Everyone is talking about big data these days. From self-monitoring and stock markets to social networks and surveillance scandals - data is everywhere. No wonder that it's taking on new expression in contemporary art.
Jonathan Harris' 2006 WeFeelFine.org project was perhaps the first big data art experiment to leave a serious dent in the increasingly digitalized public arena. By feeding large sets of data from status updates from around the web to a computer, Harris created real-time visualizations of the collective mood of the Internet, giving big data a wonderfully tangible mien.
The ingenuity and elegance of Harris' approach opened many people's eyes to the beauty of big data and paved the way for a whole new upsurge of data-inspired artistic talent.
Finding relatable meaning in vast data sets and torrents of clustered information, like statistics or tweets, plays an important role in understanding the world around us - and therefore also in art, says Peter Christmann, media entrepreneur and initiator of the Big Data Art 2013 exhibition on show in Munich through November 28.
"Big data is part of our lives whether we like it or not. We all leave behind digital footprints and you cannot opt out any longer. There is no right to be forgotten," he told DW at the opening night of the exhibition at the Kreativ-Loft gallery. "But most people don't have a real relationship with the data they generate. The imagery surrounding big data is limited to photographs of Edward Snowden, Angela Merkel and the NSA. Turning our data into art can help give big data a new purpose."
Co-curator Sandra Marsch of the MUNIKAT gallery explained that she works with the themes that are currently moving people. "Right now data is having an enormous impact on our lives," she said. "We see how people form strong opinions about data issues, and for artists this is fascinating.
"It's reality, and reality needs interpretation," added Marsch.
Politics and pressing questions
The reality of big data, however, is today very much a political one. Lingering in the background of the big data revolution are increased concerns over privacy and, in particular, surveillance. The question is whether big data can indeed liberate itself from this stigma and offer something that is politically unspoiled.
"It makes no sense to talk about data without politics," insisted Dirk Krecker, one of the around 15 artists on display at the Kreativ-Loft.
Krecker uses selected words and types them repeatedly onto large canvasses using an old-fashioned typewriter until an image appears from the monotonous ink stamps. The result is a sort of mosaic of letters, which bears a resemblance to printed source codes or data sets. By manually re-creating these repetitive patterns, Krecker turns the notion of automation up side down.
"Just like art, big data needs context to make sense," he said. "And often that context is political. You cannot separate the two in a meaningful way."
The art duo APNOA has taken this premise and brought it to the very heart of their installations. One of their three pieces on display is made up of a number of asymmetrically spanned strings that flash fluorescent light in real-time every time someone tweets one of 377 NSA trigger words and phrases. The strings are intentionally disrupting the viewer's way through the room to highlight the interruption of privacy and surveillance, the artists explain.
"Essentially, big data is about power," says Sebastian Drack. He and his partner Tobias Feldmeier talk with a firm conviction that shows that the topic is indeed provoking strong sentiments in both the young men.
"There is no line between what's private and what corporations and governments want to know about us," said Feldmeier. "So our lines are deliberately hard to avoid. It's a way of telling people that they should pay attention."
Ray Moore is an American artist based in Munich. His works are political, too, although he says his efforts "aren't limited to big data." His contribution consists of a gun, two paintings and a star-spangled pillow to kneel on in front of a screen on the floor displaying religious scripts. His aim is to kindle a debate on how freedom interplays with security, playing on the time-honored American themes of religion and gun violence.
It is a statement that's as political as they get. And its message very much applies to the debate on big data and privacy, he claims.
"I wish people would do good with data," said Moore. "But we live in times where money and big interests rule the world. They talk about security, but the price is freedom. There is little room for anyone who wishes to make a stand against authority and commercialism. Big data is a part of that."
Harris' visualizations of the web's mood swings were greeted as equal parts techno-anthropological observation and upbeat artistic commentary. It was novel and enlightening, but the response and critique was largely apolitical. Maybe because it was created at the heyday of data enthusiasm, back when the opportunities still overshadowed the skepticism found today.
For the artists and public seeking sense in big data on a cold November night in Munich anno 2013, this suddenly seems like a long time ago.