Article categories: Issue 79
March 19th, 2012

I have argued elsewhere (1) that the artist is among the few readily equipped to take up the potential offerings of new technologies and new media, and to use them in unexpected ways, bringing about otherwise unforeseen capacities that these technologies may offer.

In the contemporary world, and particularly regarding climate change and the turbulence it brings, the utter necessity of gaining a foothold in controlling the release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere can only be assisted by bringing the community to an awareness of the meaning of information contained in the flows of data consequent to monitoring the actual flows of materials.

Why do we treat the atmosphere that we all breathe, that sustains us in so many ways, as a dumping ground? And how can artists help relay the message?

The community’s attempts to render sustainable the things it produces, rather than leaving them thoughtlessly disposable, remain in a very early state. Drawing attention to the impacts of our behaviour might best be done through readily meaningful representation of the flows of data produced in monitoring these changes, causing this data to become publicly understandable information. It is at this point that artists can contribute from points of view that may well be difficult to access by others who are also looking at ways of mitigating climate effects.

One way in which this can be done is to make visible, and palpable, the feedback from our day-to-day, albeit unconscious, behaviour. This is the purpose of the proposed series of works that make up the Echology project. It is intended to echo back to us ecological information that arises from the data flow of monitoring our waste production, the impact of the weather, and the impacts of new forms of urban development. These forms of feedback are a kind of karma, in the sense that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction.

While my current interests lie in the old technologies – some of which will have been responsible for aspects of our current mess – it becomes important for all of us to recognise that the effects of what we do come back upon us. It is hard to see this when often those effects don’t produce recognisable changes in the proximal future, but take decades to impact on us in tangible ways. In the 1960s, the Club of Rome proposed that there were severe limits to our potential growth,(2)  now we are finally beginning to recognise some of them. We are seeing the weather change. Sydney had no summer this year. Queensland, NSW and as far south as Victoria felt the effects of the monsoon, effects that had previously almost never even reached Australia. Now we may see this every year.

The use of electronically generated or collected data has a fairly long history in contemporary art. In Australia in the early 1970s, the dancer Philippa Cullen used ‘theremin’ sensors that measured the proximity of her dancers’ bodies to the theremin antennas. The data from this proximity-sensing was then translated into sound through special interfaces, designed by Phil Connor and Greg Schiemer, for the analogue voltage-controlled synthesisers that Cullen used. In this collaborative practice, information on the positions and movements of the dancers within the performance space were transduced into sounds so that the dancers could actually play the instrument of which they were a part. The feedback was effectively instantaneous and thoroughly palpable.(3)

Another Australian artist who has used data-flow to generate his work is Jon McCormack. In his site specific installation, Wild (1994), at the National Gallery of Victoria, McCormack installed a Silicon Graphic Inc. (SGI) Reality Engine programmed to produce abstract three-dimensional images whose forms were generated by data interpreted from a video camera which captured the movements of passers-by, traffic and wind blown trees visible through the water curtain in the arch of the gallery’s entrance.(4)

In a sense then, these interactive artworks were electronic entities sensitive to their environments. The classic version of this, internationally, is Edward Ihnatowicz’s Senster (1969-70). A sixteen-foot articulated neck with a head mounted with acoustic and radar sensors, if you moved slowly or made quiet sounds the head approached you, but if you made loud aggressive noises or movements it backed away. It was in its own way a sensitive creature, reflecting data flow from its environment and representing this data in its own curious but shy manner.(5)

Information and data have their roots in the same event, namely, the production of a difference, whether this difference be in some strictly physical world, or whether it be in the epistemological or social worlds that we humans construct out of such distinctions. The act of producing a bit of data or information is the same, it is an act of differentiation, the result of something as simple as a shift in position or something as complex as human perception. Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale series of paintings (c.1959-1968) – each canvas slashed or punctured – opens up this notion of the mark as a differentiation. Each work demonstrates that any act of marking is an act of creating a distinction, producing data such that, in the larger scale and context in which the work is perceived and understood, it leads to information and meaning.

