Julie and Hannah with Julie’s RAT.Systems 2017 at The New Observatory exhibition, Fact, Liverpool, 2017. Photo [©] Gareth Jones.

Julie Freeman and Hannah Redler Hawes in conversation

A conversation with ODI Art Associate Julie Freeman and ODI Associate Curator Hannah Redler Hawes

HRH: One of the unusual features of the ODI art programme is the fact it’s led by an artist and a curator (us!) working collaboratively. Can you say something about the importance of the creative tension we’ve established? Maybe also about the ways our cross-discipline backgrounds and the mix of practical commercial and curatorial experience impacts what we do?

JF: I think our ability to work within the tensions of art and industry stems from our history as co-founders of Studio Fish (a creative media organisation) in 1994. Even then we operated as an interface between art, education and industry, with our mission to “promote creative thinking and practice within digital and electronic media culture in order to widen possibilities for human-machine interaction and stimulate society with socially relevant, informative and entertaining works of the highest quality” — a bit of a mouthful, but it did make us smile to re-read this 25 years down the line! We still see the potential for creative use of the internet and new media technologies to change how we communicate, learn and build knowledge.

Studio Fish operated akin to early art and technology residency programmes such as E.A.T. and the placement of Char Davies with Microsoft’s SoftImage. A mix of artists, designers, curators, programmers and entrepreneurs experimenting with clients from industry, educating them into the realms of creative uses of technology and inspiring them to allow us to develop large-scale interactive art projects such as the Digital Wave (1998).

Digital Wave, Julie Freeman (Studio Fish), 1998

HRH: I remember working hard to build research into all our projects. We were influenced by artists like Jonathan Jones Morris and Tessa Elliott, who joined us from the Middlesex Centre for Electronic Arts department. For me, as an emerging curator, their research drew threads between the contemporary art histories I was engaging with through my arts education to wider art and technology histories, particularly the major relationships between artists and industry in the 1960s, which I think the Data as Culture programme is a continuation of.

JF: Like which ones, Bell and Xerox PARC?

HRH: Yeah, those major corporations which brought artists into contact, not only with state-of-the-art equipment that simply wasn’t available anywhere else then, but also leading hardware and software engineers and scientists. I think ODI brings artists into contact with the latest thinking on data and its implications, even though thanks to the digital revolution our tools are no more sophisticated than those which artists can access alone.

Bell Labs was the interdisciplinary research arm of the American telecommunications corporation AT&T, and it welcomed artists to work alongside its scientists and researchers. E.A.T. which you just mentioned, was formed there in 1967 and is probably the most infamous art and technology collaboration. Before that, the group that founded it had previously collaborated in 1966 to organise 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering, an influential event which many arts organisations still refer to through ongoing programmes, most notably Rhizome’s Seven on Seven series.

Xerox PARC’s Artist in Residency, or PAIR programme, paired up artists and scientists working with new media. The programme questioned both the artistic and human experience of new innovations and encouraged cross-currents within both parties’ research. This is a focus which I think we share at ODI.

JF: The innovative approach of the organisations that instigated these programmes, and the willingness of the artists to take part, demonstrates the benefits of risk and an openness for critical provocation. Both the ODI and DAC aim to consider the broader impacts of data and the surrounding contexts, including more lateral ways of looking at it. How can we experience and not just be informed by data? How do we change because of it? How can we use it to help with the big issues of our time? What do we need to know and help others understand how to keep safe and secure? As data becomes more and more available, it is no longer acceptable to look at it in isolation, we need to take a balanced approach.

We often encounter the expectation that the programme will lean toward data visualisation. However, traditional data visualisation is about how we understand data and the information it contains. A context-free visualisation, no matter how beautiful, can give the wrong impression. We are interested in the critical, surprising and radical methods that contemporary artists share.

HRH: The works and artists we commission for DAC tend to have very different ways of working with data (see Part 1 and Part 3), but you have a fairly specific way of thinking about data as a material, can you say a bit more?

