On Data and Performance

Data live utilitarian lives. From the moment they are conceived, as measurements of some thing or system or person, they are conscripted to the cause of being useful. They are fed into algorithms, clustered and merged, mapped and reduced. They are graphed and charted, plotted and visualized. A rare datum might find itself turned into sound, or, more seldom, manifested as a physical object. Always, though, the measure of the life of data is in its utility. Data that are collected but not used are condemned to a quiet life in a database. They dwell in obscure tables, are quickly discarded, or worse (cue violin) – labelled as ‘exhaust’.

Perhaps this isn’t the only role for a datum? To be operated on? To be useful?

Over the last couple of years, with my collaborators Ben Rubin & Mark Hansen, we’ve been investigating the possibility of using data as a medium for performance. Here, data becomes the script, or the score, and in turn technologies that we typically think of as tools become instruments, and in some cases performers.

The most recent manifestation of these explorations is a performance called A Thousand Exhausted Things, which we recently staged at The Museum of Modern Art, with the experimental theater group Elevator Repair Service. In this performance, the script is MoMA’s collections database, an eighty year-old, 120k object strong archive. The instruments are a variety of custom-written natural language processing algorithms, which are used to turn the text of the database (largely the titles of artworks) into a performable form.

The first version of the performance itself is 15 minutes long. During this entire period, all of the dialogue that is spoken by the actors is either a complete title of an artwork, or a name of an artist. A data visualization, projected above the performers, shows the objects as abstracted forms as each artwork is mentioned:

By using such a non-conventional form to engage with the collections database, we’re asking the audience to think of the database as not just a myriad of rows and columns, but as a cultural artifact. The collection is shown as not only a record of the museum’s history, but of changing trends in contemporary art. It also allows a way for the artworks themselves to engage with one and other in a fashion which is outside the usual curatorial limitations.

These are the first nineteen lines of the performance:

Gainsboro’ Girl
“Young Girl, Back Turned”
Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier)
Interior with a Young Girl (Girl Reading)
“Head and Bust of a Woman, Three-Quarters to Left”
Head of a Sleeping Woman (Study for Nude with Drapery)
Sleeping Girl
Young Girl with Braids
Young Girl with Long Hair
“Fran̤oise with Long Neck. I, IV”
Tableau I: Lozenge with Four Lines and Gray
Spanish Girl
Another Girl Another Planet
Designs for an Overpopulated Planet: Foragers

Here we’re used an algorithm which seeks to build a ‘chain’ of like-sounding titles from the database. The algorithm attempts to make the chain longer and longer, until it can’t find a suitable title, in which case it returns to the seed word (in this case ‘Girl’). It’s a linguistic game, but it serves to curate a selection of works which may not normally be placed side by side. Jacques Villon’s 1908 etching ‘Young Girl, Back Turned‘ leads us to Picasso’s ‘Girl with a Mandolin (Fanny Tellier)‘, from 1910. John Candelero’s photograph ‘Spanish Girl‘ calls out Michael Almereda’s film ‘Another Girl Another Planet‘.

Perhaps the most exciting part about performance as a medium for data is that it allows for a fluid interpretation at the time of the performance itself. In this case, the skilled actors of Elevator Repair Service turn a dry algorithmic output into a wry dialogue of one-upmanship, allowing the artworks themselves to become pieces in an imagined language game. The possibilities for interpretation are magnified as the relationship moves from data => viewer to data => performer => viewer.

Later in A Thousand Exhausted Things an actor reads, in order, the most frequently occurring first names of artists in the MoMA collection (you can watch the video below). The first 41 of them are men’s names. John leads to Robert and David, through Max and Otto, all the way to Bruce & Carl before we hear from our first woman (Mary). While you might be able to imagine a data visualization which would show this gender imbalance more clearly (some would probably argue for a simple list), it’s difficult to conceive of a print or screen-based form delivering the message with similar impact.

We are not the only ones who are exploring the possibilities of data and performance. Providence based artist Brian House has composed and performed several musical works based on data, including ‘YOU’LL JUST HAVE TO TAKE MY WORD FOR IT‘, a piece for a small ensemble (two electric guitars and a tenor saxophone) which interprets black box data from Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray’s infamous car crash. Sculptor Nathalie Miebach’s ‘sculptural musical scores‘ are physical objects, representing weather data, which are meant to be performed by musicians (other pieces by Miebach are designed to be mounted to the body). In House’s and in Miebach’s work, we see data breaking out of its accepted formal restrictions.  By forcing us out of our usual framework, this work offers a new lens into event and experience, vastly different from what we would expect in a so called ‘data representation’.

As data exerts more and more influence on our lived experience, it is important that artists find ways to work with it outside of decades-old visual means like charts and graphs. Performance provides rich terrain for engagement with data, and perhaps allows for a new paradigm in which data are not as much operated on as they are allowed to operate on us.

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