The Art Of Big Data


Mastering The Art of Data…

discover art created using raw data, beechhouse media, Mark Taylor,
Discovering Art Created With Data


Each week I write a new article to support members of our four wonderful art groups on Facebook, The Artists Lounge, The Artists Directory, The Artists Exchange, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at raw real-world data and the artists who are turning that real-life data into compelling works of art that have much deeper stories. As usual, there are lots of links to useful resources and plenty of information that might just whet your appetite to either collect or create this kind of art. We will also look at the evolution of digital art. This really is the art of big data!

Digital Beginnings…

You could say that any art created using a digital medium such as a computer is art made up of data. Zeros and ones all displaying pixels that are either on or off, and more zeros and ones that tell each pixel how bright, how dim, or how colourful they need to be or don’t need to be.

Here in 2019, our world spins as it always has done, but data determines everything that goes on upon this spinning lump of rock in the middle of who really knows where. I remember reading many years ago an article about an article that had been written many years before that which said; “… We can't imagine ever doing a special issue on electronics or computers in art…” Those exact words were written by Philip Leider, editor of Artforum, in 1967.

In subsequent years digital or computer-assisted or even computer created art has been described as everything from “Just boys playing with toys,” to “pointless…” to “… most definitely not art…” and yet here we are today and there is every chance that there will be a piece of artwork or graphic design that has been created with the aid of digital technology within spitting distance of you.

Digital is not an art form and has no place. That’s another classic line that I have listened to a lot as a digital artist who has been creating work with the aid of computers since the late eighties, if I had a dime for every time I have heard that phrase between back then and now, I would be lazing on a sun-drenched tropical island browsing Facebook and sipping coffee.

There are many myths about digital art. My own digital art process is barely any different to the process I use to create works on canvas.

There are apps and programs that can create images without very much human interaction at all other than to choose the photo and press a go button. But for the most part and for serious digital artists, apps just can’t create everything that traditional artists can do with traditional mediums. Yet. I think one day we might get close and we are already starting to see works created using Artificial Intelligence sell at “real” artsy auctions for tens of thousands of dollars. I say to those who still dismiss digital art and who think it has no real place in the art world and who insist that it is all nothing but smoke and mirrors, “you watch way too much TV.” Digital art needs traditional painting skills just as much as it needs technology.

Even today with digital art all around us there are still a few who are firmly in the, I don’t get digital art camp. Digital artists frequently have to defend what they do within some small sectors of the art world, but here’s the thing. You don’t have to get it, just as I never really once understood some of the shock art produced by Damien Hirst, it took me many years to work out what it really meant and even today that remains only my own interpretation of it.

Perhaps it is time to just accept that the world has changed and there is now one more medium to join the ranks of coloured pencils, oil paints, sharks, cows, and acrylics and many other popular and loved or at least accepted art materials and mediums. Many of which have at some point been bashed on the head as being amateur hour ingredients which are not worthy of a place in the real art world. There was a time when the British Royal Academy ranked watercolour as the least prestigious media and several members left to set up the Royal Watercolour Society. You can see their website right here

Digital is now and the future and it has been around for many years. That’s not to say that traditional painting will ever die. As I said earlier, digital is fantastic at many things but sometimes you have to go back to the good old brush and canvas. Digital as yet hasn’t managed to easily print the texture and feel of real paint.

We are living in the most prolific era ever of technological development where tech and gadgets are evolving every second of every day. Techniques are improving, not quite yet to the point of simply pressing some magic button that does everything, but certainly to the point of giving artists another set of tools to create their masterpieces with. In another hundred years museums will be full of digital works and there are more than a few who now have digital works on display too.

Check out the Digital Museum of Digital Art right here, and the ZKM Center for Art and Media which is often referred to as the “Electronic or Digital Art Bauhaus” right here

Art is art, it will always be a universal expression of creativity, imagination and storytelling, whether through music, painting, sculpting, writing, performance or any other form. Digital art is just another way to express ourselves.

But digital art is evolving…

If digital art itself freaks out some of the art world purists then the fact that raw data is now generating art will send them into a frenzy. At this point, we are edging closer to having that magic button that the purists believe comes included with every art and design application. Art created from raw data sets still requires specific skill sets to generate masterpieces, although projects such as Morph make the creation of art simpler, more on that in a moment. First, let this sink in, art is being created with raw real-world data in its purest form, letters, and numbers.

