Punchcard Economy, 2013, Sam Meech. Image courtesy of the artist.

The artists’ role in the culture of openness

Julie Freeman and Hannah Redler Hawes chat to leaders in the cultural sector about artists and data

The ODI is part of a growing ecology of organisations considering the role artists have to play in helping to explore and shape our relationship with data. Now that digital technology, and specifically digital data, forms the underlying infrastructure of nearly all our communications — including machine to machine, human to machine, and, increasingly, human to human, we need to emphasise the importance of artists being part of the broader conversation.

Data can be understood as one of the most prevalent ‘materials’ of our time, so it’s no surprise that they are interrogating it with critical thinking and creative approaches. We asked leaders in the cultural sector to say more about what differences artists can bring to organisations and audiences who are working with or curious about data, and what their role might be.

Irini Papadimitriou, Digital Programmes Manager, V&A and Head of New Media Arts Development, Watermans, says:

“Very often art and design play a key role in helping us see what is invisible. If people could see the vast amounts of data generated every second in their surrounding environment, would they perceive their city, public space or fellow citizens differently? From individual Google Maps routes, taxis or cars navigating the city, shopping suggestions, messages exchanged, listings and so on, each one of us generates countless layers of invisible information. Who controls and benefits from all this, and at whose cost?

Artists engaging with data can unfold these hidden layers helping us see what lies beneath. Ensuring the development of an open data culture that creates value for all requires a diversity of approaches and voices, and art and design should be part of those.”

Irini curated the Technology is Not Neutral exhibition at Waterman’s which explored how, amongst other things, data is not neutral and can be used in a multiplicity of ways including in sequencing bacteria, controlling drones, and using brainwaves to create art. In this sense, artists perceive and use data in ways which its collect wasn’t intended allowing us to see things differently.

Technology is Not Neutral, 2016

ODI CEO Jeni Tennison is clear on how artists can help us confront challenges and deal with change:

“Data is moving from being scarce and difficult to process to being abundant and easy to use. These changes raise important questions about how data should be collected and used, and how we want it to change our lives. Artists don’t just make data look pretty. They use art to surface questions in ways that engage people and spark the conversations we need to have. As we tackle the challenges of balancing how people use data to make better decisions while avoiding the harms to privacy, security and equity that could arise, art unearths complexities and helps us see these challenges through different eyes.”

Artists ask different and unexpected questions. One of the Data as Culture artists, Sam Meech, wondered what would our extended digital labour look like knitted? In Punchcard Economy 2013 he helps us understand, in a tangible way, that the flow of data through our personal devices means that we are working much more than we think we are.

Punchcard Economy, 2013, Sam Meech. Image courtesy of the artist.

Theatremaker, writer, cultural activist and ‘disruptor with benefits’, Deb Williams who is also Executive Director of the Creative Diversity Network, echoes Jeni’s viewpoint on the way that artists reflect our world back to us in open and diverse ways. She comments:

“Over the past five years, it has become more critical than ever that the evidence and data gathering that is being undertaken is reflected back to society, made user-friendly and accessible to the widest possible audiences. The most logical way to do this is by creating, establishing and partnering with artists. They offer context and openness in a pluralistic way.

Ways of working that currently exist have served to create a vast amount of the current ‘difficult’ questions we are facing, therefore we need new ways to answer them. This is the role of the artist and artistic works. To show us the possibility of data infrastructures from the start. It helps us move away from bolt-on afterthoughts, to core structure and system creation and design. Creativity knows no boundaries. That means we can start from an open position.”

The idea that it is valuable to embed artists in the early stages of ideas, and at the start of projects, is echoed at the ODI which has embraced the art programme from its inception. This is innovative and fearless thinking for a young organisation which has benefitted it in the long run.

As well as the myriad of types of data which together form a rich vein of material for artists to work with, there are also data frameworks to consider. How is that data collected, stored, processed and used? Over the past decade, pioneering UK-based artists YoHa’s work has focussed on the database rather than the data itself. They take a critical view of the impact of infrastructures on the materials that flow within them. They write:

“The space of YoHa’s art takes place at the interconnection of technical objects and other kinds of bodies as in a clinic, hospital, battlefield or at sea, where databases become central to affecting the conduct of people. YoHa’s focus working with the NHS and local authorities is where the flows of power can be reconfigured by the uncertain meaning or intention of art. Not necessarily to make art but to make use of its ambiguity within a wider enquiry, usually produced with and for the people involved in such domains.

Databases increasingly form a central pillar of governance in many enterprises, setting the stage against which work-based culture is derived or conditioned. They directly affect those engaged with public services. Yet databases are largely seen as a technical issue driven by the demands of management to pursue a particular enterprise in an efficient manner.

Computers though are not simply instrumental. The database helps to restructure the site of its practice as part of its very design. At a practical level artists who understand these dynamics are able to figure the complexity of these relations generating critical conversations for all those involved.”

Endless War, 2011, Matthew Fuller and YoHa. Image courtesy of the artists.

This line of thinking echoes the earlier sentiments of Deb and argues that we need to be thinking broadly and differently about the infrastructures we are building from the very beginning. YoHa’s work Database Addiction 2015–17 looks at how the databases in the health services construct and mediate relationships and the impacts of ‘digital rationality’ on personal treatment.

Rebecca Sinker, Convenor of Digital Learning at Tate, reflects this view that artists can interrogate data in ways which can deconstruct, and then reconstruct complexity:

“To many people data is invisible, insensible, having little evident impact on our daily lives. Artists are among those who help translate, remix or visualise the complex sets of information that we and our world produce. Artists can bring it close to our attention, illuminating the beauty in systematic order, questioning the machine learning that drives digital economies and influences our decision-making, playfully disrupting the processes and outcomes that data can reveal or conceal. If Digital Learning means anything it should offer a constructivist approach, where anyone can understand these complex ideas through actively participating in the creative processes — and the critical deconstruction — of cultural production in this digital age.”

In the creative economy ecosystems, artists who are engaged with the technologies have a powerful role to play. We need to make sure that we make space for artists to have an active voice, champion them and listen to what they say and how they say it. Thinking differently and dismantling regular and expected processes can lead to innovative approaches. Artists can help to inspire society and organisations to push technology in new directions and using data for the benefit of us all.

With many thanks to:

Dr Jeni Tennison, CEO at Open Data Institute

Irini Papadimitriu, Digital Programmes Manager, V&A and Head of New Media Arts Development, Watermans.

Deborah Williams, Executive Director of the Creative Diversity Network

YoHa, artist

Dr Rebecca Sinker, Convenor of Digital Learning at the Tate Galleries in London

Data as Culture

Through articles, conversations and case studies we’ll…

Data as Culture

Through articles, conversations and case studies we’ll explore the cultural weight of data and examine works that use data as an artistic material, offering perspectives on the potential that data offers and how it is shaping society around us.

British Council Creative Economy

Written by

British Council Creative Economy team. We work with artists, entrepreneurs, and creative communities globally to tackle today’s cultural and social challenges.

Data as Culture

Through articles, conversations and case studies we’ll explore the cultural weight of data and examine works that use data as an artistic material, offering perspectives on the potential that data offers and how it is shaping society around us.