How art found the cure for data numbness

The digital revolution set a lot of things in motion. But we are not only talking about practical things like smart cites, self-driving cars, digital glasses and the internet of things. The new ways in which we collect and connect lots of data even affect the way we make art. And art can, in return, change the way we perceive data. It´s safe to say that big data has arrived at the art world.

If we talk about big data we mean vast amounts of data (volume), various data sources (variety) and the high speed at which we gather our information (velocity). In the future big data will be immensely helpful in our daily lives. The only problem is that humans suffer from a rarely known condition called number numbness (as defined by the American physicist Douglas Hofstadter): we are not able to comprehend the reality of large numbers. Similarly, we suffer from data numbness. Vast amounts of data just have no meaning to us. We need art – sculptures, music, visualization – to understand what data is really about.

Data is beautiful

big data, art, hurricane

A sculpture of hurricane Noel made of weather data by Nathalie Miebach.Data is beautiful

The artist Nathalie Miebach collects various data from storms – like barametric pressure, wind direction, humidity or temperature – and translates the meteorological data into musical notes. Want to hear what a hurricane sounds like? Listen to her 4 minute talk. (It’s worth it!) Also, she translates meteorological data into sculptures to visualize the structure of weather conditions. This way you can experience a meteorological phenomenon within human parameters like sculpture and music – through the data you gather about it.

Data journalist David McCandless found a way to deal with information overflow by visualization. “By visualizing this information we turn it into a landscape that you can explore with your eyes, a kind of map.”, says McCandless. In his talk he shows the landscape of the worlds fears, debts and breakups. Data isn’t the new oil, but the new soil – a solid ground we can build on.

In his talk, data artist Aaron Koblin describes how data enables us to tell amazing stories that we couldn’t otherwise tell. That’s because data can make us see things we wouldn’t normally be able to see from our limited human point of view. Through his interactive visualizatiosn we can see what is going on in the sky above us or what  our digital communication looks like.

Data is the new soil

Golan Levin is an artist-engineer and started making art for the iPhone – because nobody else’s did. According to him the artists job is to explore the expressive potential of the new tools that we have – like computers, smartphones or robotics. Like Miebach Golan translates data and new technologies into another language to make it more accessible. One of his projects is to translate speech data into shapes.

Digital researcher Frederic Kaplan wants to create a “google maps of the past” that enables us to see any given place at any given time. By digitalizing historical data he creates a digital map of the information available about a specific place over a long period of time. Kaplan calls his project time travel from an informational point of view.

All these projects make huge amounts of data accessible to the human mind. While we are still in the middle of the digital revolution new strategies emerge to deal with the digital world that surrounds us. Art made from data is one of them.

For more information check out the TED playlist “Art made of data”.

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Header image credits royalty free

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About Verena Ehrnberger

Verena works as a data privacy legal expert and studies philosophy at the University of Vienna. Always juggling multiple projects, she is seriously addicted to coffee.

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