Wait, I know, this is mind-blowing stuff. Let me explain. Data as in zeros, ones, scientific calculations, data models that predict the weather or data that measures the happiness of a country is now being used to generate artwork. Here is an example of what world happiness data looks like when it is in its rawest form, followed by the abstract work created from it.

abstract art created using data, mark taylor, beechhouse media,
Raw data of world happiness
Now if we use that data set which contains significantly more data than you can see in the image above, we can generate a unique artwork which looks like this.

world happiness data. abstract art, mark Taylor,
Abstract - World Happiness Data


Or the 2004 European Parliament which looks like this.

Morph project, mark taylor, Google project, politics, art, abstract art,
Political Abstract created with Morph


Okay, some might say that the image is representative of politics everywhere today. It’s certainly an interesting abstraction but there is a story that sits buried within the visuals.

Fishers Iris, data set, Morph, Google projects, mark taylor, beechhouse media,
Fishers Iris Dataset Created with Morph


Maybe Fishers Iris Dataset above makes some sense to those familiar with the multivariate data set introduced by the British statistician and biologist Ronald Fisher in his 1936 paper - The use of multiple measurements in taxonomic problems as an example of linear discriminant analysis. WOW, mind blown. Whatever it makes for a nice abstract artwork but if you want to know more about the data set relating to an Iris flower, then I would recommend reading the Wikipedia article right here, or alternatively just agree that it makes an interesting abstract and move on.

Or how about “Honey Production in the USA (1998-2012)
 
honey production, abstract art, morph, google, Mark Taylor, Beechhouse Media,
Honey Production Abstract Art Created with Morph


Clever isn’t it! The good news is that you don’t need a PhD in data science or a Masters in Art to produce these artworks because all of the above images were created using Morph.

Morph is free and open-source tool and available to anyone who wants to try their hand at creating designs, animations or interactive visualisations from data and you can feed your own data into the application to create some unique artworks. Alternatively or you could just go with the sample sets of data provided on the Morph website which includes the data sets shown above plus a few more.

I actually created an artwork that visualised where my own art has been sold around the world which you can see below. 

data visualization, abstract art, art made using data, Mark Taylor,
My Sold Artwork Global Data Abstract

The centre of the image represents the UK, with red areas representing the USA, and other colours representing everywhere from Israel to Australia. Seems I sell more work in the US than anywhere else, but Europe is a close second. Where are you Australia?

The tool is free to use and is a collaboration between datavized and the Google News Initiative and you can play with it and see what others have been creating right here.    
You also have export options to set the resolution and you are able to save the image as a transparent png file or with a solid background colour, or even as an animation.

Big Data in Art…

We now live in the age of big data where almost everything we do is captured as a snippet of information somewhere and it is arguably one of the most powerful currencies the world has ever seen. Whether we agree or not with data collection we do have to face up to the reality that it is here and it’s not going to go away. All we can do is take steps to limit what gets collected about us and by who and for what purpose. But if your data is already out there you might never find out exactly who really has it or even if they have it at all, but they probably do.

The only thing we can do if we don’t agree with living in a Big Brother world is to make sure that we protect ourselves from the intrusion wherever we can. The thing is, big data goes back much further than the dawn of computers or Facebook or anything else that conjures up images of mass data collection. It was happening many years before in all walks of life. The difference is that we are now slightly more aware of who, where, when and how, but we are not always aware of the why is it collected or why does this or that person need it. Those things are so much more important to know about, we do seem to miss the point a little sometimes. 

The aesthetics of data…

Like big data or not it has bought with it a new aesthetic trend. We now have employees who are data artists. Skilled masters of data that can create visualisations that make the numbers easier to understand. These are the very people who create infographics and charts and who can start to predict outcomes of almost anything, and now we also have another kind of data artist working in the more traditional artistic space. These artists take data not to inform scientifically, but instead to create aesthetics that function as a commentary and who take the data to present it in a surreal form so that it becomes an artistic rather than scientific experience.

Weather data can form delicate swirls that transcend the mere function of conveying information. Another influential figure in the data art field has been Aaron Koblin, who created the Data Arts Team at Google back in 2008.

