Art from Data

Roger Peng

There’s a nice piece by Mark Hansen about data-driven aesthetics in the New York Times special section on big data.

From a speedometer to a weather map to a stock chart, we routinely interpret and act on data displayed visually. With a few exceptions, data has no natural “look,” no natural “visualization,” and choices have to be made about how it should be displayed. Each choice can reveal certain kinds of patterns in the data while hiding others.

I think drawing a line between a traditional statistical graphic and a pure work of art would be somewhat difficult. You can find examples of both that might fall in the opposite category: traditional graphics that transcend their utilitarian purposes and “pure art” works that tell you something new about your world.

Indeed, I think Mark Hansen’s own work with Ben Rubin falls into the latter category–art pieces that perhaps had their beginnings as purely works of art but ended up giving you new insight into the world. For example, Listening Post was a highly creative installation that simultaneously gave you an emotional connection to random people chatting on the Internet as well as insight into what the Internet was “saying” at any given time (I wonder if NSA employees took a field trip to the Whitney Museum of American Art!).