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Data Design, making the invisible intelligible

Contemporary Art | « Data » - today the term refers to any digitally recorded activity, composed of the computer flows generated by everyone on the Internet. This active memory is invisible. For the past twenty years, data design has been working to make data visible, to materialize it, to bring it out of its abstraction.

L’application Architecture of Radio © Juuke Schoorl, Studio Richard Vijgen
L’application Architecture of Radio
© Juuke Schoorl, Studio Richard Vijgen

Mapping data

Data design develops in a multitude of fields : from the scientific field to the domestic field.

As early as the 1940s, Richard Buckminster Fuller anticipates data visualization by designing a dynamic world map (Dymaxion World Map). In the 1960s, he imagined how very diverse information could be projected in real time on the map : the planet’s resources, the flows of goods and commodities, the number of people with a radio.

Buckminster Fuller standing on the ''Big Map'', used by the World Game Institute in the 1980s and 90s © Source: scanned by Gene Keyes in 2009-04 from a photo received in 1983-05 from the World Game Institute
Buckminster Fuller standing on the ''Big Map'', used by the World Game Institute in the 1980s and 90s
© Source: scanned by Gene Keyes in 2009-04 from a photo received in 1983-05 from the World Game Institute

Data visualization has become commonplace in scientific research. Virtual reality applications offer great precision, particularly in archaeology for the reconstruction of a historical site, in biology to capture the results of an MRI, in geology to visualize soil transformations. A virtual reality image can then be printed in 3D. The Visualization Research Lab at Brown University (USA) has been working on these questions for the last 20 years.

In line with Buckminster Fuller’s concerns, data design develops mainly in the field of ecology. This is the case with the Treepedia project (2016). Developed by the Senseable City Lab (MIT) and led by architect Carlo Ratti, Treepedia maps the urban canopy, namely the distribution of green spaces in different megacities. This information is useful for urban redevelopment projects and for comparing the layout of green spaces from one city to another.

Treepedia © Image Courtesy of MIT Senseable City Lab
Treepedia
© Image Courtesy of MIT Senseable City Lab

Richard Vijgen’s The Architecture of Radio presents a mapping of the waves that structure our daily environments. This is a site-specific application that picks up the waves of satellites, cell towers, Wi-Fi. Thanks to GPS location, the system makes visible at 360 degrees the propagation, concentration and dispersion of signal. It captures the landscape of the invisible architectures in which we live daily : fleeting and evanescent architectures. The invisible reality is made perceptible.

In the domestic field, Iohanna Pani’s Form follows data (2009) designs domestic objects based on recorded data on the consumption of foods. The designer makes a coffee cup from her coffee consumption over a week. The personalization of everyday objects that this project points out is developing in the luxury business.

Iohanna Pani, Form Follows Data, 2009 © Iohanna Pani
Iohanna Pani, Form Follows Data, 2009
© Iohanna Pani

Data cuisine is another developing area of data design. A pizza makes you aware that renewable energies represent only 15% of Switzerland’s energy consumption (Energy Mix by Moritz Stefaner and Susanne Jaschko).

Energy Mix, 2015, Moritz Stefaner & Susanne Jaschko © Prozessagent data cuisine
Energy Mix, 2015, Moritz Stefaner & Susanne Jaschko
© Prozessagent data cuisine

The arrangement of the ingredients of a pan con tomato highlights the increase in the unemployment rate in Spain (Unemployed pan con tomate by Samuel Boucher and Jahn Schlosser).

Unemployed Pan con Tomate, Samuel Boucher & Jahn Schlosser © Prozessagent data cuisine
Unemployed Pan con Tomate, Samuel Boucher & Jahn Schlosser
© Prozessagent data cuisine

The blue coloration of lollipops shows the percentage of Facebook users among the population using the Internet in countries that experienced the Arab spring (Zuckerberg Pops by Klaas Glenewinkel and Jess Smee).

Zuckerberg Pops de Klaas Glenewinkel et Jess Smee © Prozessagent data cuisine
Zuckerberg Pops de Klaas Glenewinkel et Jess Smee
© Prozessagent data cuisine

The ingredients of a series of muffins tend to project you into a future where Kosovo will be a country free of corruption (Seeds of Courage by Arber Hajrizaj and Zana Sherifi).

Seeds of Courage, Arber Hajrizaj & Zana Sherifi © Prozessagent data cuisine
Seeds of Courage, Arber Hajrizaj & Zana Sherifi
© Prozessagent data cuisine

The pœtic and concrete aspect of data cuisine is striking : working with the material of what feeds us to capture the abstract issues of political, economic or social forces around the world.

How to model the virtual?

Data design finds an appropriate visual form to data through spatial devices : maps and objects. Its purpose is to make data perceptible and palpable. It takes data out of its abstraction and makes it accessible and intelligible by offering a renewed perception of reality. This implies dismantling the usual organization of data. Data design is about revealing concretely the invisible structures in which we live. In Paul Klee’s words, it « makes the invisible visible » in a literal way.

Shaping data also aims at giving an understanding of the complexity of information processing : its random nature as well as the links and interweaving of one data with another. Designers work to clarify the parameters for selecting and analyzing information.

Data design and artificial intelligence

With data design, important databases are being set up in open source at the global level, making it possible to develop new research and knowledge. This is the case with Treepedia, which offers a global vision on the distribution of green spaces in megacities.

Data design is also the basis of artificial intelligence and with it services and objects will move towards tailor-made solutions. Its challenges here are particularly important in terms of transparency, understanding and reliability of information.

For individuals and companies alike, part of data design tends to be tailor-made : a personalization of objects and services. In the near future, thanks to data design, your wardrobe will be cut to your precise measurements after you have visualized each new piece in augmented reality on your body.

Maud Maffei
Publié le 13/09/2018
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Version française

L’application Architecture of Radio © Juuke Schoorl, Studio Richard Vijgen

L’application Architecture of Radio
© Juuke Schoorl, Studio Richard Vijgen

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