One of his early works was simply titled Flight Patterns, which took 24 hours of flight data and turned it into a 60-second video showing the flow of air traffic across The United States. You may have seen static images and may not have realised exactly what the image represented, but take another look and you will start to see a story of people and transport, and you will get a glimpse of just how congested US airspace is. You can see Aaron’s website right here

Back to another Google project and this time through a collaboration between Google News Lab and Visual Cinnamon,  and one site that really stood out to me as I researched this article and that was Beautiful in English which you can find right here

How much does the translation behaviour of a language indicate about its culture? Do German speakers seek the same words which have been translated as the Spanish? To investigate, the collaboration analysed all the single word translations of nouns & adjectives into English delivered through Google Translate for 10 of the most popular languages on Google. Guess what the most common word that gets translated into English through Google Translate is? Turns out that the word is beautiful, just like the textualised images on the website above are.

Mark Taylor, Artist and blogger, beechhouse media, the art of big data,
Data - Recreating Art History

Information is Beautiful…

Founded by David McCandless, author of two bestselling infographics books, Information is Beautiful is dedicated to helping you make clearer, more informed decisions about the world. All of the visualizations on this site which you can find right here are based on facts & data: constantly updated, revised & revisioned.

Data flows everywhere and more and more artists are beginning to utilise data as both the subject and visual form for their works. Another website called Flowing Data which you can find right here is a deep dive into the world of data in art. There are many tutorials for those who are interested in exploring the topic in more detail which you need to be a member of the site to view in full, but there is enough here without a membership to give you an appetite for data visualisation as an art form, such as the knitted scarf representing rail delays which sold for $8,500 you can read about right here.

The R-Graph Gallery which you can find right here, is a project developed by Yan Holtz to promote data visualisation using R. The idea is to provide hundreds of R Charts always with the associated reproducible code. This source of examples is a good platform to learn and get inspired by your data visualisations.

Visualising data to help…

If you have ever tried to read raw data it can be a minefield to navigate. If you torture data long enough it will confess to anything. So often, and I see this in my other world outside of art a lot, pre-conceptions can be formed about what the data should say and there is then a danger of modelling and interpreting it so that it resonates with what you are thinking or until it tells you what you want it to say. Data is a story that can be twisted but data visualisation and analytics allow you to see that story more clearly. Data analytics is indeed often closer to art than science.

Science can benefit us in so many ways, for example, understanding better what the story behind the data really is and this is apparent when you look towards projects like the ones carried out through The British Antarctic Survey which you can find right here

They have been using data as art in a research project with the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to create stunning and thought-provoking artworks using real Antarctic data sets that explain important and exciting science stories. When we apply the aesthetics to raw data it just makes the story so much more understandable and much less likely to be misinterpreted.

Technology and data can do so much good for humanity. The positive side of data is easy to dismiss when we constantly hear only the negatives from the misuse of data,  and whilst bad news sells we are less likely to ever get to hear about the good that big data can bring about. An example of good use is to highlight and expose some of humanities problems that many people seem to bury their heads in the sand about, let’s take homelessness as an example.

A tweet reactive art installation which provided a visual representation of the plight of Toronto’s homeless and how the lack of affordable housing is a contributing factor called attention to such social issues. This visual representation served as a reminder to those passing by that homelessness is one of humanities biggest problems. You can read the Huff Post article right here

Data recreating art history…

Another interesting data visualisation took masterpieces by Van Gogh, Magritte, and more and turned them into code art, essentially turning each of the works into raw data. In this work, the artist did the exact opposite of making the raw data look aesthetically pleasing and instead produced a canvas filled with letters and numerals. You can see the article right here

What is intriguing to me is whether or not at some point, enough of this code could be reproduced by technology to recreate a masterpiece that has been significantly damaged. With the advances in artificial intelligence, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this kind of advance in technology didn’t eventually find a place in the restoration of historic but damaged works by taking data from complete and undamaged works to build a better representation of what the artist might have included in the damaged area.

Want to learn more?

Seeing patterns and creating beauty from statistics, data visualisation has become another art form aided by the use of technology. Data always gets a bad rap yet there are many artists who are taking the data and rather than seeing it used negatively, are in fact using it to make the world a little more beautiful.

There is an entire TED Talks playlist on the art of data which you can find right here

Art Made of Storms is one such talk from Nathalie Miebachat TED Global in 2011 who takes weather data from massive storms and turns it into complex sculptures that embody the forces of nature and time. These sculptures then become musical scores for a string quartet to play. You can view that TED Talk right here

In Art that Looks Back at You, Golan Levin, an artist and engineer, uses modern tools, robotics, new software, and cognitive research to make artworks that surprise and delight. Watch as sounds become shapes, bodies create paintings, and a curious eye looks back at the curious viewer. You can see the talk right here

If you are still not convinced then I recommend watching, The Beauty of Data Visualisation, from David McCandless who turns complex data sets (like worldwide military spending, media buzz, Facebook status updates) into beautiful, simple diagrams that tease out unseen patterns and connections. Good design, he suggests, is the best way to navigate information glut, and it may just change the way we see the world. You can see the talk right here

big data, data visualization, Mark Taylor, Beechhouse Media, data in art,
Data can be beautiful too...

