Data Art, an emerging art movement that is original and innovative, uses data and generative technologies to create relevant reflections on life in the 21st century. From the data they generate, I create individual, family, group, and company portraits – animated abstractions of these data. To do so, I combine psychology, data mining, programming, and audio/video editing.
Data Art and Patterns
I have spent my life creating innovations that disrupt stagnation. The decision to use data as an art medium is a continuation of that project. My process begins with the search for intriguing human data, which I then mine for patterns and outliers that excite my aesthetic sensibilities. Using generative software I transform the chosen data into visuals, setting up subtle parameters, layers, and trajectories that serve my conceptual goals. Once my algorithms are applied the data take charge of the animation, color choices, camera angles, perspectives, and more. As the artist I choose the conceptual play, but the data are the actors freely interpreting and performing. The art prints cut from my videos capture catalytic instances; they are meant to stimulate curiosity about the action that created them.
Roland Barthes, a French literary theorist, philosopher, linguist, critic, and semiotician- what is an image?: Barthes says, referring to photography, that the language of the image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted, it is also the totality of utterances received. The patterns that emerge from my videos are placed there by the data and to a lesser extent programming, but the artwork would be incomplete were it not for the patterns created by the viewers. This is an augmentation of ‘what is received’ as it is an additional layer of art created by the viewer’s patterns.
The human brain is hardwired to find patterns and meaning in all things, and my artwork communicates directly to those instincts. Though we are viewing the same underlying data and the truths it contains, we will each find patterns that reflect our own interests and experiences. In addition, my patented algorithms find patterns in the data that are not discoverable by humans, and these data arrangements are also used in the artwork.
In my artwork, one can see that the data and their sources are important. Using a collector’s own data, I create animations of the patterns in these data, revealing outliers that do not fit existing forms, and then I expose larger patterns that incorporate these anomalies. Viewers instinctively find their own patterns in this data-driven art, comparing and contrasting what they know about the source against their own interpretations of the abstract imagery. Viewers of this artwork also create their own outliers, which lead to new patterns, and thereby create new ways to enlarge their own view of themselves and others.
Human search for order: In the modern world that seems so disordered we humans are always driven to reach for order. This theme plays heavily in my artwork as I go from order to chaos and sometimes back to order. One of the problems I see with our being hard-wired for story is the patterns that we make in order to understand our world are also the very patterns that bind us to a limited ways of seeing it. I am exploring ways for my art to bring in the outlier data that do not fit the patterns. These data can be part of new patterns, new ways of understanding our world.
Sentience of Data
What do images want?: W.J.T. Mitchell, the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago, says images are not just what they mean or what they do, but what is the secret of their vitality – what do they want? I ask what do my images want and also what do these data want. This question of what data want will be discussed later when I talk about the sentience of data. Data want to show their sentience.
What is beginning to emerge in this new art form is a synthesis of humans and machines that allows us to move beyond the dualism of subconscious and conscious, of order and chaos, to a new synthesis and clarity of who we are as complete people.
I augment my skills and aesthetics with human data as a tool to help generate colors, shapes, perspectives, and camera angles. Pressing data to extremes with powerful computers and software can reveal a sentience in the data. Computers can show us who we are as they sort, merge, split, and order our data into previously unknown patterns.
Through all my various careers, including the current one as a data artist, I noticed that data can describe itself through various visual forms and sounds made from the data. In this sense I describe data as being sentient. Another level of data sentience is what W.J.T. Mitchell talks about with images wanting something from the viewer. In this same manner I can say that one’s data wants something from its owner. This want is part of what I try to bring out when creating a data portrait for a collector. Data has always had a way of seeing its world and ‘talking’ to me about it. I am trying visualize for others the sentience I see and feel in the data.
Data as Art project: I am collaborating with Paul Golding who is creating a data as art project which has philosophical underpinnings that point to David Deutsch, artificial intelligence, data as metaphor, theories about the origins of the universe, and others. One of Paul’s ideas out of David’s Constructor theory would suggest that aesthetics is not a subjective quality. This has implications for an objective set of algorithms and/or data that could not only represent, but also, augment human aesthetics.
Collaborating with Data
This is an interview by Julia Morton for an international video art distribution channel.
How do you conceive of a piece when the data’s expression is unknown?
By wondering what the data will look like. I begin with curiosity. Then I mine it, creating images until I have a strong emotional response – it can be positive or disturbing, but the feeling must unsettle my expectations. The visual output has a certain randomness to it because the data is what it is, so I don’t entirely control the outcome and that adds adventure to the art making process. The finished piece is a kind of wrestled collaboration between my intentions and the data’s unpredictable expression of its reality.
Why do you choose the data you work with?
I want to take something – data – that people are really comfortable with and then mess with it till it’s alien. I want the work to feel familiar and alien. A synthesis of the antithesis is what I’m after. I don’t think about making “art” I think about exploring what the data reveals about itself and us by extension.
What has surprised you most about working with data?
Data is culturally neutral. When I allow the data to choose the colors, for example, it does it without preconceived notions of good or bad. Its neutrality allows us to escape from and expand our cultural bias. Technology began as just a tool, but it’s become a partner in aesthetic exploration. I am also surprised by how painterly and sensual the data is and by its sentience.
