Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art
Boulder, CO, April 24 – July 6, 2014

Aspen Ideas Festival, The Resnick Gallery, Doerr-Hosier Center
Aspen, Colorado, June 26 – Sept 2, 2013

Curated by Steven Sacks – bitforms gallery
Essay by Peter Hirshberg – Re:Imagine Group Chairman

Ours is the era of pervasive data: we are surrounded by signals and sensors that chronicle everything about our world and our lives. Web and mobile phone usage patterns reveal much about our behavior. Soon practically every device will be a connected device: our cars, fitness monitors, streetlights, and buildings will all participate in the data production economy.

This represents a shift in the human condition, a shift in what it means to be human when everything about us can be quantified, measured, analyzed, and permanently stored. This shift creates unprecedented economic opportunity, but also new anxieties about privacy, identity, and the nature of hyper-quantified humanity.

Enter the artist, who has always helped us see the world in new and different ways. New technologies have repeatedly led to disruptive advances in art. Consider how the discovery of perspective influenced the Italian Renaissance (14th – 16th century) or how the portable oil tube enabled French Impressionist artists (1860-1900) to move outdoors and paint in natural light. Now envisage what a moment this is for contemporary artists as they embrace a new medium—the world of data.

//the_Art_of_DATA presents nine artists who are pioneers in developing the visual language that makes data captivating, expressive, and meaningful. They follow in a tradition of filmmakers, photographers and Pop artists who embraced new technology throughout the 20th century and explored the intersection of commercialism and art. The works in the exhibition take us beyond literal data visualization (a staple of science, business, and journalism) to help us see the unexpected in data, gain a sense for its cultural meaning, and turn the otherwise abstract into an emotional experience. The artists do not provide ready answers, but rather ask questions about how data is represented, interpreted, and used in society.

Exhibiting artist R. Luke DuBois (b.1975) uses pervasive data the way pop artists like Andy Warhol (1928-1987) or James Rosenquist (b. 1933) obsessively manipulated the mass consumer imagery of their era. Coming from the world of commercial illustration, Warhol and Rosenquist adapted the language of advertising and pop culture to fine art. Today, DuBois uses contemporary software techniques to change the context in which we see data, presenting it in fresh, sometimes jarring perspectives. His work questions the ability of data to be emotionally impactful at a time when its ubiquity often leaves us desensitized to its presence.

All of the artists in the exhibition express and execute their ideas in computer code and algorithms—an approach which predates computer art. In the 1960s conceptual artist Sol Lewitt (1928-2007) wrote out detailed instructions for his Wall Drawings, which others then (painstakingly) executed. In his 1967 groundbreaking essay, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art”, the phrase, “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” is now the basis for a new generation of art. Much of the work presented in //the_ART_of_DATA are timely adaptations of Lewitt’s concepts, as the machine is not only the idea that makes the art, but often times becomes the art. Tristan Perich’s Machine Drawing (2014) comprises a motor programed to draw visual compositions directly onto the wall. There is a direct line from Lewitt to early computer drawing languages such as Logo or Processing—a popular open source programming language co-developed by artist Casey Reas. Reas utilizes textual instructions to build his images and software. The instructions, which break down complex systems into individual parts, explicate and translate components that define networks in a variety of media.

As far back as 1969, Manfred Mohr coded machines to imagine and deconstruct geometric structures too complex to approach manually. Continually adopting new technology to discover new abstract forms, Mohr is able to render structures increasingly complex. In a different way, John F. Simon’s work creatively uses technology to produce what is humanly impossible. Setting this precedence with his work Every Icon (1996), Simon programs a computer to produce every combination of icons within a 32 x 32 pixel-grid, yet to enumerate them all supersedes what a human could experience in multiple lifetimes. His creative adaptation of data makes evident technology’s ability to theoretically eclipse the time scale and capacity not only of human mortality but also our imagination.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Zero Noon (2013) examines data as a dimension of time. Rendered as a 24-hour clock, time is measured in random statistical information, which resets at noon every day. Giving us a visceral feel for the pace of these phenomena as well as an exotic new measure of time, such as the amount of oil consumed, the number of times your heart has beat, or number of girl scouts cookies sold. Siebren Versteeg’s In Light; of Everything (2010) uses custom software to collect information, in this case images, from the Internet to assemble them into a composition daily. Like Zero Noon, it starts fresh each day.

As museum visitors, we imagine ourselves observers of art and data. As seen in the case of Edward Snowden, the fugitive contractor who leaked secrets from the National Security Agency, we are already reliably promiscuous producers of data in a world of eager consumers. As we walk through the galleries our smart phones are updating GPS coordinates, sending messages packets, and attempting WIFI connections. Fortunately, art is vigilantly observing and rendering this data. Addie Wagenknecht’s Net Blink (2014) sniffs the data activity in its proximity (anomalously, we are told) and depicts it as light patterns along the length of the sculpture. People contribute to the work by their data presence, without doing anything explicit. Though the artist conjectures that if the audience conspired to hack the work with a Distributed Denial of Service attack (DDoS), the light show might be especially gratifying.

Artists Thomson & Craighead draw our attention to our anesthetized interaction with data. The wall projection, Beacon (2006) continuously relays live web searches being made around the world. The artists thus create a portrait of the information our collective conscious desires, needs, or does not already know. While the work gives anonymity to each searcher, it highlights our vulnerability to surveillance.

Over the course of just a few years, pervasive data has emerged as a powerful economic asset, a reliable reflection of all human activity, and a matter of urgent privacy concern for families and government alike. The phenomena of our extensively instrumented world are timely subjects at the center of discourse within multiple professional circles. It is artists who are at the forefront of helping us see and understand data in altogether new ways.

– Essay by Peter Hirshberg (Chairman of Re:imagine group and Co-Founder of Gray Area Foundation for the Arts)

– Curated by Steven Sacks (Founder of bitforms gallery nyc)