehmet Akten

Create a virtual Jackson Pollock by throwing ‘paint’ at the screen simply through gestures. Another work that was more fun than art, and that will be coming to your Nintendo Wii before too long.

Videogrid by Ross Phillips

The onlooker is encouraged to be part of the art, by recording a 1-second video of themselves. This is then presented as part of a 5*5 grid of continuously looping images. Great for the kind of people who like to goof around and wave over the shoulder of people doing outdoor news broadcasts.

Weave Mirror by Daniel Rozin

An extraordinarily elaborate device that combines mechanics and digital technology to show the audience what they look like when pictured using a modern webcam but then displayed on a TV screen commensurate with the kind of technology you might see in The Flintstones. If I write ‘four hundred black-and-white pixels, each an inch wide’ then you get the idea far faster than if I tried to describe the device itself. Prima facie evidence that NYU professors like Rozin have too much time on their hands.

Venetian Mirror by Fabrica

Sit in the stool very patiently, and an image of you will very slowly appear in the electronic ‘mirror’ you face. In my case at least, it was not worth the wait.

Returning to the theme of my opening paragraph, Decode failed to address or deal with the phenomenon of information overload so prevalent in an interconnected society. If anything, most of the work exacerbated it. Other works stolidly ignored the role of the digital in its creation. For them, the digital was not the subject but a tool, like a paintbrush or a Wii remote, and the result was sometimes fun, often curious, and usually trivial. So somebody can use digital technology to build a machine that simulates a dandelion or a machine which displays a really poor quality picture of me. Well, so what of it? Time and again the works were meant to be interacting, or at least reacting, to their environment and the world at large. But most of these actions and reactions were without any seeming purpose, leaving one as oblivious to the message as trying to read those teartracks of green symbols seen on the credits of The Matrix. Amidst the mix of interaction, we lose our sense of self, no longer aware of whether the art is the final representation, or the combination of code and machine that makes the representation, or in part our own bodies and movements, or a stream of data taken from elsewhere. Whilst digital, much of the calculation done with those 1’s and 0’s had no aim. Think of a number, double it, take away four and convert it into the RGB version of a colour to be displayed in the bottom right quadrant of the screen. There is no equation being solved here; the artists are like lunatic mathematicians scrawling symbols on the wall. Or they would be, if they were engaged with any more purpose than creation for the sake of finding someone who will like what they create. They might as well paint landscapes for the tops of biscuit boxes. Nice colours and fun responses were presented in a setting that makes it socially acceptable for adults to play for a pleasing few seconds – before they get bored and move on. The biscuit box might be looked at longer than some of these artworks.

Separating the novelty from the novel, we do get a few examples of works that showed both thought in the final delivery as well as the means to deliver it. These point to futures where we literally look at information in a different way. The greatest potential came when using sensory aggregation to show worlds of information that could never before be expressed phenomenologically. Whilst much of the work encoded or recoded the familiar, the real decoding was in taking the worlds never seen before and translating them into familiar sensations we can comprehend with instinct as well as logic. That may not be art, but if not, it is something new we currently have no name for, and can hence be happily suckled by art until fully mature.

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