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Turning Data Visualization Into Art: 7 Artists Use Data as a Muse

Jessica Ferri Writer

Artists are using available technology to create masterpieces out of everything from disease and weather to Wi-Fi and the music of internet chatter.

Though we generally think of artists as slaves to a flash of inspiration, to the fickle muse, artistry today is interactive and deeply affected by the information age. As we communicate through our computers, tablets or smart phones, artists too are working through a digital lens, using the parameters of scientific data and information design as a source of inspiration.

While the mapping of the physical world is nothing new — think anatomy textbooks, for instance — now data like heart rates and Wi-Fi channels can be transformed into something creative, even interactive. Here are a few projects that use scientific data as their muse.

Cloud Piano

This summer, American artist David Bowen, through a commission from France, created “Cloud Piano,” whereby a piano uses custom software to track cloud shapes and movements, and channels them through corresponding keys on the piano.

The result is an accurate data capture of weather patterns, illuminating their strangeness through sound.

Immaterials

The Immaterials project is an effort to visualize and understand things that are “immaterial,” like Wi-Fi, for instance. In their “light project,” the Immaterials team created a wall of light meant to mimic Wi-Fi’s “immaterial terrain.”

The result is a freestanding wall of blue light whose saturation is directly related to the strength of the Wi-Fi signal. Though the members of the group don’t consider themselves artists, it’s obvious from the video that the resulting work is not only fascinating, but beautiful.

Human Harp

Inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, artist Di Mainstone wondered what New York City would sound like if it were set to music. Through the Creators Project she created “Human Harp,” a wearable Harp device meant to record the movement of city dwellers as they walk over a major bridge, which Mainstone says is itself like a giant instrument.

In this project, a subject wears a vest-like device that has magnetic “buttons” that connect wires to the bridge, mimicking the strings of a harp. Music is made by the blending of the wearer’s movements and the natural bending and straining of the bridge.

The sound is recorded, communicated back to a microcontroller, then to a laptop. Mainstone says she hopes one day the project will be interactive, seamlessly incorporated into every city bridge, so as people walk across, their movements become music.

Listening Post

Using online public forums like chat rooms and bulletin boards, Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen created “Listening Post,” an art installation of a grid of screens that reads (and sometimes sings) sound bites to create a series of statements, usually starting with “I am.”

Created in 2001, the work explored the ways in which we communicate online, which has changed and expanded exponentially in the last decade.

Heart Bot

In September, Sid Lee New York, Tool and Intel collaborated on “Heart Bot,” an installation that tracks your heart rate (through a hand sensor) and then draws each data capture on to a wall, creating a piece of spontaneous and interactive art.

The drawing machine was patterned after a famous spray-painting robot called Hektor, created in 2002. The final drawing, created by capturing and illustrating dozens of individuals’ heart rates, showed each person’s “unique physiological response” to their environment.

Glass Microbiology

Taking a more traditional approach to data visualization through sculpture, artist Luke Jerram blows up some of the world’s deadliest viruses into larger-than-life glass sculptures. Their size correlates to the impact of the disease on each community, and their colorlessness is meant to take away any “color” or prejudice associated with the disease.

Though these sculptures undoubtedly have much cultural impact (and even an eerie beauty) they are fully accurate depictions and have even been used in medical textbooks and by the British Journal of Medicine.

Sensity

Like a combination of Heart Bot and Cloud Piano, the Sensity project tracks the emotional state of an entire city. British artist Stanza uses environmental sensor technologies that track noise, humidity, light, sound and other factors to create a “sonicity,” or an interpretation of the emotional state of the city based mostly on sound.

While these projects vary in their approach, one commonality is a respect and fascination with the natural world. As fluid as sound and light, the definition of ‘art’ is ever evolving. Digital tools are a way to illustrate the complex systems that have been in place since the beginning of time and the new ones that have come to inform our everyday existence.

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