EPFL+ECAL Lab
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EPFL+ECAL Lab

From technology and data to original art concepts

Digital art as a means to reflect on technology and data use; the perspectives of five designers/artists from EPFL+ECAL Lab.

Data has already penetrated all layers of our societies, shaping more and more our relationships with our environment. When you break it down, the core of many digital technologies is data: either they are gathered to create the technology, or generated and collected while using it. In the context of digital technology, they are shaping art practices. Some artists like Mike Winkelmann in “Everydays: the First 5000 Days” used new digital data type to encrypt the value of their artwork [1], others, like the trio Obvious “Le portrait d’Edmond Bellamy” generate new pieces of art based on AI, using huge dataset [2], facial recognition is now enforced by some governments [3] and our daily lives have never relied so much on the use of data through our countless applications and software. We are using it, generating it, speaking about it but for most of us, data remains a diffuse concept. We rely on the most popular and easy-going technologies in order to facilitate our daily lives. But what will happen if we challenge those relationships through artistic exploration? What data will tell us? How will people interact with it?

In the context of the MAS in design research for digital innovation at the EPFL+ECAL Lab, we investigated these questions over one month, with the only constraint being the use of a software: Touchdesigner [4].

This project was led by Romain Collaud and Lara Défayes and engineering support was given by Delphine Ribes and Yves Kalberer. Their researches focus on those — our — data: the ones that are here and we observe, the ones that we don’t know how to observe. The ones that will soon disappear, the ones that are missing, or the ones that will remain. Each of us developed our own practice, resulting in five original propositions that try to challenge our technological relationship with data through artistic expression.

Not in real time webcam

Not in real time installation-  2021 André Andrade

André Andrade’s artist statement

“With the advancement of technology, our lives are increasingly monitored and our actions recorded. The freely accessible webcams filming cities and people are proof of the trivialization of surveillance. Today, it seems as though we have accepted the fact that everyone can spy on others in public space. But beyond viewing live, these images can also be saved and analyzed.

The work ‘Not in real time webcam’ offers a new video stream, entirely controlled by the machine. An assemblage of recordings, this recreated webcam breaks free from the notion of time. The actors of this parallel world have been arbitrarily chosen and followed. They are presented here in a controlled manner and their number is linked to that of the spectators.”

It may sound like something from George Orwell’s 1984, but you are being watched. Cameras are all over, recording data about daily life in public spaces. Nowadays, they can be accessed online, monitored and manipulated by random people who don’t own them and remain anonymous/unnoticed Among those anonymous spectators, are artists like Jon Rafman or Dries Depoorter. Rafman gathers pictures from Google Maps with unusual situations for his project “Nine eyes”. Dries Depoorter, in Jaywalking Frames, collects images from unprotected surveillance cameras of people walking through a red light from all over the world. André Andrade is also one of those unnoticed viewers, using a live webcam feed from Lausanne as playful material for his artwork.

At first, “Not in real-time webcam” looks like a pretty and poetic collage of different, and always changing, timelines. But then you start noticing people — or characters — entering in and out of the scene. If you are lucky enough, you’ll see dozens of them at the same time, leading to some comic-like situations. A girl is running into policemen, while two people are carrying suspicious boxes. By this manipulation of the data (without altering them), the lines between reality and fiction are blurred. This is taken to another level when you realize that the number of characters in the scene matches the number of people watching the webcam live, making the anonymous voyeurs noticeable again.

So watch out if you are crossing in the middle of the road, you might well be being watched.

The council of sustainable uncertainty

Rémi Opalinski’s artist statement

“During this pandemic, the democratic fragility and the blurred flow of data in which we bathe daily, has reinforced a collective feeling of powerlessness. Plunged into this common lethargy, what refuges can we explore in the face of this crisis of trust between government and individuals?

‘The Council of the Uncertainty of Sustainability’, depicts a satirical imaginary where eight entities make political decisions using environmental data. Destined to administer itself, the council attempts to give direction to our common life.“

In our algorithmic societies, it feels like data is constantly analyzed and controlled to ensure our security and prosperity. Data capture, pattern tracking, prediction and optimization of behavior is the new endless loop that is embedded in our techno-political systems. However, we collectively demonstrate our shortcomings in terms of action on environmental issues despite a certain predictability.

