WENT THERE: World Memory, The Art of Data Visualization

May 14, 2019 Gina Lindner

If you’re a JP frequenter, you may have stumbled upon the Boston CyberArts Gallery in the Green St. MBTA station toward the end of the Orange Line. This marks my first visit to the space and its brilliant location. The gallery lies street-level directly adjacent to the T-station entrance—the floors even have the same brick tiling, giving it a more habitable vibe than your typical, sterile, white-walled gallery setting. The space is so accessible that I felt inclined to consider its gallery pieces as public artworks. I took great pleasure in seeing people stumble into the space on their daily commute, learning something new or just enjoying the visual treats. I commend the gallery’s ambition to foster a more casual and intimately-integrated art/life relationship. In our high-stress era of world-issue bombardment, I feel it’s just what the doctor ordered…

I had the pleasure last weekend of experiencing Boston CyberArts’ World Memory: The Art of Data Visualization exhibition, showcasing artists working in a range of media-related practices (in 2D, 3D, video and animation), who specialize in navigating the “Big Data” field via artistic data visualization, in order to “examine the planet’s natural and artificial structures, both physical and economic.” Big Data is a growing field which analyzes the data sets that are too large or complex to be dealt with by traditional data-processing, i.e., the bigger and more mysterious problems of our world, environmentally and socio-politically speaking. Thus, some exciting and important opportunities arise for investigative art-making!


Dietmar Offenhuber, Staubmarke (Dustmark) (2018)


The first and most memorable work I encountered was dust.zone by Dietmar Offenhuber. The piece brings physicality to an otherwise imperceivable phenomena: air pollution. The artist helps us to see the microscopic dust (PM2.5) of city air that accumulates on urban surfaces over time. The artist specializes in these public art installations of “reverse graffiti”– also dubbed “clean advertising.” He first creates a stencil, then uses a water jet to eliminate the dirt from city walls to reveal the fresh, clean surface underneath– and with it, a hidden “utopia” of a pollution-free world, or at least a glimpse of one. In conversation with CyberArts’ Program Manager, Keaton Fox, she relayed to me that Offenhuber had originally planned to do a reverse graffiti display on the gravel outside of the gallery, and attempted to do so, but it turns out it the surface was not dirty enough to make the stencil impression. So in case you were wondering, the rumors are true: Boston, at least, is one of the cleanest cities in the country.

dust.zone is also uniquely time-based: these crisp patterns will fade over the coming months as dust accumulates yet again. Local passers-by in Germany (the project is based throughout the city of Stuttgart) can visit the project website (http://dust.zone) and download a map of every installation he has completed in the area so far and track the progression of each as they please. Passers-by are also provided with the average PM2.5 level of their immediate location, adding an essential layer of “realness” to these abstract numbers. A term often used in air quality reports, PM2.5 refers to the ultra-tiny particulate matter (the microscopic dust) that comprises a major air pollutant. So tiny, their individual size is about 3% of the diameter of a hair strand! Their tiny size permits them to stay in the air the longest and they are dangerously easy to inhale. In dust.zone, Offenhuber draws our attention to both the urgency and futility of the situation at hand (air pollution mitigation), the predicament that Big Data visualizations tend to lay bare… We either make some sacrifices and change our post-industrialist, urbanized lifestyles, or await our coughing fate. I commend dust.zone for serving a meaningful public function, both as artwork and “advertisement,” and promoting awareness and education on this everyday but otherwise invisible concern, both human and environmental.


Isabel Beavers, Steal Fire (2019)


Steal Fire was the most captivating piece in the show for me for a multitude of reasons. It is created from two visual sources: found-footage of recent forest fires in the Western U.S, and the artist’s own digital animations. This duality of this piece’s visual mediums has the effect of grounding me in more worlds than one (the one we know I associate with the found-footage half), and overall it mimicked a video game experience. Video game sound effects and a level system (Level 1, 2, etc.) are consistent throughout the piece, and it opens on a screen with a menu of “worlds” (that a mouse-hand chooses from) that the video travels between. The five red triangles in the lower left corner remind me of game “lives” (or play-turns), as well as red hazard signage. In the animation half, there is detachment to be felt from the grounded reality of these wildfire tragedies—fiery destruction is not depicted in this world whatsoever. Then again, there is perhaps equal detachment to be felt from the found footage sections: most utilize posterized or color-temperature “filters” and capture more dreamlike scenes, like a sweeping drone shot of a forest or a dash-cam video of a car speeding down a forest road, dodging trails of fire in its path. The driver (not pictured) appears to be chasing the fire for the thrill of it, rather than trying to escape it.

Most of the data related to this project is demonstrated in the video’s narration, which speaks through a robot-like vocoder, its language in “essay format” (declaring statistics like “80% of wildfires start due to human activity.”). Yet some sentences are unexpectedly poetic: “Winds carry the thick smoke for miles, turning the day into night…” and “I’m surrounded by mother nature’s feeling.” It seems that both the allusions to video game experience and the retreats into poetry are designed to call attention to our practical “romanticization” of wildfires. We tend to soak up their drama, and while we may broadcast these events as they happen, rarely are we educating people with the facts of their origin or perpetuation, advocating for a call to action after-the-fact, or simply bringing more awareness to the natural consequences of climate change overall (on top of its human causation).


Isabel Beavers, Steal Fire (2019)


The digital animation sequences of Steal Fire have a beautiful, crystalline quality about them, particularly the trees and the green figures on the ground below them. At one point in the video there are crystalline, “icy” noises that mimic the sound of wind chimes. The trees look as though they are made of glass. As they become uprooted (it feels like an invisible hand is plucking them from the ground) and slowly turn in digital space, they lingering in the air against a black-void sky and feel as though they might fall at any second. In this special case, the tree that falls in the forest would make a sound– a deafening shatter! (Here I reference the familiar philosophical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?) As robust as we make them out to be, trees have their moments of fragility, and are not so easily replaceable, either.

The end of the video loop confronts us with word “Paradise” and a palm tree’s silhouette. Is Beavers suggesting we flee to a “paradise island” instead of confronting the problem at home? Although it’s also my understanding that palm trees are the kinds of trees particularly susceptible to fires. Perhaps the takeaway is that there will be no paradise, no escape from reality, if we do not come to terms with our realities in the first place!


World Memory: The Art of Data Visualization, curated by W. Benjamin Bray and George Fifield, was on view through May 5th, 2019. However, you can still find all of the artworks & artists here on CyberArts’ website. Boston CyberArts Inc. is a non-profit arts organization, consistently rotating their gallery with cutting-edge exhibitions, showcasing nascent media practices and the intersections between technology and artmaking.

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