Data as Culture, curated by Shiri Shalmy, is a new partnership between FutureEverything, the Open Data Institute and Lighthouse, exploring the relationship between data and art. In the second installment of this two-part interview, Michelle Collier speaks to curator Shiri to find out what to expect from the exhibition.
Michelle Collier: You’ve already been exploring data in some of your more recent shows, can you tell us more about that and the genesis of Data as Culture? Was it a natural continuation for you?
Shiri Shalmy: My show Data at Contemporary Art Society in London (July 2013) was concerned with systems of information in a much more abstract way. While the starting point for all the works has been in the scientific (or quasi scientific) realm, the artists used different strategies to subvert static signal systems, transforming them into the psychological realm, and investing them with wonder and humour; effectively turning facts into narrative.
Leo Fitzmaurice, for example, used ‘straight to DVD’ film posters sourced from video shops to create ‘star maps’. He covered any piece of recognisable information (text, faces) with black marker pen, leaving only colourful circles floating in black space. The resulting abstract and seductive images look, at a first glance, convincing enough to be astronomical charts. Only a closer look reveals their lo-tech production method and lowly origins. The title Data was, in fact, almost like a private joke – in place of reassuring, useful information, the manipulated, malfunctioning objects and redacted, blurred images offered a sense of disorientation and confusion. While experimenting with the visual language of data representation, the show really questioned scientific and artistic authority.
I’ve always been interested in how knowledge is organised, archived and transmitted, so was excited about the commissioning opportunity for Data as Culture. It was an opportunity to focus my investigation on the raw material of any system of knowledge; the building blocks of our attempt to make sense of the world, create order and, by extension, give it meaning. The commission was open enough to allow for a wide range of approaches and, again, I was particularly interested in ideas of ownership and authority, as well as the challenge of data manifestation – moving from the digital to the physical, from a computer screen to a human space.
MC: The systems and sources of ‘raw material’ for Data as Culture seem somewhat politically charged; from military drone imagery, to the campaign for regulated working hours, not to mention the topical debates over personal privacy and freedom of information. Does your exhibition take a particular political or social stance, or is it more about opening a dialogue?
SS: The show doesn’t aim to offer a conclusive statement about data as culture but present a range of responses to the subject. Data is political; there is always an agenda behind the collection and dissemination of information and in the social and economical present, where data about the many is owned and managed by the few, this is painfully evident. The Open Data Institute is arguing for making all public data openly available and accessible, and this is really the background for this show.
In my curatorial statement I briefly mention census boycotts and Indymedia, Freedom of Information Act and Wikileaks, a range of responses to the question of ownership over data, personal and public, which is ultimately understood as a question of authority. It is partly this tension between secret agents and personal agency that the exhibition attempts to explore.
There is also, of course, the question of collaboration – we gladly provide our data online but resent invasive marketing, post our pictures on Facebook but hate CCTV. But, more importantly, the question of responsibility: if the knowledge is available – for example military drone bases are visible for everyone to see on Google earth – can we claim ignorance about the ‘secret’ actions carried out in our name?
MC: Until the burgeoning trend of recent years for a more artistic approach to data visualisation, ‘data’ (and ‘digital’ generally) has often been wrongly perceived as a somewhat dry subject matter, lacking a certain ‘human quality’. From the title alone, Data as Culture seems to re-focus attention on the inherently human nature of data. Do you think we’re turning a corner in that respect?
SS: I don’t think it’s possible to separate data from human activity and therefore human imagination and culture. The information itself is merely a reflection of our interests, and the way we organise and analyse it reflects our understanding of the world, rarely the other way.
I think two things are in operation. Firstly, late 20C ideas of benign, self-regulating systems for controlling anything from finance to climate – Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace – have gone out of fashion, with both financial and environmental systems in crisis. While on the other hand, we have mostly accepted our evolution into a society under constant surveillance, where information about our shopping habits, email communication, geographical location and porn consumption is constantly monitored and analysed. This means that data is no longer abstract; it is urgently relevant to our personal lives, but we have little understanding of how it’s used or indeed much authority over it.