In ‘The council of sustainable uncertainty ’ Remi Opalinski addresses the relationship we have with data and how we use it to build our arguments. Criticizing, on the way, the human propensity to overestimate its ability to solve future problems [5].

Above all, he is offering an original and poetic way to visualize abstract environmental data. In his artwork we can observe eight wind turbines whose speeds are triggered by air pollution data or weather alerts. While in the middle of the scene papers are generated by data creating a perpetual movement, the logic of data collection omnipresent in our societies in order to form models and predictions leaves little room for chance, yet we do not know how data are collected and used.

UBD — Useless or Boring then Disappear

Lucie Houel’s artist statement

“Nothing is as cryptic as a void”

A void, Georges Perec

‘UBD — Useless or Boring then Disappear ’ extends the concept of obsolescence to the human, in the machine’s world, the one who becomes outdated is erased. Through this process of transposition, the installation re-creates the vivid feeling of frustration and helplessness that one can feel facing the disappearance of digital and analog content. What trace is left of what once existed?

Most of us have probably already experienced the loss of digital memories: movies, texts, pictures… These data are immaterial and thus dependent on their supporting technology. However, the supports are aging, evolving with software and hardware updates. If we don’t continuously maintain and port the content, it slowly becomes unreadable or degraded. That’s part of the obsolescence process.

With more and more artists using digital, this phenomenon is also a concern within the art domain [6], [7]. Museums are starting to mobilize to preserve artistic patrimony creating research groups and blogs such as ARTOBS. In parallel, public initiatives like Rhizome are launched to collect and maintain digital pieces.

Lucie Houel’s work talks about the disappearance of data and the frustration of having to choose what is preserved. It uses digital art to reflect on its limitations.

‘UBD — Useless or Boring then Disappear ’ is an installation mirroring the scene, the spectators are facing the projection of themselves. It might look boring at first until something starts to happen: a glitch, and progressively many more of them. But only one spectator is being glitched. Why is this person affected, who decided? The glitching process intensifies until the total disappearance of the person. This phenomenon is repeated as different spectators come and go.

It feels like the machine is the one who decides who disappears, and we cannot help but feel frustrated when we are removed from the scene.

But if you pay attention, you may observe traces of previously erased spectators, reappearing during the glitching process. That’s what is left of them, traces.

AM.01

Romain Talou’s artist statement

“When the physical experiential relationship to a work of art is disrupted in this suspended time, how can we create a human bond between in situ and extramuros? AM.01 is a social experience that questions emotional daily feelings from a group of people who in the past were gathered together.

By adopting the sound aesthetics and the communication network architecture of a late 70’s answering machine, this project expresses the discussion between sender and receiver through a sound experience. At the time these lines are written, and as long as social distancing is imposed on us, AM.01 invites fellow workers to give their voice to what they expect, hope, or fear for the future, to question the landing after this suspended time.

And then what? This X-months experience will then lead to a sound time capsule which will offer us a glance, or rather a listening on the past, lived collectively and without physical distance.”

The digital is definitely a big portion of our life today. We buy online, discuss, connect with others and willingly share some of our most personal thoughts and fears. Those data form an interesting new kind of material for artists and media to work with. IMPAKT uses Google Forms to make people reflect on their internet habits, gathering the results within the web project “Disrupt and Reflect”. Usbek & Rika is an innovative online Media collecting “SOS” shared by people to explore the future.

This type of personal reflection takes another dimension in challenging times as the pandemic we are living. In this context, Romain Talou shines the limelight on the people affected by it, in the same vein as the work “Future Voices” by The Society For Non-Trivial Pursuit.

The installation itself mimics a voicemail, giving it a visual appearance. One can leave a message from a dedicated webpage by answering a question related to the current context. This answer will be stored to be read when people are back to the physical meeting place. This can evoke a modern time capsule, working to save data as souvenirs.

Holotypes I,II & III

Valentin Calame’s artist statement

“Inspired by the current climate crises, Holotypes I, II & II lounges us into a hypothetical future, where samples of extinct plant species are preserved and displayed in a museum. This exposition room is sporadically transformed by your interference, revealing the artificial interventions of man under the aegis of these historical plant artifacts.

