On Topic: Between Big Data and Intimacy

How art can make big data less abstract

‘What is the role of artists in an age of information overload?’ That is what researchers Rosa Wevers and Veerle Spronck ask themselves in the episode ‘Tussen big data en intimiteit’ (‘Between big data and intimacy’) of their Dutch podcast ‘Kunstmatig’ (Art-ificial). In this podcast, Wevers and Spronck explore the moments when art and technology meet or clash. They delve into the critical questions art can pose to technology, while also paying attention to the role technology plays in our daily lives. In the episode on big data and intimacy, they talk about different artworks with a critical view on how big data is handled. In this On Topic, our intern Esther van Zoelen discusses the artworks mentioned in the podcast, introduces a similar artwork and expands on how the topics raised are related to IMPAKT’s next festival: Our Terms, Our Conditions. How can our human intimacy be safeguarded while big corporations collect and rank our data? 

Wevers and Spronck begin the episode with the importance of handling big data well. Vast amounts of information on digital behaviour patterns are constantly being collected and arranged in all sorts of ways. And a lot of money is being made from that too. It is like oil; valuable and abundant, but also a commodity with many consequences. This is an abstract but ubiquitous subject. It can often not be grasped or fully understood, due to the vastness of the phenomenon and the hierarchy that is clearly present: users of digital mediums often do not know at all where their data ends up or what it is used for. The podcast duo discuss the work Trace / React II, created by artist collective Dumb Type. This installation criticises a highly “computerised” consumer society that is simultaneously rendered passive or mute by the never-ending deluge of data and technological development. This is visualised by showing a constant stream of words, with an apparent arrangement every few minutes. Spronck describes the experience of the installation as physically palpable and oppressive, due to the size of the work. She says it is like a mind map that doesn’t make sense, but it shows words that have a high emotional value.

Wevers then talks about the work she brought in: Salvia, by Lauren Lee McCarthy. This performance centres on the exchange of saliva, which comes with special Terms of Exchange for participants: the artist is not allowed to use their saliva for anything other than exhibiting, but participants are allowed to do anything they want with her saliva. This makes an emphatic hierarchy palpable, a reference to how big data is handled. At the same time, this artwork is a reference to the corona pandemic, when people’s saliva – something intimate and personal – was turned into a condition for freedom. In this way, using saliva has become a form of surveillance, through a hierarchical exchange. Like Trace / React II, this work is very physical: tactile and personal elements of people’s bodies are captured and woven into a work of art.

This is also evident in yet another work not discussed in the podcast: Kubus 02 (Cube 02), made by Semâ Bekirovic. This work is a black, plexiglass cube. What is special about this cube is that the people who made it were instructed not to wear gloves during the creation process, so that all traces of it (fingerprints, smudges) were preserved. Bekivoric then applied forensic powder for latent fingerprints to the cube, revealing the “hidden history” of traces on the object. This makes the work an ode to the “invisible” workers and a warning about the traces left when we have made something. Like Salvia, it also refers to how bodily elements become visible and on display, something through which more information is shared than we might think. Fingerprints themselves already have a strong connotation with searching for DNA and leaving behind valuable and unique particles of one’s body. Those prints are placed into a system and can be arranged and used for further information processing. In this way, Kubus 02 has a strong connection to how big companies collect and use personal data: something carelessly left behind (like a fingerprint) is a valuable particle for manipulation.

These artworks tell us how big data can become less abstract and instead personal, intimate and painfully physical. The data we release about ourselves tells a lot about us and is valuable in the hands of big companies, which organise and deploy it in all sorts of ways. Although Wevers and Spronck make no clear judgment in the podcast about how individual data is collected, it becomes clear through the examples that our data is more important than we initially think. We need to be deliberate with our information, however difficult it may sometimes be not to disclose anything. 

The ways we can do this and related themes will be discussed at November’s IMPAKT Festival: Our Terms, Our Conditions. There, we will explore how we can reclaim control of our digital data and gain agency over the technologies we are so dependent on. What are our own terms, and in what ways can we resist the way Big Tech companies reduce people to products? The festival will be a platform for open dialogue with politicians and policymakers, whose job it is to ensure that our data is protected and that technology companies abide by our terms. The artists of Trace / React II, Salvia and Kubus 02 show us that our physical and digital information can be exposed and curated in ways we sometimes have no control over. We need to protect our data and set boundaries, our own Terms and Conditions.

Image credits: Kubus 02 (2017), Semâ Bekirovic

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