Commissioning artists to work with data as a material
By Julie Freeman and Hannah Redler Hawes
Commissioning has been at the heart of the Data as Culture art programme since its inception alongside the launch of the ODI in 2012. Part of the commissioning agenda is to enable artists to consider the ongoing mission and research at the ODI and the broader implications on society. We have been keen to create space for experimental and conceptual data-orientated works to emerge.
Curatorially we have always been clear that the vision is for artists to be influencers, explorers and communicators, rather than decorators or space enhancers, (though it is an active aim of the programme to create a visually, as well as intellectually, rich spatial environment). With this aim, we see ourselves as working within the traditions we recognise from innovative art and technology programmes like the Xerox Park PAIR programme, IBM Research Labs and Bell Labs, that identified and celebrated the creative significance and value to business of interdisciplinary, practitioner-led, unapplied research.
Often the initial response to so-called ‘data art’ is an expectation of abstracted visualisation, computational processing, or conceptual, often critical, re-presentation. The impact of data on our lives is sprawling and complex, rather like mushrooms and other fungi, that are made up of and connect to each other via a mass of slender threads known as mycelium (and referred to as ‘the underground internet’). One of the largest known mycelium networks is said to span ten square kilometres, and in the same way, artists will navigate to the outer tendrils to explore and reveal interwoven and unexpected responses.
We can say that anything involving digital computation has a data layer involved. This means that some level of data literacy is required when considering, for example; blockchains, voting, consumer activity, social media, financial dealing, and environmental awareness. This can help us ensure that we know how and where data is influencing our decisions, what we can do to protect ourselves and how we can use it for good. Artists often explore the humanity in the data flow, and amplify the personal and intimate connections we have with it. We discussed their practice and projects with three of the ODI commissioned artists thickear, Thomson & Craighead and Natasha Caruana.