thickear in conversation with British Council
Introduced by Julie Freeman and Hannah Redler Hawes
Pink Sheet Method 2014, thickear Materials: Multiple performance, triplicate forms, archival spike, paint Data types: Anonymised, Identifiable, Metadata, Open, Personal, Shared, Static.
As a contribution to the second Data as Culture exhibition in 2014, thickear produced Pink Sheet Method — a multi-site, performative triptych about the processes of personal data collection, exhibition, re-examination and degradation. Taking place over five months in three locations, Pink Sheet Method investigated the gestures we use in exchange and trust as we share information, as well as the validity and limitations of data analysis — or data fracking — over time.
Event #1 White Sheet took place in a disused office space, resembling a bank or an estate agent’s office at the FutureEverything festival in Manchester. The artists, dressed in matching clerk uniforms and wielding clipboards, commenced the performance through ‘Personal Data Audit Sessions’ during which personal data was manually logged in one-to-one consultations with participants. The artists used carbonless triplicate forms as an analogue replacement for data’s digital reproducibility. In exchange for participants’ data (name, date of birth and more) and permission for the artists to use in this data in any way they liked, visitors were offered the chance to keep a limited edition print of their own data — the white sheet of the triplicate form — signed by the artists. During the data audit, only two of around 120 people denied permission to the artists despite not knowing what they were going to do with that data.
Event #2 Pink Sheet was a day-long office intervention which took place during a normal working day at the ODI headquarters in London. The remaining two carbonless paper copies of the original document were separated and filed in a factory-like process by the artists — blue into folders and pink onto a receipt spike. thickear requested that all staff played one of a series of sound works from their speakers throughout the day so that the office became sonically-enhanced as the artists performed the filing operation. The spike containing the pink sheets was retained at the ODI as part of the Data as Culture collection.
The bottom copies, the Blue Sheets, were pasted on to the gallery wall in a final performance at Lighthouse in Brighton. During this action, thickear shared the newly acquired knowledge attained through the process of Pink Sheet Method and exposed the personal data publicly. Members of the public were offered the chance to barter to purchase the right to paint over one or more of the 120 blue data sheets on display, thereby altruistically protecting the personal data of a stranger. In turn, their own names and the details of their well-intentioned transaction were then recorded directly onto the gallery wall for the remainder of the exhibition.
Perhaps a forewarning of projects such as Face to Facebook may have altered these figures.
thickear don’t see themselves as ‘data artists’ who are interested in the visualisation or sonification of data. Using their artwork as a forum through which they can open up conversations about social issues, thickear see artwork as an important way of assessing what’s happened with regards to data, how we feel about it and whether we want to do anything about it. Although there’s a definite aesthetic quality to their work — with the aesthetic beauty of the carbon copy sheets they use, the materials and the objects and the general staging element to their work, they explain that this is a secondary concern to the conceptual element of their practice.
They are keen to examine the nature of data in a real-world sense, (rather than in the digital work in terms of 0s and 1s) and staging is a very important part of their practice. Through effectively constructing a stage set with the room, they aim to create a setting of powerlessness on behalf of the consumer, who is physically directed through a strict process. thickear are not concerned about their work being overtaken by ever-changing technology, as they explain they are examining data and engaging their audience on their own terms.
Interviewed by Amanda Houchen (British Council)
Would you say that being in a data-saturated culture where there is a sense of discomfort in the excess of data collection — that by incorporating data into artwork, this can be a way for us to reclaim a sense of humanity and individualism?
thickear: Yes I would say that. I think that chimes to an extent with the work we’ve done. I’m not sure I’d say reclaim, but it enables us to have a discourse around it. Ultimately the main purpose of art is a forum to think about things, evaluate and look at things in a different way and I think that’s what’s great about an artwork that uses or studies data, as it gives people the chance to look at it. I feel that data snuck up on people entering society through the back door, as people were using data as a currency before they even realised they were. So it wasn’t something that was ever discussed and didn’t really have the feel of publicity of something like bitcoins for example, where as soon as it happened it was like this is a new way to look at currency.
Do you look at using data as being akin to using any creative material such as paint or clay? Do you think it stands on its own as being a different kind of art medium?
thickear: I don’t think we do no. As our work is about how do you define what the value of data is, as data has become more and more of a commodity and people sign up for things on to social media platforms, using data as the commodity thinking that they’re getting something for free. So we’re looking at trying to work out whether that transaction was worthwhile — how do you evaluate whether that transaction is worthwhile, how do you know what your data is worth, that what you’re getting in return is a worthwhile exchange?
What would you say makes the difference between data presentation and data art? What is the tipping point between something that’s a pure representation of data or something that goes beyond that and becomes a piece of art based on data.
thickear: When we started doing the work, we never entered into it thinking of ourselves as data artists, and then the data work we did see seemed to have a lot of visualisation of data, sonifications (taking data and turning it into sound) for example, that just seemed to be direct transactions of taking data and putting it into a different form, but that doesn’t really have much to say about data that’s interesting. We never set out to do that, and that’s particularly why we used paper and one to one interviews rather than transactions online, as we wanted to take data out of its usual domain and to enable a better discussion about it; as you could see it differently and examine it more clearly as soon as you removed it from where it usually happens. So that was definitely key for us, to get people thinking and open a discussion about how we felt about data as a currency, rather than represent data itself in any shape or form. We felt that doing that was a really good way to get people to think about it differently and more clearly.
Would you say that a key part of the Pink Sheet Method is to explore the aesthetics of data collection?
thickear: I think it was secondary, but it was a key part — secondary to the idea of exploring data as currency. But the aesthetics are important, it is probably the most fun part of it and we just really enjoyed the whole aesthetic that we created there. It was about stepping people out of the digital world, to say we’re going to discuss this in a more old school way — a bit like going for a meeting with your bank manager, which doesn’t really happen anymore, that thing where you’re going for a mortgage. We wanted to create that kind of setting where there’s that feeling that you don’t have that power as the consumer. And that setting is created by the objects, the room, the way people dress, the questions they ask, by the fact that there’s clearly a path through the form that you have to go down and if you say the wrong thing or give the wrong answer, it won’t go right, so that’s the feeling we wanted to create.