Although artification is an old process, if viewed from a sociological perspective, or even prehistoric, if we accept a fundamentally behaviourist premise, its theory (or a set of theories) is just emerging. Data art and other intersecting forms of art have been around for a while. Data artification, on the other hand, has hardly been discussed in the context of how non-art, i.e. data, is turned into art by artifying microprocesses (Shapiro 2019) or adaptive nanoprocesses (Dissanayake 2017). The existing body of research done so far in this area emphasize the social functions of artifying things, their makers, and users. The premise of this article is that social amelioration is secondary or even irrelevant in some cases where ratification, instead, plays cognitive and phenomenological roles in the face of intellectual crisis when datafied things and activities that are entangled with our lives in ubiquitous, automated, and overused ways lose their meaning. Data artification is not concerned with making data aesthetically appealing, hence it should not be confused with the notion of aestheticization. On the contrary, by drawing on the artwork of Fabio Lattanzi Antinori and Nathalie Miebach, I will argue that data artification is intellectually dissident in more radical ways than academia. It is critically meta-artistic and meta-scientific since it deconstructs empty data fetishes and produces new meanings or knowledge-making forms in interstitial and intersemiotic ways.
Keywords: Data artification; Interstitial meaning-making; Intersemiotic; knowledge production; Data fetishization; Intellectual discontent
In English and French, the early meaning of the neologism of artification tended to be pejorative (Shapiro 2004, 2012), though the notion has recently come to encompass a set of critical theories dealing with diverse cases and contexts of transforming non-art to art (Dreon 2018). Dissanayake (2017) views artification as an adaptive/exaptive response to the environment, which informs our aesthetic and ethical intents expressed by ritualized and modified behaviours. Shapiro’s sociological perspective emphasizes its transformative role in changing the definition and status of people, artefacts, and diverse activities that extend far beyond the traditional or any notions of art.
Apart from changing the social status of makers, traders, and consumers of non-art or not-enough-art, artification plays cognitive and phenomenological roles in the production of meaning and knowledge when things cease making sense or are ungraspable in general. The reasons of meaning loss are many, varying from intimate existential crises to collective social instabilities. Data have grown to be ubiquitously entangled with the ways we live and communicate to the point at which its “plural logic” (Koro-Ljungberg et al. 2019) can no longer provide answers or escapes our attempts to grasp what it means. A data point constructed to signify something in the real world enters a chain of semiotic transformations when it joins other data points to form ever larger datasets. The ties between those single points and what they represent alone and as a cluster are severed in subsequent social contracts of analysis, exchange, and consumption. Once the signifier is emancipated from its origins, it makes itself available for reproduction as an object of desire and control.
For that matter, it is interesting when art does something different with data to
provoke our assumptions about its fetishized value and mystified meanings or to
challenge the absence of such assumptions. While art may use data as its creative
medium, it is not necessarily concerned with critical inquiries into data anxieties,
incoherences, and obscurities. Unlike the notion of data art, artification, on the other
hand, is heuristically more capable of capturing how intellectual unrest underpins the
use of aesthetic means to reclaim and create new meanings or meaning-making forms.
Neither is artification a synonym of aestheticization.
I will discuss artifying approaches to data with reference to some artwork of Fabio Lattanzi Antinori and Nathalie Miebach after a brief outline of how data fetishization and artification are entangled. I will position their works as aesthetic prototypes of phenomenological meaning-making to argue that intellectual discontent with how things are is at the root of artification and that existential unease with the obscuring effects of datifying our lives opens new pathways for critically intersemiotic and interstitial knowledge production.
2 Data Distractions and Paradoxes
Data and datafication have become so ubiquitous that we often forgo the difficult questions as to what constitutes data in return for social approval and comfort. Textbook definitions, according to which data are facts, information, or descriptions of things “collected to be examined” (Cambridge Dictionary) or “typically collected together” (OED), are not of great analytical use since they broadly generalize various activities done to collect all sorts of things.
If any aspect persists in these definitions, it is the notions of collection and collecting. We have been gathering evidence and describing things for a long while, which laid the foundations of knowledge systems based on data storing, indexing, curating, displaying, and other accumulative activities. To datify things often means to put them into numbers. Collecting and counting are hence entangled in the production, consumption, and possession of data. By inscribing our beliefs and desires on collections, collectors, collectibles, and their measurements, we create fetish objects and routines of regulation and control. In a gripping history of measure, units, and standards, Lugli (2019) zeroes in on how their definitions were used to raise and resolve political conflicts in medieval Northern and Central Italy. Nowadays fetishist slogans such as “data is beautiful” or “data is the new oil” mark the rise of new politicized measures. The recent Covid-19 outbreak reveals how differently each country has been reporting its death toll and how quickly the international communities have weaponized those differences.
