Last updated: 13 March 2023
Published on: 06 June 2016
6 MINS READ
There's an art exhibition in town that anyone big on data should go check out.
An art exhibition based on Big Data?
We knew it had to be covered, so we sent in an undercover writer to dig into, and digest, Big Bang Data.
And what we got back was all data.
Something that companies collected and crunched to feed business strategies did not sound like a suitable subject for art.
And yet here it was — Big Bang Data, which made its Asian debut at ArtScience Museum as part of the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore’s (IDA) Smart Nation Innovations Week.
The working theory was that big data would make for a fine art exhibition.
“Regardless of how powerful any underlying technology becomes, anything we do has to be for the purpose of improving lives and society as a whole,” said IDA’s Executive Deputy Chairman Mr Steve Leonard.
“This is why the arts is so important to ensure we keep ‘humanity’ at the centre of our Smart Nation goals.”
Those words provided some assurance as I encountered Ryoji Ikeda’s Data.Tron (WUXGA version), a constantly-changing projection of flashing bytes. Data.Tron may not be for those prone to epilepsy, but I found his use of data as an art medium to be comprehensible and rather engaging.
Next up was a look at the pipes behind the bits and bytes — a map showing the physical layout of submarine cables that actually carry all the terabytes of data around the world. Apparently, submarine cables have been a thing for 150 years, since the advent of the telegraph.
There was also a video of a rather dreary industrial building that turned out to be a data centre, custodian of the content that makes up our online lives.
Not to be outdone on the anonymity meter, there were photos of fairly forgettable buildings that — surprise, surprise – turned out to be some of the most iconic buildings of the Net: like 60 Hudson Street, nexus of worldwide communications located in New York; or the grey warehouse near the North Pole that houses Facebook’s data centre in Lulea, Sweden.
But my favourite was a visual renegade - Google’s data centre in Hamina, Finland. Designed by Alva Aalto, the building had its pipes and ducts painted in cheerful Google colours.
And — this seems like a cool feature — it may be the only data centre in the world with a sauna for employees.
More Storage in Store
More amazing exhibits traced the information explosion across successive decades – in the 1950s, there were punch cards; then came the spool tape, cassettes, 5-inch floppy disks, 3-inch floppies, CDs, thumb drives and … test tubes of DNA.
Apparently, there is ongoing research into how to store data in deoxyribonucleic acid. Each successive storage advancement has allowed us to store more and more data in less and less space, and at a lower and lower cost.
And that is probably how it grew to be so big.
Lisa Jevbratt’s 1.1 (Every IP) was a visualisation of the Internet from 1999, which can no longer be attempted on account of the data explosion in recent years.
I did not understand how she had arrived at those pretty horizontal lines in bright colours, but it made me sad for a bygone era when the Internet genii could still be captured on canvas.
The night sky over our heads in a darkened room was really an installation called Black Shoals; Dark Matter, by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway. Each star in the firmament represented a company listed on the global stock exchanges, and when they pulsed, it meant a trade was being carried out.
Little constellations seemed to be forming, as mergers, acquisitions and other deals were forged. Over the course of the exhibition, the night sky will evolve, with real-time input from the global financial markets.
How cool is that?
From there, I moved on to the personal section, to look at the data that private individuals create through their online lives.
A roomful of photographs represented just one day in the life of Flickr. The huge piles of photos, some of naked babies, for example, were uploaded without any privacy settings, which is how artist Eric Kessels was able to print them out for 24 Hours in Photos.
I thought that would be scary only if anyone could be bothered to spy on me, but was stopped in my tracks by Owen Mundy’s Orwellian installation, I Know Where Your Cat Lives.
This was a simple TV screen which pinpointed the locations of one million cats, based on the geotagging of feline snaps put up by adoring owners. The thought that those cute pictures of my furkids could get them catnapped certainly had me worried.
Data and more data
It was almost a relief to go into the What Data Can’t Tell section, where a bunch of talking heads pondered the dangers of boiling life down to data and crunching it to get all the answers.
Data for the Common Good had an equally calming effect – it was about how open source data empowers us, and allows for greater collaboration and knowledge-sharing. And since it was all good, Eric Fisher’s OpenstreetMap Contributor Community is Visualised - Individual by Individual cast quite a pretty picture.
The cartographer and artist showed the world in a delicate filigree of coloured lines, mapped out by individuals to depict the roads, trails, cafes and other essentials in our lives.
The last installation was a participatory one, where visitors are given cards to write down what data means to them, and then hang them up on lines.
An hour earlier, I would have walked straight out.
However, having seen more than 50 artistic depictions on big data, and having been confronted with ramifications I had never even thought about, I found I did have something to say.
And that is one more data point too far for this story.
To confirm your own theories about big data, input yourself at the Big Bang Data exhibition at the ArtScience Museum. It runs until 16 October 2016.