JF: One of the things I realised from considering my use of very specific sets of data with certain properties (real-time, biological, temporal) is that artists working with data use it very differently, but it isn’t always clearly and precisely described. My research paper A Taxonomy for Describing Data as an Art Material emerged from a desire to unpack this. My motive for the paper was to highlight that using data as a catchall word can prevent us from enriching the descriptions of artworks.

Differentiating data is important to the understanding of the work: the impact of the delivery, type, properties, and other characteristics of data on the creation and experience of an artwork is significant. If the work uses real-time data from a living source, what are the consequences of the death of the source? What does it suggest if the data transfer fails? If the data is anecdotal or fabricated, is that made obvious? Does it need to be? Do preconceived ideas of data as evidence (real or not) reinforce the artist’s intention? Does the intimacy of the work increase if the data is personal, or does it heighten discomfort? Is the temporal aspect of the work true to the data, or is the artist manipulating time? Whether the answers to these questions are of importance to the way in which the work is interpreted is up to the artist, but for comprehensive critical review, they are essential.

I’d like others to be more specific about data, and I hope that the taxonomy is a step in that direction. We use the taxonomy on the Data as Culture archive so it can be seen in action.

JF: How would you say as a curator you expand on ways of thinking about data and what data is?

HRH: I’ve always worked on art and technology or art and science projects, so I’ve had to become conversant with and able to translate histories and philosophies of science, as well as art to wide audiences. As a curator I often play the role of a bridge between artists and audiences, and as an interpreter that bridging role facilitates links between different ideas within disciplines. This means I’m good at joining up intangible ideas to more familiar ones. I don’t think it makes much difference whether that’s through data, climate science or more obscure art concepts. When we commissioned photographic artist Natasha Caruana to become one of our ODI Artists in Residence, she had not considered herself to be an artist who worked with data. After talking with us I think she realised that that analysing data is a very strong aspect of her research process and the fact we presented series’ of photographs as ‘data-informed’ art certainly surprised our audiences.

Fairytale for Sale, 2011, Natasha Caruana. Image courtesy of the artist.

JF: With your museum background you have worked extensively exhibiting and commissioning contemporary media art. Can you reflect on the differences in working with data as a focus with the Data as Culture programme?

HRH: I think the main difference probably relates to time and historical perspective. I’ve commissioned projects across a huge range of digital technologies since the 1990s, from CD-ROMs to neural-networked systems.

I was one of the first UK curators to acquire examples of these works for a national museum collection, but the ‘digital revolution’ was at this point twenty to forty years in, depending on your definition.

Working with data has been a very different story. I was fortunate to join the Open Data Institute two years after it launched, in 2014. It has felt like jumping onto a fast-moving train whose trajectory is restructuring basic societal infrastructures and cultural norms. I have a perception that I’m really at the beginning of something with the privileged position of working alongside some of the leading global pioneers affecting that change. Working out what the significance of this is and how we should shape our lines of enquiry within it is a really exciting prospect for me as a curator and massively appeals to the artists and partners we approach to work with us on the programme.

JF: Can you talk a little about the differences of working in a museum and a working environment, as a curator, but also perspectives on audiences, budget, artist practice?

HRH: The biggest difference is the relationship with audiences and attitudes to risk. A museum is a destination environment, selected by visitors for a specific leisure or learning activity. The ODI is a working environment. People move around museums at their own pace, making choices about what they do or don’t want to look at or experience. They might keep returning to favourite exhibits or avoid those they like less. In the working environment, our reasons for being in proximity to art interventions are more related to the organisation’s need for us to be in a particular meeting room or desk space. Personal readings are formed when we live with artworks, and these grow and deepen by ongoing coexistence on a daily basis. It’s very intimate.

Museums have vastly bigger budgets than we have at the ODI, but they have greater demands and have to take into account a wider variety of factors when measuring risk. So although great museums take a lot of risks, they take them in through highly structured processes that usually takes time. One of ODI’s core values is being fearless, so as well as the challenging budgets we work with, this encourages us to make quite radical, creatively-risky decisions. We also work to a turnaround speed I have never experienced in a museum. I like to think we engage in ‘rapid-prototype’ curating. We’re always responding to new and immediate conditions very quickly.

