In fact, Performing Data was the title of an exhibition and series of workshops at FACTLab, as part of Build Your Own: Tools for Sharing, run by Mixed Reality Lab at Nottingham University. It is part of a wider project that “is concerned with the idea that - through performance - data is revealed to people in various material and embodied ways, sometimes slowly, sometimes, as if live, sometimes in tangible forms, and sometimes by requiring people to enact being sensors themselves.”
I participated in the workshops that began with the artists giving a backstage tour of their work. Brendan Walker (the keynote speaker for this year's Human Futures Forum) discussed how the mapping of waves at the end of Hastings Pier translated into his mechanical Storm in a Teacup contraption, complete with dunking chocolate bourbon! Arist Rachel Jacobs then demonstrated how data from a weather station fixed to the roof of FACT fed into her Prediction Machine, a beautifully crafted fortune telling device that playfully pulled you in. Hand powered by rotating a dynamo, a screen jumped into life and delivered a future weather forecast: snow on a summer’s day... and the prediction was printed out fortune cookie like for further gestation.
An accompanying Promises and Wishes machine invited you to type in a webcode on your printout and make a promise of action to the future. Creating a simultaneously powerful and fun experience, the works conjured an active engagement with a future and climate change beyond our individual lifespans, challenging our abilities of comprehension and commitment, proving that however much we (like to) think we know or care, we still do very little about.
When speaking to Rachel she explained how the user friendly experience was directly informed by research into how individuals best respond to and ‘take on board’ the realities and ethical imperatives of climate change data; where it’s advantageous to avoid lecturing, shaming or scare tactics. Rather, Rachel has created an inviting and participatory experience, where instead of simply another story on the news watched from the comfort of the couch - you, the weather station, the dynamo, the artist, collaborate and create a very specific moment of measuring, imagining, and performing data.
On the second day of the workshop we were tasked with developing our own artworks or contraptions for performing data and introduced to the multitude of measuring devices and apparatuses that the lab use, from movement sensors, heart monitors, and sentiment analysis tools, to wearables including the new Microsoft Band, and ways of connecting these all up using everything from Arduinos to Wordpress plug-ins. For me as a luddite with most digital technology it was a great way to get hands-on and learn through making - becoming a little more producer, a little less consumer.
In our team we developed a quasi-lie-detector test and accompanying graphic visual interface that served as a vehicle for playing with the tools and a tool itself to understand and embody the relationship between data and its processes of inscription in our lives.
We debated many data-related issues, in particular how to operate online in an age of ‘big’ data, data mining, and state surveillance, in which our data ‘lives’ in evermore affecting, ubiquitous and insidious ways. In such a climate we must work to make data more ‘open’, prevent its abuse, and mold its use - to build our own devices and datasets, and write scripts for them to perform. All the time conscious of the limits of data, careful to understand data and information as phenomena of the measuring process itself, as Karen Barad describes in Meeting the Universe Halfway, and to resist the urge for what Evgeny Morozov calls ‘techno solutionism’ and instead genuinely interrogate why and how we are using data.
Ada Lovelace, who is considered the first computer programmer, wrote in the early nineteenth century: “The Analytical Engine has no pretensions whatever to originate anything. It can do whatever we know how to order it to perform. It can follow analysis; but it has no power of anticipating any analytical relations or truths. Its province is to assist us to making available what we are already acquainted with.”
Katherine Hayles, (who visited FACT earlier this year as part of The Act of Reading project – download the free ebook here) analysed brilliantly in her book How We Became Posthuman of a move within cybernetics theory in the 1950s (that could be seen to build upon Lovelace’s position) for information and data to exist immaterially, to ‘lose its body’, because the noise in the system that its ‘body’ created, problematised theorists equations too much. But data and machines do have a ‘body’ and perform them and our selves in deeply affecting ways, especially as systems have become networked and more than the sum of their parts. This connected body, its noise, this potential for performativity, its materiality, transpiration and ambiguity, is the essential dissonance in the system, out of which new life is co-constituted and emerges, and artistic processes can tune into and activate this like little else.
The question of what data or information quite is, at root is, fruitfully ongoing and unfathomable, but we must nonetheless urgently get a grip on how it’s used today within corporate and governmental spheres. For whatever the weather, as Gregory Bateson wrote of data and information, it’s “a difference that makes a difference”.
Sam Skinner is currently undertaking an industry/practice based PhD between MIRIAD, MMU and FACT, researching the possible reinvention of the historic Liverpool Observatory. @_samskinner
Click here to book your ticket for the Human Futures Forum on 6 November.