Culture versus Nature, Human versus Machine
Roland Barthes: – culture versus nature: Barthes says the meaning of an image is torn between the system of culture and the system of nature.
What it means to be human: One of the first series of videos I did was those driven by the data of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC). CERN and I have similar goals in that we are trying to discover the data of life and the place of humans in the universe. My LHC artwork starts with the analysis of a small bit of CERN data and ends with a complex visual abstraction of these data.
The data were generated by a controlled collision of particles inside the LHC. These experiments “operate at the very boundaries of scientific knowledge” and produce Muons a high-energy, unstable subatomic particle. The resulting data are studied to gain a better understanding of the ordinary matter of which we, and everything we know are made. The particles created by the LHC (above) are torn between the reality of the data created and our observations and discussions of the particles based on our cultural understandings and myths of our human place in the universe. The images created by the data in my videos have a natural existence and are shaped by my own background. I attempt to show the relationships among these data and their role in shaping human existence.
Affective lens: Maryhelen Murray writes about seeing images through an “affect lens” that is an emotional response layer through which images are viewed. My emotional response to the patterns in the data are a large part of my artwork and a lens through which I build the work. As I build my own patterns on top of the actual patterns in the data, and my viewers layer their own patterns, their patterns point to their affect lenses.
My own take on the culture versus nature and human versus machine controversies is to create artwork that evokes cultural pattern making from the nature of the data that is reality and to use the machine to augment my own aesthetic. The viewers of my work bring their own cultural pattern overlays to the patterns that already exist in the data. The computer is my tool for augmenting the aesthetic of the data and patterns.
Communication: Russell W. Zears, former NASA scientist, talks about art relying on communication via symbols that both the sender and receiver share as a common referent, usually a well-defined set of objects or situations that many people have agreed have a certain meaning. He further states that we find that when our current symbols do not adequately express our meaning, we “borrow” from the artist his interpretation and standardize it and make it our own. In this way art serves as the adventure by which humanity expands its shared ability to understand and communicate.
“Pricer’s data mining finds visualizations of meaning buried in the data, providing new imagery for expressing that meaning. Where that meaning has not been previously fully expressed, he provides a new potential symbol, and when others can relate to it as his intended, there is added the collective ability to communicate that meaning.”
To develop my data art, I begin by extracting data from personal sources, such as mobile phones, DNA, web logs, activity logs, health monitors, government or company data.
These data are loaded into a database where I perform various statistical analyses in order to get a sense of the data, their size, averages, variances, minimum and maximum values, etc. Next, I perform data mining to discover patterns in the data. Some of the data mining is very simple, just a small extension of the statistics. In contrast, some of the data mining involves inventing complex pattern recognition algorithms. The resulting patterns are used as parameters for algorithms in visualization software.
These mined data are read into a graphics processing language. The first pass of the data are read into some simple algorithms just to get an idea of what the data look like graphically. More complex algorithms are developed as the data create colors, shapes, screen locations, and camera angles. I do program graphical shapes and animation, but ultimately, the work is driven by the data of human life. The final step in the programming is to create a movie from the individual video frames.
I add an audio component to complement and create further forms for the animation. Sometimes I create sound patterns to augment the visual patterns. Other times I use music from collaborators.
Some of my work uses the video as final assembly and some of it relies heavily on video effects that can be done in software such as After Effects and Final Cut Pro. I am not dogmatic about this. I do not care what the percentage is. It is all about what I need to do to first, communicate the sentience of the data, and two, create an aesthetic that fits my vision. I try to not get tied up in the purist view. I am all about using a computer to enhance my own and my viewer’s aesthetic. As we approach The Singularity, I do not make the machine/human distinctions that other artists do.
The work naturally appeals to intrepid collectors as well as cutting-edge technologists who are ready to leave their aesthetic mark on contemporary culture. My artwork cuts a new path in data driven, computational, and generative art at the intersection of the human and the machine.
My academic background was in clinical psychology, philosophy, mergers and acquisitions, and international business.
I have worked as a Data Architect, Data Miner, Data Scientist, and Data Artist – my job was to invent pattern recognition data architectures and algorithms for private and government clients. I have analyzed human behavior in all its forms from shopping habits to terrorists communications. The data have come from marketing, finance, weblogs, and many other sources. I looked for patterns in human behavior, from data rich sources such as crimes, purchases, self tracking, DNA, web activity, and many others.
Although steeped in data architectures and algorithms, Data Science requires as much art as science. As a Data Artist, I use data architectures and algorithms to create abstractions of data that bring them to life.
Patents and Awards
- Award for innovative treatment for autistic and schizophrenic adolescents as Director, Intensive Care Unit, psychiatric facility.
- Invented real-time mergers and acquisition process and software.
- Teradata R&D Eureka Award for data architecture invention.
- Six patents for data mining big data methods.
- Google Big Data Hadoop and MapReduce based on 1st patent
- 150+ patents listing above patents as prior art.
- Commissioned fMRI portrait to be part of an experimental film for the Bronx Biennial.
Interviews and Podcasts
I train and condition horses at the Healing with Horses Ranch.
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