Category Archives: Event

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.

Calgary to Newcastle

Jer on stage

I’ve spent the last 8 weeks or so traveling around, doing a lot of speaking and teaching. Below is an overview of some of the places I’ve been and things I’ve been doing.

First stop was the Alberta College of Art and Design, where Adam Tindale arranged for me to teach a workshop on Processing. Adam has a good thing going in Alberta – his students were great, and despite it being at the very end of the term we had a good turn out and I think people learned a lot. While I was there, I had the chance to see Adam perform live, which was a definite highlight – he mixed generative music with sets of abstract geometric forms live-coded in Processing.

I left Alberta and headed east for FITC in Toronto, where I gave a presentation titled ‘Hacking the Newsroom’. I also had the opportunity to sit on a panel organized by Tali Krakowsky, called ‘Storytelling: Absorbed, Obsessed, and Immersed’. I was humbled to be included in this group with John Underkoffler, Alex McDowell and Ben Kreukniet. You can read a good overview of the panel and our discussions here.

From Toronto, to Prague, where I was part of Transistor 2010, an event themed on digital archival run by a Czech new media organization called CIANT. The event was hosted at Prague’s famous FAMU school – many thanks to Eric Rosenzveig who invited me to take part and to Barbora and the staff at CIANT for taking care of me!

MultiMania is a free one-day conference that is organized in Kortrijk, Belgium by the lovely and talented Koen de Wegghelaire. Yes, you read that right – free. Not only that, it’s a huge event, held in a sparkling new conference centre, and packed with excellent presenters. I was really, really impressed. Again, I talked about data visualization, with a focus on some of the projects I have done with the NYTimes APIs.

Those of you who have read my blog for any period of time will know that I am a big fan of Daniel Shiffman, who teaches at New York’s ITP. Daniel’s book, Learning Processing, is not only the best Processing text out there, it’s the best ‘learning to program’ book that I have ever encountered. I was thrilled, then, to be asked last minute to join Daniel for a ‘Processing Salon’ in Amsterdam, at Mediamatic. The event turned out to be very popular – 160+ people crowded into the space to hear the two of us talk about our work in Processing. This was the first – and probably only – time I’ve spoken in a space where a plywood bike track snaked its way through the crowd!

Finally, I made it to Newcastle last week for Thinking Digital. Thinking Digital is a three-day event held at The Sage Gateshead, a very distinctive building just across the equally distinctive Millenium Bridge from Newcastle. Thinking Digital is loosely styled after events like TED and PopTech, bringing together speakers from a variety of disciplines – the TDC10 lineup included an origami expert, a mathematician, a comedian, along with the usual mix of ‘social media experts’ and ‘branding experts’. It was a really solid event – organizers looking for a model of a well-run conference should look to Herb Kim and his Codeworks team.

I am in the process of getting the three (four?) versions of my presentation up on SlideShare. In the meantime, if you attended any of these events and have questions or feedback, please feel free to leave a comment or to get in touch via e-mail.

My whirlwind of speaking behind me, I’ll be spending another week in the UK before heading back to North America for FlashBelt. I’ll be in London from the 9th to the 14th – if anyone fancies a pint while I’m there, let me know!

Flashbelt ’09 – Hacking the Newsroom Followup

On Wednesday I had the chance to talk at Flashbelt, a web media conference that I have been presenting at every year since 2004. I talked about data – how to get it, how to use it, and how & why it’s becoming more and more a part of our lives. I walked through some of the process behind my NYTimes API visualizations, my recent Wired UK NDNAD piece, and Just Landed.

I really enjoyed giving the presentation, and it was great to speak to a lot of interesting people at the conference before and after the talk. As promised, I’ve posted a .ZIP file with some simple Processing files to get you started exploring with the NYTimes ArticleSearch API – the link for that along with some other resources that I mentioned during the talk are listed below.

Some of you may be aware that this year’s Flashbelt conference ‘featured’ a controversial talk by Hoss Gifford. I’m not going to talk about my reactions in detail in this post as my intention here is to simply share some information related to my presentation. However, I will say that I believe that there is no room at all for content that is in any way demeaning to women at Flashbelt or at any other event. It’s inexcusable. I’m saddened that this happened – but was heartened this morning to read this very thoughtful response and call for discussion from conference organizer Dave Schroeder, along with some of the people who very rightly brought this issue to a public stage earlier in the week. It’s well worth a read.

Back to the resources. Here are a couple of images that I wanted to show in my presentation, but somehow forgot to include. The first is an abstract visualization of the word ‘organic’ in the NYTimes between 1981 and 2009. The second is a radial visualization of mentions of the Yankees & Mets in the same paper over the same period of time.

NYTimes: Going Organic 1981-2009

NYTimes Threads - Yankees vs. Mets

Finally, a list of links:

Please let me know if there’s anything I’ve missed. As always, I’d love to hear any feedback and suggestions from those who were in the audience. I’m already looking forward to next year!

Summer Creative Coding Workshops in Vancouver: Processing, Processing, Processing!

For years I have been teaching programming courses of various varieties at Langara College, as part of their Electronic Media Design program. The course I teach is great – I get to introduce programming to groups of designers over 14 weeks, starting with Processing and moving into ActionScript. The problem is, this course is only available as part of the full-time EMD program. I’ve always wanted to teach creative coding & Processing to a wider audience in Vancouver, but have never really had the venue.

Main room, 2005, looking down toward altar

Now, I do. Our studio and living space is a renovated mission church in Vancouver’s historic Strathcona neighbourhood. I think it will be the perfect place to teach to small groups, so I am going to do just that! As a test run this summer, I’ll be running a series of one-day workshops about Processing. If you have every wanted to get into creative coding, this is a perfect opportunity for you to learn how to use a computer program to build visual and multi-media projects. If you are already a programmer, but want to learn Processing as a prototyping tool, for tangible computing projects, or for data visualizaiton, we have workshops for you, as well.

Here is the schedule for the first few workshops:

  • Introduction to Processing – Saturday May 2nd, Saturday June 27th
  • Processing for Web Programmers – Sunday May 3rd, Sunday June 28th
  • Processing & Data Visualization – Dates TBA

Processing is an electronic sketchbook for developing ideas. Since its simple beginnings at the MIT Media Lab, it has emerged as an invaluable tool for media artists, designers, and programmers around the world. Processing is a friendly language for beginners – and at the same time a powerful tool for coders of all levels.

For prices, dates, and other information, or to book your place in a session, read the workshops page or get in touch with me.

Spring Speaking: Munich & Miami

I’ll be in good company at the TOCA ME Design Conference in Munich in March; other speakers for this one-day event include Joshua Davis, GMUNK, Joel Gethin Lewis and Strukt. The program combines a day of presentations, an exhibition of local and international artists, and of course a chance to meet and converse with a host of interesting people. I have heard nothing but great things about TOCA ME and I am very excited to be a part of this year’s event. TOCA ME Design Conference, Munich, 03.07.09

A month later, I’ll be heading down to Florida for this year’s warmest Flash conference – FOTB Miami. The average temperature in Miami in April is 76º, which certainly seems appealing given the chilly weather that has assailed North America lately. On top of the climate, Conference organizer extraordinaire John Davey has put together a great program for this 3 day event. I’d list the names here, but there are too many – check out the site for all of the details. The conference is an excellent value, and a rare chance for those of you in the Southern USA to get to a Flash conference without a lot of travel. Get your Early-bird tickets now, and your drinks-with-umbrellas-in-them in April! Flash on the Beach Miami, South Beach, 04-06.09-04.08.09