From a phenomenological perspective, data mean something else each time we count things. Their plural logic invites the exploration of data in terms of other things and experiences. Yet the line between exploration and exploitation is thin. In the context of neoliberalism, data pluralism has failed to translate into equitable power distribution or more radically critical relationships with data, argue Koro-Ljungberg et al. (2019). Quantification and datafication, as measures of veracity or reputability grounded in science, have become a form of economic and political censorship applied on many levels. Both equip us with a sense of truth, but also discursive powers to influence how others think and act. The metrics of public service performance reveals systemic cases of abuse and misuse in which vulnerable groups are disempowered and exploited (Muller 2018).
The hope that academia can be a place of intellectual resistance against the measures
of “preapproved desires that deregulation, data autonomy, and efficiency amount
to excellence” persists (Koro-Ljungberg et al. 2019, p. 730). But dissident pluralism is
a live thing that needs to breathe incessantly and at will. Institutional knowledge
production often becomes entangled in social contracts in which sources from where
powers and values attributed to data assets come from are obscured (Thomas et al.
2018). For companies to obtain and manage big data to feed algorithms and machine
learning, many invisible and underpaid laborers do menial work for a fraction of cost.
Amazon thrives on precarious labor of those who annotate huge amounts of data from their homes. Facebook content moderators are routinely exposed to traumatizing content, but the emotional toll that their job takes on is invisible to our decontaminated consumption. The structure of scientific explanation, amongst other things, is informed by its desire to be recognized and rewarded by data-driven bureaucratic machines. In its race for social recognition and financial survival, science can hardly remain impervious to controversies. Genetics, for example, still happens to use genes as contentious units of measuring human intelligence by interpreting correlations as deterministic causal links (Saini 2019, pp. 183–196).
On the positive side, technological fetishism sparks creativity, while a far bigger concern is the theologically persistent propaganda selling the utopias of a better life (Thomas et al. 2018, p. 9). Big data is a clever marketing invention that operates as a form of distraction, argues Few (2018), to screen colonial practices, which not only hide from where labor comes, but also how data is consumed, multiplied, and recycled in asymmetrical ways along the chain of multiple exchanges. In this new context of data colonialism, genetics and biotechnology companies, for example, profiteer from data capital built by exploiting organic matter along with human hopes and fantasies of reclaimed ancestry. Koro-Ljungberg et al. (2019) warn that data obscurities and paradoxes may cause intellectual paralysis. The alternative response in this ethical and phenomenological crisis is anomie and unrest that lead onto interrogations and resistances through the artifying of what is hidden under the surface of data fetishization.
3 Phenomenology of Artification
Artification does not denote a specific school, movement, or coherent philosophical system. It is rather an old process that takes many shapes and places. It is thus transhistorical and interstitial, and intersemiotic. From a sociological perspective, it emerges whenever human ambition finds a space in which to develop oneself and refine a specialized body of knowledge until it receives a public and institutional recognition taken by (Shapiro 2004, 2012, 2019). Various activities and things that once stigmatized their makers, wearers, traders, and consumers have acquired artistic value over the course of time. Italian painters and sculptors, for example, could not enjoy individual forms of creative production until they emancipated themselves from the guilds. Tattoos used to be the tokens of shame, slavery, and social segregation until their significance was reconfigured through artifying processes (Kosut 2014). The recognition achieved in this way entails social independence, democratization, empowerment, and demarginalization of individuals and social groups.
Social amelioration, however, may secondary or even irrelevant, as in the cases discussed in Sects. 4 and 5. Artification is a multifaceted process that adapts, evolves, and reinvents itself. Shapiro (2019) discerns ten ‘microprocesses’ of artifying non-art and not-enough-art. On the adaptive/exaptive level, artifying involves nano-processes such as the modification of facial, vocal or bodily expressions made to elicit not only aesthetic, but also affective responses observed in boding relationships across species (Dissanayake 2017).
