To [Why] do I have to cosmeticise everything by translating it into painting? Why can’t I use straight information?
nformation overload is not a new concept. In fact, after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press during the 15th century, there was a pervasive sentiment that an overwhelming amount of books did not automatically translate to more knowledge. Worse, it impeded critical thinking. So much so that Erasmus, the famous 16th-century humanist, decried: ‘Is there anywhere on Earth exempt from the swarms of new books?’ This anxiety resurfaced with renewed vitality during the 20th century when the term ‘information overload’ was first coined by social scientist Bertram Gross in 1964. He maintained:
Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds it processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.
Although Gross’s statement is nearly six decades old, the computer age has resuscitated this apprehension that is only growing stronger by the day as digital media increasingly becomes the primary setting for human agency. Indeed, most of our lives are enmeshed with electronic media allowing governmental and corporate bodies to gather previously unthinkable amounts of information on us as consumers and citizens.
Given our current technological reality, these worries are unsurprising. There are some key questions to ask: what kind of decisions are being made with this new data? Have the quality of our decisions deteriorated with the overwhelming amount of information, as Gross pointed out? Who is making these decisions? What is their motivation? Clive Humby, a mathematician, entrepreneur and key figure in the field of data science, coined the phrase ‘data is the new oil’ in 2006 precisely to capture the more pernicious side of information overflow. Like oil, the gathering of data can be immensely profitable. Decisions that we make online can be recorded and subsequently used to understand and anticipate our innermost desires and needs. The ability of algorithms to predict our behaviour is only becoming more advanced and, with the advent of progressively-sophisticated A.I., we can expect more powerful tools capable of producing increasingly accurate, sophisticated and apposite knowledge. As well as opening a wealth of opportunities, these developments have led to an information anxiety that has engendered apocalyptic visions that see our wants, desires and actions being forcefully pulled from the cocoon of privacy, making us vulnerable to profiteering and manipulation.
It should come as no surprise that a product of computerised innovation is viewed with such suspicion, but it is an inevitable part of contemporary technological advancements. Renowned theorist of media culture Lev Manovich has maintained that:
[…] we may even call the database a new symbolic form of the computer age […] a new way to structure our experience of ourselves and the world […] it is only appropriate that we would want to develop a poetics, aesthetics and ethics of this database.
If we are to develop an aesthetics of the database, we need to understand how art can help us navigate this new reality that has placed information surplus at the centre of human interactions and transactions. Professor and artist of digital media Victoria Vesna has fittingly claimed that in an age of information overflow, artists are able ‘to play a role in the definition and design of systems of access and retrieval, and at the very least, to comment on existing practices.’ Can artistic production also show us how to engage with this phenomenon productively while uncovering its more sinister and coercive structures?
This essay’s concerns are three-fold. Firstly, it outlines the history of artistic practices that engage with information and data. Secondly, it also discusses artistic strategies, like the ones employed by American artist Trevor Paglen, that offer a form of resistance to this new symbolic form that Manovich identifies These often look ‘under the hood’ of digital systems in order to comprehend thei mechanisms. Lastly, the essay ends by analysing the other end of the spectrum: artists like Ryoji Ikeda and Refik Anadol who, instead of examining the darker side of information overflow, have decided to respond creatively and dynamically to data, conjuring a myriad of aesthetic possibilities.
In order to unpack artistic engagements with contemporary manifestations of data overflow, it is important to examine the histories that inform them. Artists’ interest in how information is displayed, organised and embedded in numerous infrastructures predates the widespread use of the internet. In fact, since the late 1960s, conceptual artists have been keen to bring data and the way it is classified into the aegis of art making. Lawrence Weiner created one of his famous text pieces, AN ACCUMULATION OF INFORMATION FROM HERE TO THERE, in 1969. The use of data as an artistic subject became widely accepted and was the theme of exhibitions and art projects. Notably, Kynaston McShine curated the show Information that opened at MoMa in 1970 and included Hans Haacke’s famous MoMa Poll, in which he asked visitors their thoughts on the then Governor Rockefeller, a key patron of the very museum that was hosting the exhibition. ‘Information,’ claimed Haacke ‘presented at the right time and in the right place can potentially be very powerful.’
Surprisingly, even though the widespread use of the internet was still decades away, artists were already investigating the impacts on society that computers would have when they became capable of producing a barrage of information. A notable example is the work of conceptual artist Agnes Denes. In 1970, she created Matrix of Knowledge, a work that was a form of visual philosophy – as it existed in prints, drawings and texts – in which she envisioned a future ridden with generalised and oversimplified information born from computerised knowledge. Calling her work ‘an aesthetic response to scientific data,’ artist Sonya Rapoport was also interested in the way that data could be translated into a visual form. For her Anasazi Series (1976), she examined the motifs of the pottery made by the Anasazi people that were all complexly based on mathematical analysis. Her analysis led her to create a series of drawings in pencil on computer print-outs. Rapoport later expanded her research into this subject, making ample use of computers to represent the information she accrued.
