Living Data: Digital Art at Watermans Arts Centre
“Digital art” is a catch-all phrase with a remit that is mind-bogglingly vast and often prone to generalization. It has been championed in recent years by the Arts Council England; the subject of much debate, research and development. In fact, very few artists today work without resource to digital tools in some form or another, and everybody’s life is interlaced digital technology on many levels. We would almost cease to function without it. So what does a physical exhibition devoted to digital art look like, and why devote gallery space to a medium that is surely more at home online?
These are some of the questions that motivated me to go and see the current exhibition at Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford, London. Living Data is a solo exhibition by Michael Takeo Magruder, developed in partnership with the centre’s head of new media arts development, Irini Papadimitrou. Heir to the pioneers of the ‘sixties (the ICA recently revisited its groundbreaking 1968 exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity developed by its first curator Jasia Reichardt) Irini is a powerhouse of passion and energy in exploring the global concept of digital art today. In addition to mounting exhibitions at Watermans Arts Centre, Irini also runs Digital Futures, an exploratory series of events based at the Victoria & Albert Museum; she was also a speaker at the Arts Council’s 2014 conference Digital Utopias.
My first impression on walking into Waterman’s spacious rectangular gallery was the polished visual impact of the whole. The choice of colour for the walls – the backdrop for Takeo’s printed graphics of the data itself, the precisely positioned screens and the care devoted to the aesthetic presentation of the electronics in the darkened room all contributing to a sense of stillness and order, like the well-formatted pages of a book, contrasting with the relentless living patterns of light forming and re-forming on the screens and projections. I commented on the beauty of the machines to Takeo and I was gratified by his reply: “I wanted to expose the actual machinery in an aesthetic way; it’s like the pride the Victorians had in their engineering…”
The installations are all about raw data streaming in from real-time global events, constantly changing and evolving, expressed as dynamic info-graphics programmed to follow logical progressions of geometry with descriptive colour gradients. Their ephemeral, mechanistic abstraction is more realist than figurative imagery could ever be, for they are mapping global human behaviour, as it is happening, by the nanosecond. Each installation piece is a discrete project in itself, devoted to a specific data feed – there is a total of seven installations that make up Living Data. Takeo describes the exhibition as “an installation of separate artworks stitched together”. To me as a viewer, the exhibition presents itself as a seamless narrative of the sheer variety of information collected from the construct of our contemporary global existence, with more than a slight resemblance to the Wachowskis’ film “The Matrix”.
Here are two of the installations that I found particularly engaging: Data_plex (economy) (left) is part of a project Takeo first developed in 2009 in collaboration with Drew Baker and David Steele during his residency at King’s College London. Real time data feeds in from the Dow Jones Industrial Average and is translated into “a metaphorical cityscape based on modernist aesthetics of skyscrapers and urban grids”, constantly evolving in response to the fluctuating figures. “The virtual world ebbs and flows with erratic pace as vast volumes of capital are shifted during the trading day, while after hours, the realm sleeps in anticipation of the opening bell.”
A similar concept powers another work in the same series, Data_plex (babel), in which hourly feeds from top trending topics on Twitter are fed into a dynamic Fibonacci spiral formation. This elegant classical device then flips from plan to elevation, revealing a “virtual architecture reminiscent of the Tower of Babel”. Who then can deny that ‘code is beautiful’? What makes Takeo’s imagery significant to me, is that here and now in the apparent chaos of post-modernism, it revisits the underlying aesthetics of 20th century modernism, which are in turn rooted in classical mathematics. Some of my nascent ideas about this can be accessed here.
In addressing one of my inital questions above – why devote gallery space to this virtual medium? – the most compelling answer has to be – sheer impact. To be in a crafted space surrounded by full-scale installations is the equivalent to experiencing music in a concert hall as opposed to listening to a compressed reproduction of it through headphones – one experiences a spatial and contemplative immersion in the work. It hints at the ‘auratic’ presence of a reality, a concept that was defined some eighty years ago, in the context of modernism and mass consumption, by the philosopher Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (standard art school reading – sections II and III being the most pertinent to this discussion).
Another old debate is about the relevance of art that is essentially created through machines – in this case computers and coding. Takeo put it very elegantly in the course of a conversation about one of the installations, Data_sea. version 2.1, created in collaboration with Drew Baker and astronomer Johanna Jarvis. Data_sea expresses real-time broadcast media and the “extent to which our radio signals penetrate deep space, creating an ever-expanding globe referred to as the Earth’s Radiosphere”. It is an awe-inspiring thought, and justifies Takeo’s use of data streaming and virtual reality as a means of artistic expression: “In the physical world you are limited; here you can oscillate between many realities and get transported into the eternal… beyond the humancentric or earthcentric…here is a vision of infinity and ephemorality” Takeo’s art emanates from our common actions, but it also puts each of us in our place in the larger scale of things …. and that is no bad thing.