HRH: You have a strong interest in investigating real-time data systems, which adds a huge element of the unknown into the processes and final ‘results’ of your work. We Need Us is a thought experiment exploring the life of life data and RAT.systems involves collaborating with an active colony of living naked mole rats. Can you say more about the role of uncertainty and unpredictability in your work? And why you keep coming back to natural systems?

JF: In my own practice I use real-time data feeds from living things as I find the immediacy of connection to life fascinating. I’m intrigued by the unpredictability it brings — not just from the source but also the technological layers through which it is translated. Technology can be highly predetermined, but working with real-time events makes me feel like I’m working on the edge of time. This gives me a sense of creative vertigo which I love — I build a system and then relinquish it to elements of capriciousness. One of my favourite works from the Software exhibition in 1970 is Seek by Nicholas Negroponte and students at MIT’s Architecture Machine Group.

Software Exhibition, 1970

They created a “computer-built, self-reconfiguring gerbil maze” in which a robot arm continuously built and refined a maze from wooden blocks as a small colony of gerbils ran amok. Two domains have advanced which would have changed the focus of Negroponte’s work: the advancement of tracking and tagging technologies (for animals but also humans and inanimate objects), and a widespread obsession with data collection, analysis and visualisation. Seek not only interrogated the skills of the computer system, but it inadvertently posed a fundamental question about how we navigate the relationship between the living and the machine. It is a very early work exploring data and animals, which ended with upset gerbils and a lot of excrement on the robotic arms.

There is an unstoppable dynamic in the natural world that I find compelling. If I can evoke the same emotion or contemplative feeling through my often abstract and geometric artwork that gazing at the sea brings, I consider that a success. The interface of technology isn’t going anywhere soon, so the vitality of real-time data is paramount to how we understand living systems and how we ensure they are at the forefront of our lives.

HRH: Software is a wonderful landmark exhibition to reference here. It’s in my top five ‘wish I’d been there art and technology exhibitions’. Jack Burnham curated it in 1970 for the Jewish Museum in New York. In the catalogue he introduced the show as “not a demonstration of engineering know-how..or an art exhibition” but a project to introduce “the effects of contemporary control and communication techniques in the hands of artists”. He claimed that a key goal was to “provide the means by which the public can personally respond to situations structured by artists”. I love that!

JF: The ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity — which celebrates 50 years this year I think — is an oft-cited source of inspiration. What are the other historical exhibitions that you feel have paved the way for the art and technology convergence?

Yeah, that, of course. Also in 1968, MOMA staged an equally ambitious exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, curated by K.G. Pontus Hulten and hot on the Machine’s heels was Information also at MOMA curated by Kynaston McShine. I’m also so sad I didn’t go to the one show I would have been just about old enough to enjoy, Les Immateriaux curated by Francois Lyotard and Thierry Chaput at the Centre Pompidou in 1985. One thing that does frustrate me is how all these great things happened in the late 1960s-1980s, but their ‘statement of intent’ to move beyond silos and consider contemporary conditions inclusive of artistic and industrial developments didn’t penetrate the wider art world more. That took a really long time. We’ve only starting to see broad acceptance of more interconnected thinking recently.

View of Les Immateriaux, Centre Pompidou, 1985

JF: I think the festival circuit has been good at that, and it’s an important place to experience and share new ideas. Now, organisations like AND (Abandon Normal Devices), Future Everything, AV Festival and NEoN continue the quality, exhibiting and commissioning artists to create outstanding works, not just rolling out the established ones. I also spent time at Ars Electronica (in the smaller early days), various ISEAs, and BEAP. Further afield File (Brazil) is always interesting and an excellent online resource, ISEA of course bringing academics and artists together, and this year ANAT is launching Spectra a new art and science festival in Adelaide, Australia which sounds promising.