Data art intersects with other forms of information, generative, code, and algorithmic art, which involve various uses of data in the production of aesthetic objects and experiences. None of them lack institutional or academic recognition. Yet the notions of art, art making, and artification do not signify the same things, even though they overlap to some extent. Artification is not complementary to or derivative of art, argues Dissanayake (2017, p. 17). It is foundational to our aesthetic expressions and inventions that may never result in the production of artefacts. Yet, whenever artefacts are created, it is the process of their making that resists becoming a fetish. One of the ten artifying microprocesses is the tendency to produce reflexive discourse (Shapiro 2019, pp. 271–272; Shapiro and Heinich 2012) around stigmatized, marginalized, suppressed, and otherwise socially invisible activities. “Discursive reinforcement” and “intellectualization” (Shapiro and Heinich 2012) emerge along with the recontextualization of that what is being artified, which in result changes its ontological structure and semiotic significance. Unlike in psychology, in the context of artification, intellectualization plays a positive role since it invents new forms of critical consciousness indispensable to artifying attainments. For the critical mind, disbelief in neoliberal logic and values would be replete with opportunities to deconstruct and estrange data from its habitual definitions and uses anchored in incongruous social contracts.
History is replete with aesthetic inventions which sit comfortably neither with art nor science. They belong in the domains of meta-art or -science created in attempt to resolve phenomenological crises of knowledge whenever the existing forms and systems of knowing and meaning-making become impenetrable, inaccessible or distrusted.
Although often overlooked in the history of science and technology, they are essentially
the objects of knowledge that anticipated the scientific articulation and implementation
of ideas. Stéphane Mallarmé’s life-time project called Le Livre (The Book) is
one of many such examples. Mallarmé constructed something that he envisaged to be
more encompassing and transcending than any existing media of his time. He did not
have technical knowledge or relevant language to articulate what he wanted to deliver.
Initially, he was torn between the concepts of theatre and book to name his invention.
Yet his intellectual perseverance overcame linguistic and technical limitations. The
architecture of Le Livre was meant to allow the reader to traverse the text in any way at
any point. Underneath its poetic language and resemblance to a book, Mallarmé’s
construct, though not completely realized, evokes the literary and scientific ideas of
hypertext due to which it could be positioned as its aesthetic prototype.
Since such aesthetic prototypes are created outside the institutional modes of knowledge production, it takes time to recognize their significance at the intersection of diverse disciplines. By asking “When is artification?”, Shapiro and Heinich (2012) place an emphasis on socio-historical contexts in which artifying happens. The whenquestion also relates to the intimate reasons of autopoietic knowledge production, which may be dismissed or pre-empted within dominating networks of education and scientification. Yet coherent theories arise and go away in science. Even those explanations that persist or prevail as true are socially constructed filters, lens, and screens. Intellectual crisis is not a problem per se, but whether it can be productive is. Unlike the subversive phenomenology and logic of artification, institutionalized meaning-making most often cannot afford being radical and dissident enough or consistent to resist the forms of knowing made to measure.
4 Deconstructing the Data Oracle
Fabio Lattanzi Antinori builds sculptures and installations out of steel, paper, electric paint, data, and other cross-media materials. I met him first in his workshop held in the V&A where he talked about his work made around and with data. Fabio’s encounters with fortune-telling practices, such as South Korean Saju, and their symbiosis with modern business have informed his artwork called Fortunate Tellers or Future Words. His installations are elegant on the outside, yet critical from the inside.
Fabio’s other piece which deals with data is called Dataflags (see Fig. 1), curated as a part of the V&A collection. This transmedia installation is made of a screenprint on paper covered in electrically conductive paint and connected to a microcontroller board which turns the painted surface into a sensor. Upon a touch, a piece of stock exchange data spanning ten years of the Lehman Brothers’ financial trading will be sung by a soprano voice.
Dataflags is built to deconstruct and demystify the fetishized fabrication of trading data. In psychological and social terms, stock markets are clandestine places hidden in plain sight. Our knowledge of what stock markets do and how they operate is disembodied, abstract, and insubstantial, hinging on the symbolic imagery of buildings, contracts, and omnipresent graphs illustrating sale rises and falls. Stock markets give business a quick access to public capital, but not the other way round. The meaning of financial commodities and trading data are enshrouded in technical jargon, ticker symbols, intermediary facilitation of financial transactions, and the like.
Fabio reifies the data of the New York Stock Exchange in visual, tactile, and auditory ways, thus allowing his audience to experience its fetish materiality up close. His artifying critique lies in the naming, design, and execution of the aesthetic piece, realized as a large rectangular flag suspended in the air. Its semantic and visual association with the flag is evocative of the emblematic and decorative functions of data.