Much of this idea is theorised in Spencer Brown’s Laws of Form (1969), in which Brown says of a distinction, once it is drawn “the spaces, states, or contents on each side of the boundary, being distinct, can be indicated”.(6)   Thus data in art. Mitchell Whitelaw emphasises that we need to recognise a clear difference between the raw notion of data as differences (i.e., as ‘Shannon’ information or ‘bits’),(7)   and the human notions that are obtained through the perception and analysis of large bodies of data, and in this way given meaning or rendered sensible (i.e., ‘MacKay’ information).(8)   For Mitchell Whitelaw, art drawn from the data, or information, flows of contemporary new technologies “involves a creative grappling with the nature of our now ubiquitous data systems. It draws data out, makes it explicit, literally provides it with an image”, and renders it “a generative resource [for] a way of making”.(9)

Data flow can arise from any number of sources, whether it be that which provides meteorologists with the information they need to predict tomorrow’s weather and thus the height of a flood peak when the rains come. Whether it be data about migration and the flows of people across borders, or the flows of sources of economic value and knowledge, or disease and crime, that variously accompany these migrations. Whether it be data generated by seismic stations world-wide that report on earthquakes and other intense or slight shakings of the earth, and which are utilised in forensic nuclear monitoring – as outlined in this issue by D.V. Rogers in his description of his work with an earthquake simulator using a large shake table. Rogers argues for the need to produce “creative representations” of “the interconnectivity of information and … data”,(10) as means of bringing to public awareness some of the ecological consequences of our impact on the earth.

The computer has provided the data gathering and integration machine par excellence. Along with the nervous system provided to it by the internet, it can bring data from a multitude of sites and produce information which can then be shaped into multifarious representations. These tools give artists a vast new range of sources from which to generate new work and, especially now, public works on an urban scale.

As Pierre Proske notes “Data art is not about looking at data. It is about seeing through it”.(11) The artists writing in this issue of Filter propose ways of doing just that, and of making the results evident through being translated into forms both readable and accessible. They may use data flowing from such databases and statistical accretions as those held by the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics), ABARE (the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics), the Department of the Environment, the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific, Industrial and Research Organisation), or various energy utilities. Or data may be locally acquired, from sensors that allow a building to tell its occupants and passers-by information about its state of ‘health’, for example, in some of the work of Carbon Arts.(12)  Others are more directly biological. Julie Freeman is interested in representing the grace and beauty of biological processes through technological means. These range from small mechanical semi-automata through to large-scale public installation works that translate biological behaviours into “a digital landscape of sound and animation”.

The kinds of work discussed in this issue of Filter, and in the wider field of data representation, offer artists new opportunities to become involved in the development of feedback to the community on what goes on around the earth in the biosphere or in the atmosphere. Such information is generally not easy to see or read other than, say, the action and effects of a bush fire or flood. The slower, less obvious impacts are almost unrepresented, because they are commonly long-cycle or so ubiquitous as to have disappeared below the radar of public awareness. But it is these slower, less obvious, longer-term impacts that may have the greater effect. To be able to feed back to the community how its garbage impacts the cost of living or the production of greenhouse gases is something as yet little explored. The works to be developed for Echology will contribute to that awareness.

Dr. Stephen Jones

Dr. Stephen Jones is a Sydney-based video artist of long standing and now a curator working on the history of art and technology in Australia. His recent book on the first generation of the electronic arts in Australia Synthetics: Aspects of Art & Technology in Australia, 1956 – 1975 is published by MIT Press. Stephen originally trained in Systems Theory at the Australian National University (ANU) and his work uses the systems approach as its basis. He is an experienced electronic engineer having developed equipment ranging from analogue video synthesizers to DVD synchronizers, and builds interactive installation devices for artists. Stephen worked with pioneer organisations such as Bush Video (1974-5), the Paddington Video Access Centre (1976-978), as well as providing technical support for many major exhibitions. From 1983 to 1992 he was the video-maker for the electronic music band ‘Severed Heads’

(1)  Stephen Jones, Synthetics: Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, (2011).

(2)  Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers and William W. Behrens III (eds), The Limits To Growth: A Report for The Club Of Rome’s project on the predicament of mankind. London: Earth Island, A Potomac Associates Book, (1972).

(3)   Stephen Jones, “Philippa Cullen: Dancing the Music”, Leonardo Music Journal, vol.14, (2004), 64-73.

(4)   Annemarie Jonson, “Jon McCormack: Booting Fantasia,” Art & Text, no.56, 27-29.

(5)   Paul Brown, Charlie Gear, Nicholas Lambert and Catherine Mason (eds), White Heat, Cold Logic. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, (2008), chapters 8 & 9.

(6)  G. Spencer Brown, Laws of Form. London: George Allen and Unwin, (1969), 1.

(7)   C. Shannon and W. Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press (1949).

(8)  Donald M. MacKay, Information, Mechanism and Meaning. Cambridge, Mass.: The M.I.T. Press (1969).

(9)   Mitchell Whitelaw, “Art Against Information”, this volume.

(10)   D.V. Rogers, “Interpretations of Data from the Seismic Field,” this volume.

(11) Pierre Proske, “Data, Art and Sustainability”, this volume.

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