During a field trip during my Masters in Digital Art, I remember seeing Char Davies’ Osmose at Serious Games (curated by Beryl Graham) in Newcastle 1996. I was just beginning to learn C programming at the time and was totally in awe of what Davis had done, I’d never experienced anything like it. There were also other works around the city — in abandoned warehouses and other weird locations and that was an eye-opener for me too.

HRH: The festivals were, and still are, so important to my research and development too. Hull Time Based Arts was another place I saw really radical work. Video Positive in Liverpool, which went on to settle in a permanent building and become FACT, was the first place I actually saw interactive art. Toshio Iwai’s Resonance of 4 (1994) blew me away for the way a beautiful, aesthetic experience combined visual, aural and behavioural lyricism. V2’s DEAF Festival introduced me to big ideas like it’s 2003 symposium Information is Alive which was the first place I considered artists uses of complex aggregate systems and their political dimensions. They stopped running it in 2014 but the archive is incredible. Transmediale in Berlin is still going strong. I really enjoyed afterglow in 2014 which considered where we are now in the aftermath of the ‘first stage’ of the ‘digital revolution’.

JF: Resonance of 4! I’d forgotten! My early obsessions in artificial life programming were inspired by that piece alongside Conway’s Game of Life and Langton’s Ants. I think some organisations have continued the fleet of foot festival-like approach to explore deeper questions about the impact of technology on society working closely with artists — places like FACT, Furtherfield, Arts Catalyst and BOM.

HRH: Furtherfield has been asking some really good questions about artists and Blockchain. I haven’t been to but would love to check out the Sri Lankan multi-disciplinary festival Cinnamon Colomboscope. Back in the UK, it’s great to see leading contemporary art galleries like The Serpentine collapsing the ‘traditional’ and to me, slightly baffling boundaries between art made with new digital technologies and so-called ‘traditional’ materials. They now have a Chief Technology Officer, Ben Vickers who is running some great programmes. The V&A is also continually engaging with these new fields through expanded ideas of design and holds the Computer Arts Society collection. Katrina Sluis’ digital programme at The Photographers Gallery is interesting. I really like their online resource Unthinking Photography which explores “photography’s increasingly automated, networked life”.

JF: Outside of the organisations we’ve already mentioned I’m following Data & Society and AI Now Institute and DeepLab for keeping up with data and social impacts, both are publishing some excellent work. Artist wise I’m personally into Kasia Molga, Tega Brain, Boredom Research, Katie Lewis, Semiconductor, Thomson & Craighead… but really there’s too many to list.

HRH: Yes, I won’t try to add any more here but our Data as Culture archive is a good summary of an interesting bunch of artists working with data!

Three flames ate the sun, and big stars were seen, Phil Archer, Data as Culture, 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

JF: What’s next for Data as Culture and the ODI?

HRH: I’m really excited about the fact that in 2018 we’ve been invited to contribute to two major pieces of ongoing work at the ODI, this will really embed artistic strategies and practices in the core business. I’m happy we have commissioned artist Alistair Gentry to be an embedded team member in our government funded R&D programme, exploring the concepts of data trust. I’m certain it will deliver surprising results which couldn’t have happened any other way. I’d love it if this were to become an organisational method, but for now, it’s a welcome experiment. I also want us to develop a high-impact audience-focused Data as Culture ‘product’, be that touring exhibit or exhibition, pop-up event, participatory project or suchlike, which will involve even broader audiences in the questions we are asking and the ideas we’re sharing through the programme. What about you?

JF: I’d like to see stronger links with external partners and venues, nationally and internationally, so the programme begins to take on a more fluid data-like behaviour. I’m pleased we are working externally on a Data Stories project with computer scientists at Southampton University and Birmingham-based artists Harmeet Chagger-Kahn and Ben Neal (BOM), to explore creative data experiences with local communities. And we have also commissioned spoken word poet, Mr Gee, to develop performance pieces and online work around the same theme. I am keen that we continue to experiment curatorially and artistically.