The artwork displays a graphic pattern in white and black dominating the flag’s right side at the bottom. Its decorative quality as if embodies the “data is beautiful” doctrine, but Fabio defetishizes rather than aestheticizes data. This first impression collapses as soon as one discovers that the pattern summarizes the 10-year financial data from before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy whose detrimental implications for the global political economy translated into far-reaching economic and psychological recession.
By mapping the median of all share prices, Fabio reduced the ten-year data to a small representation, outbalanced by the huge black expanse of deceptive nothingness to show how manipulative the rhetoric of data is. He allows his viewers to realize that the disembodied and elusive data have very tangible effects. This compressed graphic representation provokes the question as to what forces that deflated the long-standing legacy in a matter of weeks remain hidden in the graph.
The operatic component, which is the voice of an English opera singer recorded at Goldsmiths, adds more complex layers of meaning to the artwork. The singer’s performance of numbers and financial symbols was mapped onto trading values. Fabio chose an operatic soprano as the metaphor of the language of high finance since both are associated with elitism. At the highest end of the soprano range, the voice sounds almost hysterical, which makes words incomprehensible (F L Antinori, personal communication, 22 May 2020). The voice thus lends anthropomorphic agency to data. Like oracles in Antiquities, its soprano faculties evoke social incoherences and remoteness between the contemporary financial gods and society.
The performing dataflag provides an atmospheric experience. Yet its multimodal and intersemiotic aesthetic consumption is designed to disturb and challenge our assumptions about the materiality, iconicity, objectivity, and stability of data. It reminds us that data have become an ideological interface through which we see and interact with the world.
5 Pataphoric Modelling of Weather Data
Phenomenological approach to data as a means of interrogating its materiality also underpins the sculptures and musical scores created from weather data by Nathalie Miebach. Data often represent complex and continuous things in discrete ways such as numbers and graphic shapes. Nathalie pushes back against the methods of discretization by inventing her own systems of collecting, analyzing, and interpreting weather data, which transgress fluidly the semiotic and symbolic boundaries of knowledge systems.
Figure 2 juxtaposes the music score and the sculpture which Nathalie created by using the weather record of the 1991 Perfect Storm, also known as the Halloween Storm, during which the ship called Andrea Gail sank. The image on the left side features the 2nd Act of the score based on wind levels, barometric pressure readings, and cloud cover during the fatal night. The vertical axis with its four-partite scale from 1 to 12 represents a piano keyboard with its black and white keys.
Composer Matthew Jackfert translated that data into the musical piece called “Shifting Winds” for which the quantifiable elements such as wind and pressure readings provided the fixed tune. The image on the right side shows the sculpture called “The Winds Kept Roaring Through the Night” which is one of many weather sculptures that Nathalie has been building since 2006. Like Fabio, Nathalie seeks to materialize the underlying meaning-making mechanism rather than anything else. Every colour bead and string of the sculpture signifies weather elements that can be interpreted as musical notes (Miebach, “Art made of storms”).
Nathalie (Miebach, “Art made of storms”) admits that experimenting with the data medium in aesthetic ways was her intuitive way into science. Her concern to make scientific data more relatable to human experiences and thus live is a recurring theme (N Miebach, personal communication, 25 May 2020). Her techniques of data collection are radically immersive since she indiscriminately exposes herself to various weather conditions. By exercising intersemiotic transitions from weather to music and sculpture, Nathalie creates a new practice of multimodal meaning-making, which privileges phenomenology over ontology. Her artefacts illustrate how knowledge and knowing can transcend specialized, vernacular, confined, obscured, circumscribed, untranslatable, and otherwise semiotically enclosed boundaries of disciplinary knowledge codification. The intersemiotic plasticity of her approach challenges the deterministic views that media boundaries, though mobile, are inherently permanent (Eide 2016). The ethical implication of Nathalie’s artifying practices is that her uses of data are not depletive but rather procreative. Her semiotic invention might not be an easily replicable, reproducible, and portable knowledge system, which, on the other hand, prevents itself from becoming the means and locus of exploitation.
Many other inventions involve metaphorical thinking reflected in language use.
Horseless carriage, for example, used to refer to the early motor cars in English. The
modern use of the Icelandic word sími for telephone is rooted in its old literal meaning
“long thread”. The ontological structures of inventions depend on those metaphors.