The memory emanating from these catalogues holotypes outcrops the traces of a past that continues to haunt the place. Holotypes I, II & III is a simulation of ecosystems born from the fusion of technology and organic matter, where past and future coexist in a perpetual tension of the present.”

The datafication of our society reflects our desire to control our environment, by calculating it, documenting it and preserving it. Some data will probably be more valuable for human life than others, and the need to develop a natural heritage brings essential questions to the table. What are the limits of the artificial versus the natural? How far is humanity willing to go before it imagines its own end? This anticipated anthropocene scenario is not about triggering an alarm but more a reflection on humanity’s god complex.

When experiencing ‘Holotypes I,II & III’, you face a digital replication of three different tree species. They are presented in a favorable environment for their growth and conservation. But be careful not to cross the line, you might be surprised. Each step the visitor makes towards the artifices will reveal stages of preservation of this past heritage. If you finally cross the authorized museum line, the true nature of these data is revealed. Valentin Calame plays interactively with the notion of culture and nature, inspired by the reflection on the work of Michel Foucault [8], and creates some distance with the topic through dystopian design intentions.

And now what?

Visual representations in scientific practices seek to develop our conceptual understanding of our environment. Artistic approaches create original ways to add an emotional aspect to this understanding. Our hypothesis at EPFL+ECAL Lab, is that dealing with these two realms of study, artistic and scientific, in a holistic way, will bring many more avenues to explore. And so far, our five propositions went in unusual directions. We produced diverse and highly subjective research concepts using the same dedicated tool.

Through our personal exploration of digital technologies — such as image recognition, modelization, or remote connectivity — we implemented different interpretations of our environment and the specific pandemic context. In many of our works, absence is a predominant theme: absence of sense when considering ecological data we have access to, absence of transparency when being filmed… and if we mainly highlighted this context, some of us felt impelled to find solutions by preserving the matter that will soon be missing or filling the void that already exists.

However, our main observation remains the gap that exists between the amount of data we share (willingly or not), we save and we lose and the understanding we have of it. Unlike pure scientific or technological approaches, which ought to remain objective, art has the liberty to play on an emotional, sensitive and personal level. In this way, it could help us reconnect to our personal data.

In general, we can not stress enough the importance of considering using a variety of mediums (sound, haptic) to grasp the complexity of these phenomenons and create adapted visualization systems. And we have only scratched the surface of what we perceive to be a huge domain of research.

These experimentations are anchored as personal interpretations but can be considered as a first milestone. Opening up technological tools, scientific discourses and research experimentation will certainly foster a better dialogue between art and technology research. It will hopefully bring innovative tools to apprehend our data; it is time to start making sense of them.

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Article written collaboratively by Lucie Houel and Rémi Opalinski

References

[1] J. Kastrenakes, « Beeple sold an NFT for $69 million », The Verge, mars 11, 2021. https://www.theverge.com/2021/3/11/22325054/beeple-christies-nft-sale-cost-everydays-69-million (consulté le avr. 23, 2021).

[2] « Is artificial intelligence set to become art’s next medium? | Christie’s ». https://www.christies.com/features/A-collaboration-between-two-artists-one-human-one-a-machine-9332-1.aspx (consulté le avr. 23, 2021).

[3] « Facial recognition is now rampant. The implications for our freedom are chilling | Stephanie Hare », the Guardian, août 18, 2019. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/aug/18/facial-recognition-is-now-rampant-implications-for-our-freedom-are-chilling (consulté le avr. 23, 2021).

[4] TouchDesigner is a node based visual programming language for real time interactive multimedia content, developed by the Toronto-based company Derivative. It’s been used by artists, programmers, creative coders, software designers, and performers to create performances, installations, and fixed media works.

[5] T. Sharot, « The optimism bias », Current Biology, vol. 21, no 23, p. R941‑R945, déc. 2011, doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.10.030.

[6] L. García and P. Montero Vilar, ‘THE CHALLENGES OF DIGITAL ART PRESERVATION’, E-Conserv., pp. 43–53, May 2010.

[7] ‘Preserving digital art: How will it survive?’, Google, May 30, 2017. https://blog.google/around-the-globe/google-europe/preserving-digital-art/ (accessed Apr. 14, 2021)

[8] L. McWhorter, « Culture or Nature? The Function of the Term `Body’ in the Work of Michel Foucault », The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 86, no 11, p. 608‑614, 1989.

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