In defence of data…

Even using the most advanced analytics tools on the market, bad data can only ever provide you with bad insights, and as artists, we often use data to make decisions on how we market our art and what we create. But maybe, if we started to visualise it in a more aesthetic way we could start to read the entire story and we might start seeing which way we need to go with both our art and its marketing. Understanding data doesn’t have to be difficult, it just needs to be presented in the right way so that we can understand what it is that it is trying to tell us.

It is easy to get wrapped up in all of the negative press that big data gets. Throughout history, various numbers have had special meanings ascribed to them. Plato called the study of number symbolism "the highest level of knowledge" while Pythagoras believed numbers had souls as well as magical powers. But data is much more than numbers, it can also be beautiful and amazing and especially when we see it being turned into art.

Until next time…

That’s all for this week and I am now on the official countdown to my annual vacation. This year I will be spending time with the family along with Boo and Bear (my two dogs for those who have no idea or who haven't got around to following me on Facebook), on the Somerset coast exploring the beaches and historic places in the area, and I will be going back to Cheddar Gorge the home of Cheddar Cheese and stunning landscapes!

I will be around on Facebook (Wi-Fi signal permitting) while I am away, and I will be taking some reference photos of the area and other interesting things I come across which you will be able to use in your own art projects. These will appear on my Facebook page while I take a little time to rest and explore the beautiful countryside and coastline in and around Somerset.

I still have a couple of weeks before I go which gives me just enough time to finish off a couple of brand new artworks and create a few new articles and I haven’t forgotten about the free art downloads that will appear on my sister site. 

They will appear on the site very soon but as I got tied up with jury service and underwent some more tests for my Crohn’s, I had to pause a heap of projects for a couple of weeks and now I am only slowly catching up.

In the meantime, if you do have a try at producing data-driven-art, leave a comment and let us all know how it went and as always, I am more than happy to feature your work on this site. All you need to do is send me a message with relevant links and a brief outline of who you are and what you do, and a brief synopsis of your work and I will do the rest. As always, I can't promise to respond to everyone but I will certainly try. This site really is about supporting independent artists and especially those who want to learn more about the arts and the artists who make up the majority of working artists today.

You can do that via the message box on this site, but please try not to use Facebook Messenger as I only check it periodically, and will be uninstalling it for the two weeks I will be on vacation. I’m making sure I don’t get the dreaded ping sound at 3am for a couple of weeks while I take some time out! I am determined to switch off, well at least a little bit anyway! You know I will still be taking calls for artworks though because I need to eat too!

In other news... 

I finally have a few new artworks which are being released over the coming week. Bedtime Story and Pisces, will both be available online and through my usual retailers with Fine Art America and Pixels being the first. 

You will be able to view the works and the other art collectables the works will feature on through either of those websites soon which you can also visit right here, https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com and follow me on Facebook (link below) for details as soon as they are released. After nearly thirty messages and emails and even calls following last nights preview of Pisces, I will be producing another eleven works in the series too! Here they are!

bedtime story art, mark Taylor, Pixels, Fine Art America,
Bedtime Story by Mark Taylor

Pisces artwork by Mark Taylor, Pixels, Fine Art America, Artwork, fishing art, aquarium art,
Pisces by Mark Taylor


Big Love and Happy Creating as always,

Mark xx

About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger and live in Staffordshire, England. You can purchase my art through my Fine Art America store or my Pixels site here: https://10-mark-taylor.pixels.com  
Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contribute to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website. You can also view my portfolio website at https://beechhousemedia.com

You can also follow me on Facebook at https://facebook.com/beechhousemedia where you will also find regular free reference photos of interesting subjects and places I visit. You can also follow me on Twitter @beechhouseart and on Pinterest at https://pinterest.com/beechhousemedia

If you would like to support the upkeep of this site so I can remain independent and ensure you continue to get an independent and honest opinion and advice, or maybe just buy me a coffee, you can do so right here

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