Cynthia Alice Andrews — Data Artist.

aka. The Show Pony Interview

Cynthia Alice Andrews in Seattle, Summer 2017

On a brilliant summer day in Seattle recently, I sat down with Cy Andrews (or @DataRulesMe as she’s known to her many Twitter followers) to chat about her unusual passion. Cynthia Alice Andrews is one of the rare people who practice data art — an emerging field that combines data science and visualization with artistic creativity, among other attributes.

As a data artist myself, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to dig a bit deeper into how she sees this field evolving and why she doesn’t mind being referred to as a “show pony” by her coworkers.

Cynthia Alice Andrews — Data Artist.

Seattle, Washington
Summer 2017

(edited for length)

[ M. Pell ] Given you work in a few different fields, what do you prefer to be known as?

[ Cynthia ] I call myself a lot of things — an interactive engineer, a creative thinker, but those have culminated in my current title, which is data artist.

So, what is “data art” exactly?

It’s hard to say. I think data art is anything that’s inspired by data, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s powered by a spreadsheet of information.

What are some great examples of data art for you personally?

‘Waiting for Earthquakes’ by Moon Ribas. She has a sensor embedded into her skin that, using seismic data, vibrates every time there is an earthquake in the world, from anywhere, any magnitude. ‘Waiting for Earthquakes’ is a performance piece in which she literally just stands on stage and waits for an earthquake to happen and then interprets the feeling that she gets into movement. I don’t know if she considers it data art, but I do.

You just greatly expanded my understanding of data art to include performance and real-time interpretation. It can be a living thing?

Absolutely. I saw this really amazing piece at Creative Tech Week NYC. This artist made an abstract piece composed of LED lights who’s hue changed as the emotion of the city changed. She was running a real-time sentiment analysis on Twitter data in New York City, that data was the driving force behind her piece.

So, you’re saying data art can be looked at as real-time data visualization, but in a very creative way?

Yes. If you look at neural networks created by scientists with a creative eye you might see it as art. If you take it out of context, it could be a subway map or a series of rivers. It could be anything. It’s the non-creative context in which things are placed that makes people think they aren’t be considered art. It’s all in the context of the eye of the beholder.

Do you think data art can be considered its own field now?

I think it’s more of a specialization than a field, at least right now.

Where do you think it’s going?

There are a lot of applications for data art. The way I personally think about it is that the best home for data art is within creative agencies. They can create really cool experiences for companies and their brands on their own terms, within their parameters. They can create conceptual pieces that hover between marketing, art, and data, but stay true to a value of “the experience comes first, not the brand’s message”.

How do you tell a creative visualization from a piece of data art?

With creative visualization I think the meaning comes directly from the data behind it. Understanding the data and the correlation is at its core.

Are you more proud of your best data visualization work, or are you more proud of your data art?

I think I’m learning to be more proud of my data art. For a long time, I viewed it as a hobby on the side, as a by-product of what I do that just makes me happy. In recent months and especially after having conversations with you, I started to realize that my work might be a by-product of my passion and not the other way around.

What your favorite piece of data art that you’ve created and why?

That’s a tough one. I’m pretty in love with this untitled piece; powered by the political landscape and Arduino. It uses moisture data from two houseplants as the input and an LED sign as the output. If the plants need water the readout is ‘SAD’ and if it doesn’t the readout is ‘TERRIFIC’. The exact moisture value also factors in, controlling how bright the LED readout is in real time. As the soil dries out, ‘SAD’ becomes brighter and brighter.

Other data art projects you’re fond of?

Last fall, in my Media Theories class at NYU, I produced a project that was around code as speech. It looked at the First Amendment as it applies to code as a language. I made this sort of Python program as pseudocode whose variables were all made of the words that make up the First Amendment. As the pseudo-program iterates through itself, it checks to see if it violates religious freedom and all these various things from the First Amendment. If unconstitutional is set to “true”, it prints “this shall not pass”, which obviously is a Lord of the Rings reference. If constitutional is set to “true”, then it prints the First Amendment on repeat. Political art, I think, is really important.

What do you think about when you create data art?

It depends. I’ve been thinking a lot about motion as data experience and all the possibilities there are in that space. Most of my recent concepts involve motion somehow. Like, if I were to attach sensors to my fingers, and wrists, and elbows, and shoulders, and legs, and toes, and the corners of my eyes, and then create a visual representation of my movements with the resulting motion data. You’d see my entire day unfold; active things versus stationary etc… but depending on the way I represent it you might see something like visual dances instead of a time-series. Imagine if a ballerina had sensors attached to the points of her shoes, and you could visualize that motion data.

