12-01-2012 mag 6 /


Art in the age of data visualization


In the up and coming trend of data visualization it’s not all about the numbers, it’s also about art.

In the up and coming trend of data visualization it’s not all about the numbers, it’s also about art.

Brightly lit building windows were beaming from the screen during the workshop of Born Digital in Theater Kikker. Above the buildings the colors continued in straight lines into the air. This, one of the programmers said, was interesting to him. The rest of the picture, the shapes of the buildings and their windows were just noise to him. They were not relevant to the way he wanted to use the picture to visualize data. In what way does this data visualization change the way we see a picture?

 In the workshop of Utrecht collective Born Digital in cooperation with Mercedes Bunz, on November 3rd, a group of programmers gathered to discuss the potentials of data visualization. Data can be visualized in many different ways, including, as Heinze, one of the programmers pointedout, based on a colorful illustrations. The illustration he used was a design made for printing on t-shirts, and was now used to visualize statistics. To the untrained eye this image could be interesting from an aesthetic point of view. The image as a whole made a compelling composition of what looked like a city by night. The image Heinze selected as an example to make a point about data visualization showed only the building windows on a black background. Above it there were straight lines, some segmented and others uninterrupted, all in different colors. The lines above the buildings looked like the result of the buildings being quickly pulled down, leaving the illusion of lines in the air. The programmers however, only looked at a part of this total image, and dismissed all but the colored lines from the picture. In terms of aesthetics, data visualisation has a fundamental problem: it must orientate its viewer. Therefore it needs to  exclude all non-functional parts of an image, and is therefore perfectly fit for data visualisation. But what will become of the art?
In the workshop, the programmers spoke about different programs they used to visualize data. Around two square tables, all behind their own laptop, they walked through different programs as if they took a walk through the park. On the big screen in front of them different functions and codes were interconnected to represent a turning globe among other visualizations. What everyone seemed to understand was that the visualizations should be functional, and easily accessible. This became a problem in Heinze’s talk on the buildings, because to make his aesthetically attractive image understandable, he would have to alter it radically.

There were too any things going on at once. The different lengths, colors and ways of segmentation in the picture would lead to an ambiguity in interpretation, and distract from the data. Among the programmers in the workshop there was a consensus, that an attractive image had to be reinterpreted to also be a useful visualization. This idea changes our view on a particular work of art. It is a view that focuses on the potentiality of an image, in which the original intentions of the artist are of no interest. ‘The death of the author’ in the hands of data visualization. The ‘visual noise’ has to be stripped from the image to create new meaning. As long as the image connects to the data that it will visualize, this could lead to a deeper understanding of what used to be raw data, just numbers or facts. But what happens to the artistic aspect of the image?

With the right ways of using programs to visualize data, the possibilities are many, and could also be artistically interesting. If an artwork inspired the programmer in his work, this is reflected in its result. The artistic part of de data visualization chart is in this case not only a style of visualization, but can be seen in its own right, art and data as two intertwined but independent factors. This workshop shed a light on new ways of data visualization, which are not just about data, but also about art. I like where this is going.