What is Data Art?

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Let’s dive into the first artists using Data Art and discover what their concept was. Are you curious?

Luke Treder | Ed. MiMi L. | 7 February 2023

Data art is a form of digital art that uses data as a medium or source material to create visually appealing and meaningful representations. It often involves the use of algorithms, software, and technology to turn data into something that can be seen, such as a graph, chart, or animation. The goal is to convey emotions to the audience by sharing insights, patterns, or stories hidden within the data in an accessible and creative way. Kirell Benzi adds that because it is based on data, the piece has a more objective truth behind its construction and does not solely come from the artist’s imagination.

Kynaston McShine, Information (1970 exhibition) Installation image (1970) - Agora Digital Art
Kynaston McShine, Information (1970 exhibition) Installation image (1970) Source @ Courtesy of MOMA

Still emerging, Data Art has nonetheless existed for decades. What stands it apart, from the other digital art categories, is the complex interaction between material, process, and expression. 

Conceptual Art is considered a prequel to Data Art. An excellent example of this is Kynaston McShine’s Information (1970), the exhibition was held at MoMA in New York. Relating to the Information Age, he expressed how “increasingly artists use mail, telegrams, telex machines, etc., for transmission of works themselves”. 

It was no coincidence that among McShine’s displays were a television and a typewriter, as technological synthesis became crucial. The multi-screen installation at the exhibition is evidence.

At first, Data Art pieces may not appear as art, but they turn out as creative expressions. Intentionally or otherwise. The transmission of works in question naturally leans more towards digital media. 

  • Malar1981, Sparkline Chart in Tableau Computer Application (2022), - Agora Digital Art
Malar1981, Sparkline Chart in Tableau Computer Application (2022), Source @ Courtesy of the author

One example is Sparklines. A word coined by Edward Tufte based on a long-existing utility. Sparklines did not originate for artistic reasons, but in the author’s words it is simply “data-intense, design-simple, word-sized graphics”. They were for this reason widely embraced for data visualisation, therefore, Data Art. 

Michael Fogelman, NES Sparklines on Pen Plotter (2018), Source @ Courtesy of the artist
  • Ben Shneiderman, Treemaps for space-constrained visualization of hierarchies Computer Application (1998), - Agora Digital Art
Ben Shneiderman, Treemaps for space-constrained visualization of hierarchies Computer Application (1998), Source @ Courtesy of the author

Or consider Treemaps. This was originally a project just intended for resolving “hard-drive” space. Yet to Ben Schneiderman’s wonder, the application became embraced for artistic possibilities. He acknowledged its “data displayed” and “patterns revealed” were part of the appeal and his Treeman Art ProjectEvery Algorithm has Art in It” found a place at the same Museum Of Modern Art referenced above. Thanks to him, data arguably continues to engage our curiosity. 

And amidst all of this, it is worth noting art’s original definition relates closer to “skill” rather than “creative expression”. As we are aware, this perspective has since massively changed towards the creative side. No wonder how Data Art has emerged. The plurality of digital sources gives a rich variety to reflect upon. 

So, with its appearance very interconnected, do the sources of expression matter? If that even does here? It breathes as live and ever-mineable art. 

Aaron Koblin Flight Patterns 2008 - Agora Digital Art
Aaron Koblin, Flight Patterns Computer Application (2008), Source @ courtesy of the artist 

To this effect, the artist Aaron Koblin once argued that “data can make us more human”. As part of a project to put this forward, he made Flight Patterns. The summary purpose explains it all: Interpreting a series of flight data and once processed, a wide range of human behaviours appears. 

Aaron Koblin explains: “It’s one thing to say 140,000 planes are being monitored by the federal government at any one time, and it’s another to see that system as it ebbs and flows”. 

This is beyond what you and I see in previous examples, it’s how we all flow through technology. 

And Koblin having collaborated with UCLA makes you think. Tufte works for Yale University, Schneiderman for the University of Maryland, and Patterns was a UCLA project. These contributors of Data Art have a specific institutional function and have been well-positioned to enable this art through their access. 

And this comes full circle to McShine’s quote. Artwork transmissions in terms of data are increasing to a degree that institutionally-connected individuals are privileged to enable them. This makes Data Art particularly unique.

Today, there are many talented artists working in this field who are also worth exploring. Here are some artists widely recognised for their work in Data Art:

  • Golan Levin
  • Joshua Davis
  • David McLeod
  • Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

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2023-02-05T15:57:34+00:005 February 2023|Art and Technology, Computer Art, Digital Art, New Media Art|0 Comments

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