Category Archives: Exhibition

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.

Random Number Multiples

Random Number Multiples - RGB

About seven years ago, I had a bit of a career crisis. I was freelancing – working for clients I didn’t care much about on projects that I didn’t care much about, and feeling that there was a huge distance between the work that I was creating and my physical self. I was sick of computers, and was considering a range of (in hindsight) ridiculous vocational changes.

My rescue didn’t come from a new programming language, or a faster computer, or even better clients. It came, instead, from a return to the physical. I learned how to screenprint, and made rock posters for local bands, out of my living room. Every weekend, a friend and I would rack paper, pull squeegees, make an enormous mess – and escape from all of our pixel-based problems. We kept it up for a few years; after I moved into a larger, cleaner, less ink-friendly place I put my screens into storage. Even though I stopped printing, that time I spent screenprinting turned the rest of my career in a more creative direction.

Imagine how happy I was, then, to be asked by curator Christina Vassallo to be part of the inaugural edition of her Random Number Multiple series – a project that would produce screenprints from the work of computational artists and designers. Even better, this first edition would pair me with Marius Watz, an artist who has been a huge inspiration to me over the years, and whose work is exceptional in every way.

Marius and Christina and I spent three days at Bushwick Print Lab printing each of the 200 prints by hand. It was a fantastic experience, and the results, I think, speak for themselves. Marius’ prints are explosions of colour, vivid, dramatic pseudo-random that really capture the eye:

RN Multiples 5146 Marius Watz - Arcs04-01

I made two prints. Both are abstractions of my word frequency visualizations that I created using Processing and the NYTimes Article Search API. The first, titled ‘RGB – NYT Word Frequency’, shows usage of the words ‘red’, ‘green’, ‘blue’ in the Times between 1981 and 2011 (you can see a series of details from the print here):

Jer Thorp, "RGB - NYTimes Word Frequencies"

Random Number Multiples - RGB

This print turned out even better than I could have expected. The fine detail is amazing, the colours are rich and vivid, and the half-toning on the individual bars creates a jewel-like halo in the center that is fascinating to look at up close.

My second print visualizes the terms ‘hope’ and ‘crisis’ over the same time period (again, more detailed views can be found here). This print was made with a semi-reflective ink, so it has a unique shimmer to it when viewed in the light:

RN Multiples 5235 Jer Thorp, Hope-Crisis

Overall, I was surprised and delighted by how well this computer-generated work translated to the traditional medium of screenprint. I will definitely be looking to make more prints in the future.

In the meantime, a limited number of both of these prints are available for sale at on the Random Number Multiples site. Prints are $100, made with entirely acid-free media, and ship with a signed certificate of authenticity.

Random Number Multiples - RGB

We Are Beginning to See Positive Signs for our Industry — Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac & Fanny Mae: 1984-2009


For The Data Art Show in June at the Pink Hobo Gallery in Minneapolis, I created a 20′ long print visualizing the major players in the financial crisis, and their in-print relationships.

The Print, titled ‘We Are Beginning to See Positive Signs for our Industry — Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac & Fanny Mae :1984-2009′ was made in Processing, using the NYTimes Article Search API. It was printed on kraft paper, and hung somewhat haphazardly using a handful of pushpins (certainly the easiest install I’ve ever had to do).

I know these images don’t show the whole piece – I am trying to track down a full-frame image of it that isn’t (like the image below) from my iPhone. It turns out it’s difficult to photograph a 20′ print in a room that is 14’ wide.

We Are Beginning to See Positive Signs for our Industry — Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac & Fanny Mae: 1984-2009

The show also featured some excellent work from James Paterson and Mario Klingemann, which you can read about in this article, and see a bit of in this photo set. I’ll also be putting together a more thorough documentation of the show over the next few weeks.