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Stone Soup, Anyone?

How “data” became the hidden ingredient propping up digital art

Alex Czetwertynski
Oct 9, 2018 · 5 min read
Credit: Pexels

here is an old folktale people tell their children. It’s called “Stone Soup.” It has many variants, but it goes roughly like this: A beggar arrives in a wealthy village and knocks on doors to ask for food. Nobody will give him anything, so the ingenious beggar comes up with a plan. At one last door, instead of asking for food, he offers to cook something very unique — stone soup. He says all it needs is water and a special stone. The homeowner is curious and agrees to it. Quickly, the beggar begins asking for additional ingredients to make the soup even better. Every single vegetable and meat eventually ends up in it, and the soup is, of course, delicious — although the proverbial stone had nothing to do with it.

Those who become interested in the use of data in art and design inevitably learn about the work of great designers, programmers, and artists like Edward Tufte, Ben Fry, and others. The news media almost unavoidably uses data visualization — “data viz” — as a tool to explain complex ideas that involve large numbers, shifts in time, vast geographical distributions, and the various correlations among them. Nicholas Feltron even popularized the idea of harvesting data to visualize your personal life.

In the world of art and design, data is treated as a magic ingredient that will spice up anything. It immediately smacks of relevance, hard facts, and visible connections to invisible layers of our world and coexistence.

As with any popular idea, “data as art” has produced mixed results. But there is one particular instance of this I want to focus on, and that is the use of data as a fake ingredient. What do I mean by “fake”? Often, data is mentioned in an artwork’s marketing materials but does nothing noticeable or meaningful to the work itself.

If the artwork is good, you won’t need to expose its attributes.

Some might ask: Why bother? Who cares if the data is used effectively?

We should care when the marketing of art lies about the art itself.

We see this with words like “interactivity” and “immersion.” People who market new media art activations dig a grave when they promise to “immerse you” in an “interactive environment” where you will be able to “be creative” with others. Artists who support this type of hypespeak distract from the quality of the work itself and send their audiences on a wild goose chase that inevitably ends in frustration. Why not just focus on the work?

This is a question I’ve often asked of the work of Refik Anadol. Since 2015, he has been producing large-scale particle animations that look quite pretty. In themselves, they are similar to works produced by talented motion designers such as Maxim Zhestkov. But Anadol claims to add the magic ingredient: “data.” The best example of this is his work called Virtual Depictions. Let’s look at this description of the work on the artist’s website:

Through architectural transformations of media wall located in 350 Mission’ lobby, main motivation with this seminal media architecture approach is to frame this experience with a meticulously abstract and cinematic site-specific data-driven narration. As a result, this media wall turns into a spectacular public event making direct and phantasmagorical connections to its surroundings through simultaneous juxtapositions.

This grandiose statement seems to create a powerful set of correlations between a city, its people, and its architecture. But looking at the animations, one sees a series of motion graphics tropes that only work in this case because they have been enlarged to architectural scale.

Similarly, in the piece Winds of Boston, the artist states:

Wind of Boston: Data Paintings is a site-specific work that turns the invisible patterns of wind in and around Boston into a series of poetic data paintings within a 6’ x 13’ digital canvas. By using a one-year data set collected from Boston Logan Airport, Refik Anadol Studios developed a series of custom software to read, analyze and visualize wind speed, direction, and gust patterns along with time and temperature at 20-second intervals throughout the year.

Despite the fact that ESI Design had used the same concept (wind analysis) in their installation at 177 Huntington Ave. (also in Boston), this seems like an interesting idea. But what we see in Anadol’s work are nice animations where the data brings so little that you wonder if it doesn’t serve as a fake premise to create something visually striking.

It’s even more apparent in his piece at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is supposed to “portray the troves of operational data” from the airport. But what does that mean? Do his animations actually create any kind of understanding of the data? Not really, but they do amount to a very large-scale display with animations that any motion graphics artist would be proud of.

To be clear, Anadol’s work is impressive in its scale, but where he disappoints is in using trendy motion-graphics techniques that hype up some mysterious data ingredient that doesn’t, in fact, result in viewer satisfaction. You are told the data is there, but you can move on if you don’t see it; it’s art.

ve always had huge respect for the work of United Visual Artists. Their work’s conceptual rigor is only matched by their aesthetic virtuosity. It is because of my admiration for them that I felt disappointed in their latest offering at A/D/O in New York this summer. Once again, we were promised a data-driven art piece, but the data was nowhere to be found (much less seen).

The installation consisted of a series of rotating golden-mirrored monoliths. They were enclosed in four walls — which rendered the claim that they were “mirroring the city” a bit dubious — and served as a perfect selfie playground. The work, titled Spirit of the City, could have been admired for its aesthetic qualities, but that was not what was on sale. The work of art promised to be tied to “data streams” from activity in the city, including traffic patterns or “amount of energy used” (by who? where?). It purported to rotate the columns based on incoming data. I saw the piece about 10 times, and I don’t think I ever saw the slightest speed difference in their rotation.

The problem here is poor marketing. In the case of UVA, a commercially commissioned piece can force the artists to introduce elements that help PR people make the offering sexier, but when artists do it deliberately to fool their audiences, the effect is much more pernicious. If the artwork is good, you won’t need to expose its attributes; the audience will pick them up. It’s only when the work lacks a strong internal structure that these marketing tricks are needed.

And the sad thing is that they seem to work. This is how the hungry beggar in the story of “Stone Soup” managed to eat to his heart’s content — at the expense of the naive audience entertained with the idea of a stone as the magic ingredient.

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