Will we get to a point where data art hackathons are something that people go to regularly?

That’d be awesome. I can definitely see data artists as becoming an asset at hackathons. When you look at the evolution of hackathons, they started as this thing that was only for Devs, right? You had to be programmer to go to a hackathon. Then, it was all about making sure designers understood that they were needed too, you know? Then storytellers. Maybe data artists are next?

Does any of your data art ever come from projects that you’re trying to do a serious visualization for?

Definitely. After the election I was looking at a lot of political data. I came across some data on protesting and ended up concepting an interactive mixed reality representation of people mobilizing during protests. Think about being able to holographically render the space that people took up when they were there, as almost a semi-permanent reminder of their coming together to rise up and fight for themselves or their beliefs.

What do you want to accomplish with your data art?

I want the things I make to change the way that people think, or at least invite them to take a different perspective.

Do you think that people need to recognize the art part of data art as a real thing?

Yeah. It’s going to take some time i think, because the attachment of the word “data’ to ‘business intelligence” and “analytics” is so strong. Maybe as the presence of data becomes more and more prevalent in art, people will become more equipped to recognize it.

How does your fascination with pie charts figure into the whole data art thing?

I guess I've always found it funny how much hate is thrown on pie charts in the data visualization community. I also like puns and dad jokes, so I think that pie charts are kind of like the dad joke of data viz.

Like me, you are interested in mixed reality, right?

Interested is an understatement. The implications it has, especially for data art, are insane. Like, imagine being able to watch a weeping willow tree grow in front of you at scale, in real time, in real space — no screen needed. That’s the potential mixed reality has. Oh, and it basically makes the ‘Jaws shark’ from ‘Back to the Future II’ possible.

What do you see as the real use of mixed reality for data art?

The applications are enumerable already. The implications it has, especially for data art, are insane. Like my protesters concept. Mixed reality has the potential to make it possible at scale. To allow me to holographically render the actual space that people took up when they were there, as an almost semi-permanent reminder of their coming together.

What are your thoughts on using 3D for data viz?

Not a fan. Let’s use bar charts as an example. They were developed for a two-dimensional space. When you see three dimensional versions, they don’t look right and they misrepresent the data, honestly. Don’t even get me started on when people talk about AR/VR/MR and ‘walking around in a bar chart”. Like, what new insights does that bring?

As a data artist, what’s in your tool palette?

Right now I'm exploring physical computing so lots of Arduino stuff, sensors etc… It’s never stagnant. I use technological tools for cleaning data, a pen and paper for rapid prototyping, post-it notes — modular thinking is key for me.

Is ‘Agile Data Art’ a thing?

What things do people not usually equate with data art?

Emotions, I think. It is probably the most powerful tool in my arsenal. Also, the way that humans interact with space is a definite item in my tool box. Really paying attention to how people move within an area, depending on which parts of it are blocked off or opened up. What prompts them to do a certain thing at certain times.

What would you tell people who really want to become data artists?

Start now. Concepting is creating. Just think about the things that you enjoy doing most, find data there.

Let’s end with a couple quick questions. Given all of your talents, what would you like to be called?

I think for now I’ll go with “data [inspired] artist”

What do you *not* like to be called?

Someone who makes things pretty.

Like a “show pony”?

No, I don’t mind being called a show pony by my coworkers or friends because that means I’m sticking out for my talent, in a manner of speaking.

Do you think procrastination is the key to brilliance?

I don’t know. I definitely do it though, and there’ve been cases where I procrastinated and created something beyond what I ever could have planned, but there have also been times when procrastinating caused me to crash and burn.

Does your best work happen when there’s no time to mess up?

Yes, but I don’t think it’s so much that there’s no time to mess up, more like there’s no time to pay attention to the mistakes because they don’t matter. There’s a bigger thing that you’re working on, and so the little mistakes don’t matter because you have these time constraints, which I think end up adding a lot of personality.

What’s the first thing you think of when I say “data”?

Art.

What’s the first thing you think of when I say “data art”?

The future.

Thanks to Cynthia Alice Andrews for a great conversation!

Follow her @DataRulesMe on Twitter.
Or visit her site http://www.datarules.me/

Until next time
M. Pell