Turning big data into big art in Barcelona

CCCB center show aims to breathe visual life into the raw statistics of our information-rich world

Christopher Baker’s ‘Hello World’ installation at ‘Big Bang Data.’
Christopher Baker’s ‘Hello World’ installation at ‘Big Bang Data.’

If anybody is losing sleep over the future of Barcelona soccer club, they can stop worrying right now. The city’s CCCB contemporary art center is handing out a newspaper sports section dated April 2018 put together using data-driven forecasts about the future of the sport.

Winning Formula, by Fabien Girardin and his Near Future Laboratory, is one of four projects that the center has produced for Big Bang Data, an exhibition that crunches the reams of data produced by our information society and delivers them back in the form of art.

The show, which takes up an entire floor of the center, combines statistical and visualization programs to create installations that illustrate major global processes and their influence on all aspects of private and public life.

As exhibition curators José Luis de Vicente and Olga Subirós note, it is an attempt to explain the data-rich world in which we live from an artistic viewpoint.

Each project breathes life into what amounts to a bunch of numbers

The educational approach ends up giving the show the feel of a science museum rather than a contemporary art exhibition, which detracts a little from the individual projects. Yet each one still manages to breathe personality, and even a soul, into what amounts to a bunch of numbers. Often enough, the statistics behind each project have been repeated so often in the media that, by themselves, they no longer have any impact.

Such is the case of those used by the piece that opens the show, Running the Numbers by Chris Jordan, which depicts an image of 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the US prison population in 2005. As the project description notes about the impact of statistics, “images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone.”

The information overload that defines our era is captured in a variety of other ways. In Vida sexual de una parella estable (or, Sexual life of a steady couple), artist Jaime Serra documented his and his wife’s sexual practices over one year, then produced a visual representation using different color lines for each category of sex.

In 24 HRs in photos, Eric Kessels printed out all the photographs uploaded on to photo-sharing website Flickr during the course of a single day in 2009, piled them into a room, then took a picture of them “to show the deluge of images that the internet condenses daily and how we have become accustomed to consuming them, and also to raise awareness of the fact that private photographs pass from the private sphere to the public domain when they are uploaded to the internet.”

The show tries to explain the data-rich world we live in from an artistic viewpoint

The commercialization and global dissemination of information about our private lives via social networks is fueling all kinds of projects, such as the one conceived by Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico, who lifted one million personal Facebook profiles and then classified them by their facial features to create a phony dating website. The project also served to illustrate how false data can quickly spread on the internet: “Over the course of the five days of the life of the project, it received over one thousand mentions in the media, 11 threats to sue, and several letters from Facebook’s lawyers.”

Nature is another source of inspiration. In Wind Map, Martin Wattemberg and Fernanda Viegas developed a piece of software that recreates the movement of the winds that blow over the United States and updates the information every hour, creating a parallel with emotional states. Meanwhile, David Bowen’s Tele-Present Water is a reconstruction of a patch of the Pacific Ocean at a specific location, where a buoy relays the necessary data to an overhanging grid structure that recreates the real-time movements of the waves and currents.

It is worth noting that while major chains have been analyzing their customers’ shopping habits for years, culture professionals are still underusing these tools, and know a lot less than they could about their audiences’ tastes and behavior. That is why secret sensors scattered throughout the exhibition are collecting visitor reactions with a view to displaying the results in Madrid, where the show is scheduled to travel next.

Big Bang Data. Until October 26 at CCCB, Barcelona and February 25 through May 24 at Fundación Telefónica, Madrid. Click here for more information.

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