I approached my experience of The New Observatory in two different ways: firstly, via official launch events programmed on the day; secondly, simply by walking around and absorbing its data, colours, concepts – and then there was the art as well!
And, as I always do, I observed the exhibition: I photographed and filmed the spaces, exhibits, people and interactions as the digital citizen we are all slowly becoming.
It already appears to be a popular exhibition: its Learning Space in the foyer is full of people inquisitively examining and teaching each other, in a safe and supportive environment of total engagement.
From the software which drives the spending calculator to the hand-driven dynamo which predicts the weather; from the historical nostalgia for Bidston Observatory to an invisibly wired Internet-based connectivity; from the pain of divorce in seaside towns to the surveillance of machine-controlled human employment, The New Observatory renews not only our thirst for discovery but also our gaze at the world we inhabit.
It is this last element which I think I will take away from my experience. When I heard about the subject of the next FACT show, I expected to be intellectually engaged, intelligently addressed, philosophically approached.
All of this and more along similar lines is there, for sure – no doubt at all.
But what I didn’t expect was for my human and emotional side to find room to sense and feel the issues two curators have presented through these works.
This is not an ideological show as How much of this is fiction. obviously was. But this is not to say at all there is no ideological position being taken.
Snowden is touched upon in some way in two of the exhibits at least: James Coupe’s A Machine for Living, near the café at the back of FACT, is a physical monument to control, manifestly referencing Jeremy Bentham’s iconic panopticon – a symbol of surveillance in Criminal Justice literature if there ever was one. But far more obviously, though never less inventively, Thomson & Craighead’s Recruitment Gone Wrong, in Gallery 2, makes the exhibition’s overarching relationship with data quite patent – particularly raw, in fact, as data always was.
I never expected, then, for my emotions to be engaged at all. Measurement seems so logical, so clinical, so medical, so legal. Yet measurement is also everything that is done to us, and everything we do to others: they define us at birth in centimetres and kilograms; they test us at school in level this and that; we size up a potential partner within seconds; we may fall in love in the blink of an eye on the basis of something quite concrete; we repent at leisure as we count our mistakes; later, we lose our marbles and desperately try to collect them one by one.
Data is both captured and given; life is both taken and given birth to.
And so the humanity of all the scientists and artists who participate in this exhibition is perhaps best expressed for me by a quote from Julie Freeman’s presentation: the observer of naked mole-rats, who succeeds in converting fairly repellent data subjects into objects of real affection:
'Until we acknowledge and recognise [the] power of inclusion and exclusion, and develop some visual language for it, we must acknowledge data visualization as one more powerful and flawed tools of oppression.'
Catherine D’Ignazio, https://civic.mit.edu/feminist-data-visualization, 2015
And that, truly, in a matter of very few minutes.
This is the grandest achievement of all of The New Observatory: to make out of data a thing we want to learn more about. After everything which has become evident since Snowden’s revelations, Facebook’s social experiments, and the generalised landgrab of Big Data that most tech companies seem to engage in these days, co-curators Hannah Redler Hawes & Sam Skinner, alongside the artists & data-scientists they have gathered around us, offer The New Observatory as a new way forwards: first and foremost, radically – as well as openly – beginning to look firmly back at those people, organisations and machines that traditionally have reserved the right to watch over us.
The New Observatory is open at FACT until 1 October 2017.
Image: Natasha Caruana, Divorce Index and Curtain of Broken Dreams (2017). The New Observatory at FACT, 2017. Photo by Gareth Jones.