Paolo Cirio, who I commissioned to create the Data as Culture online exhibition catalogue, reflected on this in the text he wrote for the piece. The catalogue both gives and takes information; melting the visitors’ ‘browser fingerprints’ into the work it represents using a super-cookie that’s unbeatable by browser protection (visit the piece on www.dataasculture.org).
MC: There seems to be an increasingly blurred line between the traditional artist and the modern technologist. How do you think data is changing the way artists work or helping new artists to emerge?
SS: Artists have created digital work for as long as digital tools have been available, like they have with any other tools throughout human history. Of course the form is inseparable from the concept, and all the things I mentioned earlier inform data as a medium; the gathering, storing, archiving and analysis are explored as social and political issues. The visual language of data – computer logs, infographics, survey forms – and the mostly digital territory for this exploration created the role of the artist-technologist. Again, Paolo Cirio refers to data as the raw material of a digital revolution, the “magma underneath the surface”. It’s a material to manipulate and transform, hack and subvert, and then re-purpose for the creation of new work.
MC: How did you go about selecting the artists, or ‘artist-technologists’, to collaborate with for Data as Culture? Do you have a usual approach to finding artists, or does each show warrant its own approach?
SS: I approach each show differently. Sometimes I have a very clear idea about the artists, informed by a shared formal, conceptual or thematic approach, but often the selection involves a huge amount of research, finding links between works as the exhibition concept evolves. It is a cyclical, self-reflecting process in which the narrative is determined by the connection between the different elements. The task is to create a coherent story, which is revealed through the visitor’s experience of the exhibition space.
The Data as Culture commission presented a challenge in terms of identifying and selecting the artists, as previously I’ve not had a particular focus on work in the digital realm, where much of the data related work is taking place. I decided early on that I wanted to concentrate on physical manifestation of data and on the experience of exchange between artist, artwork, and the viewer. I did a lot of research looking at artists associated with galleries presenting digital art, and on a large number of online art projects. The long list included artists tracking leaked CCTV images, sawing environmental data, and measuring visitors numbers in the gallery space, and was eventually narrowed down to the six artists presenting in Data as Culture.
The process also involved a lot of discussion with the artists (rather than making a ‘shopping list’ of existing work), and the show includes three new commissions: thickear’s Pink Sheet Method, James Bridle’s A Quiet Disposition: Remembrancer, and Paolo Cirio’s Your Fingerprints on the Artwork are the Artwork itself – the exhibition’s subversive and self-reflective catalogue which is a piece in its own right.
MC: Is there anyone you haven’t worked with yet that you would like to? Or anyone we should be looking out for who is doing something different?
SS: There are so many artists I’d like to work with and I am constantly on the look out. A random list of artists I have been following in recent years include Tom Richards and Salvatore Arancio (who I included in Data at Contemporary Art Society), James Brooks (who’s in both Data shows), Yara El Sherbini, Clemens von Wedemeyer, Lilibeth Cuenca Rasmussen, Sven John… I’d really love to work with Mark Rakowitz.
MC: What’s next?
SS: After FutureEverything I will continue working on the third part of Data as Culture in Brighton. I’ve recently started working with a number of new artists in a mix of curatorial and artist development capacity, which I find very interesting. I hope to be able to see a few of these projects through in 2014. I am also continuing to develop exhibition and project ideas and looking for the right place to present them, which means a combination of pitching for opportunities and initiating opportunities through applying for funding. I quite like not knowing for sure what’s next.
Data As Culture is part of City Fictions at FutureEverything, on Saturday 29 and Sunday 30 March in various locations across Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Read part one of Michelle’s interview with Shiri here.
Michelle Collier is a writer and editorial manager at The Neighbourhood, Manchester.
Image: Sam Meech Punchcard Economy