During the 1990s, when the internet gained widespread use, artists were quick to engage with its potential pitfalls, as well as the opportunities it brought. Acclaimed multimedia artist Antoni Muntadas was one of the first to do so. In 1994, he created his famous installation The File Room in Chicago, which consisted of a computer in a dark oppressive room that was fully lined with filing cabinet drawers. The computer contained a web-accessible database of censorship cases and visitors were encouraged to add records to its system, essentially formulating an archive of cultural censorship.
More recently, other artists have become concerned not so much with reating information as a form of resistance – like Muntadas did for The File Room – but with showcasing how the very act of data gathering can be used coercively. Trevor Paglen, for instance, has dedicated his artistic practice to unmaskin the prejudices that he sees embedded within taxonomies of complex data processing systems, claiming that his work is ‘[…] about showing what invisibility looks like.’ Paglen has long investigated the visual image sets that A.I. employs to learn about the world. In his work From ‘Apple’ to ‘Anomaly’ (2019) he created a mesmerising installation at the Barbican in London, where he displayed tens of thousands of pictures contained in a particular database that a commercially well-established A.I. software uses to gain what Paglen sees as prejudiced knowledge. These images were juxtaposed with the labels assigned to them by the system to show how, in Paglen’s words, ‘The labelling of images is unethical and the creation of training systems based on this data is also unethical.’ In this way, Paglen lays bare the often poorly-understood and obscure mechanisms that inform and construct the worldview of A.I. systems.
Rather than focusing on the social and political implications of data processing, other artists have been keen to make use of the aesthetic opportunities opened by new technology’s ability to analyse and process vast amounts of visual information. Seeking to materialise ‘pure data,’ Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda started the art project datamatics in 2006, which he created with the use of computer technologies. A series of projects ensued that frequently employ data scanning and real-time programme computations to choreograph sound and visual information, creating captivating audio-visual work. Rendered in a restrained palette of black-and-white, these works are entirely abstract in nature.
Another notable example is renowned artist Refik Anadol who, working with a team, creates what he calls ‘data sculptures.’ Anadol has maintained that:
[…] I have been working with big data and machine intelligence to develop a unique understanding and knowledge of the relationship between humans, machines and environments […] We try to emphasise why data is essential in the age of machine intelligence, especially in a world where we constantly feel like we are plugged into a system that controls our perception of knowledge.
For Machine Hallucinations (2021), Anadol used machine learning technology to analyse 100 million photographic memories of New York City found on social media. This resulted in a video installation that is abstract in nature, but is nevertheless constituted by a collective memory of the city. More recently, for this year’s famous Unsupervised that he exhibited at MoMa, he used an A.I. system to investigate the museum’s vast visual archives. The software then re-interpreted and re-imagined its findings in order to conjure up the possible avenues art history might have taken. The result was a series of mesmerising synthetic moving images that create an aesthetic that is truly without precedent.
Today, artists are engaging with the information overflow that characterises contemporary society in a myriad of ways. Some engage with existing data, but others also produce their own – as in the case of Muntadas’s practice – by involving the audience. Other artists, such as Paglen, are endeavouring to expose the underbelly of data processing systems that, in an attempt to synthesise data, frequently make certain concessions that lead to misguided insights. These, in turn, regularly replicate if not amplify systemic biases, churning out misleading predictions. In a different vein, artists like Anadol have capitalised on the way in which data processing can give birth to new knowledge and ground-breaking aesthetic possibilities. In a world in which much of our knowledge is forged in the crucible of databases and used by various public and private organisations, it is crucial that artists proactively participate in the way this information is understood, processed, used, visualised and disseminated. Contemporary artists can and should become information architects, ushering in new forms of knowledgeand summoning innovative aesthetics to help us successfully navigate this new information age.
Paula Brailovsky is a London-based art historian who finished her master’s degree at the Courtauld Institute of Art and then went on to complete her PhD at University College London in 2014. Entitled Geographies of Violence: Site-Oriented Art and Politics at the Mexico-U.S. Border From the 1980s to the Present, her dissertation centred on the intersection between art and politics in relation to nationhood, identity and the conditions of globalisation. As an academic, she has published her work in the journal Object and MIRAJ, has taught modern and contemporary art courses both at graduate and postgraduate level and has lectured nationally and internationally. In recent years, she has worked as a researcher and writer in an art consultancy where she built an academic programme and helped individuals and institutions navigate the complex waters of contemporary art and its markets. Using her academic background as a springboard, she is interested in the practical possibilities and theoretical potentials that exist at the crossroads of contemporary art, business and technology.