Nathalie’s systems are both metaphoric and pataphoric since she conceptualizes one
thing in terms of another, but also stretches her imagination until a new form of
Some inventions, like the ones by French artist Mallarmé or Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan, are slowly making their way at their own pace into the history of science. The phenomenologically idiosyncratic processes of how they were created, on the other hand, are more likely to be overlooked as discoveries. Intellectual artification escapes the temptations of becoming an institution, which makes it inherently dissident. However, the lack of recognition of intersemiotic and interstitial artwork as a form of technological discovery or scientific explanation deoxygenates the systems of knowledge-making.
The spirit of intellectual avant-garde has faded, speculates Latour (2004, pp. 225–226). Indeed, the neoliberal programme and policies of science supposed to converge academia, industries, and politics may have played their role in colonizing the wild frontiers of dissident intellectualism. Perhaps intellectualism has become less loud and more private in the ways it articulates its ideas. Or perhaps its visibility is subject to change in the historical lens through which we see intellectuals differently now than then. In hindsight, the French avant-garde of the interwar period may seem to have been creating as if on the precipice of or in anticipation of disaster. Perhaps this image of the old avant-garde casts too long shadow to appreciate the quiet forms of rebellion persisting nowadays.
The data artwork of Fabio Lattanzi Antinori and Nathalie Miebach are dissident in their own introspective ways. Fabio’s artification deconstructs the spectral operations of stock markets, thus exposing them as immaterial fetishes. Nathalie, on the other hand, interrogates the materiality of data to discover intersemiotic meanings in autopoietic ways. Fundamentally, they both produce aesthetic models, discourses, and micro-phenomenological systems of knowledge informed by their intellectual discontent with how things are made or presented to be known.
Some of their works have already entered museum collections, and thus have become embedded in the institutional networks of value production, which in the longterm may obscure their interstitial nature and subversive processes by means of which they came into being. While artification may gain social recognition for things and their makers, no vessel of institution or codification can contain and retain it, which has secured its transhistorical longevity and productivity as an instrument of social or intellectual self-making. Each case of artifying amasses a body of unique lore in between the established disciplines, systems, and approaches as well as outside its regimented definitions and practices. From the perspective of exploitative data systems, a study of such interstitially produced autopoietic knowledge would be a subversive practice by itself.
There is something exciting and transformative about a sculptor’s first public commission. It heralds a shift in gear, providing the artist with the tools to extend their ambitions, flex their creative muscles, and reach new and exciting audiences. People who, whether by inclination or a sense of exclusion, do not ordinarily “go to” art, find art coming to them.
In the case of Fabio Lattanzi Antinori’s playful and thought-provoking First Plinth commission, they will discover it on the Old Brompton Road, set against the Flemish-style fandangles of Dora House, and beside the flickering price masts of the Shell petrol station next door. Or they will come by it as they wander along the canal in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, relaxing on a day off, or on their way to the shopping and athletics centres nearby.
The Cost of Your Words is inspired by the kind of billboards commonly found along motorways or other large public spaces, but also by the transformation of São Paolo following the Clean City Law (2007), prohibiting advertising. The removal of content from the thousands of billboards that punctuated the city left behind a series of empty frames, strangely sculptural and assertive, places of potential once again.
Many of Antinori’s works are data driven, using either archives and databases (e.g. stock exchange forecasts and official statistics, or records of flash crashes and dark pools) or real time data feeds, to unpeel the mechanisms driving and transforming our commonly accepted notions of reality. In works such as Astral Charts: The LSE and The Capital Standard, he has set forecasts by economists alongside those of financial astrologers and Seju practitioners (Korean shamanic fortune tellers), commenting on the blind faith we put on data as a measure of value and stability, but also as a predictive tool, underlining the tension between available knowledge and the lengths we go to, to “make sense” of the world. In Masters and Slaves, he has used the financial data from flash crashes (sudden and hard to explain devaluations in stock prices) of Facebook and Google to lay bare the accelerated processes by which human systems have become enmeshed with the machinations of technologies it’s becoming increasingly impossible fully to understand, let alone control.
In Antinori’s words, the purpose of The Cost of Your Words is partly “to make a piece that is an ad, but is not”: using the frame of the advertisement to show the workings behind it. In particular, the way that the language we use in our digital lives is appropriated by future predictive algorithms to forecast what we might buy based on our tastes, interests and purchase history. This data then feeds into the valuation of individual terms (keywords), the price of which is determined depending on how likely it is to drive viewers to the clients paying to use them.
In the work, a series of LED screens announces the price of different words in real time, tracking their prevalence and fluctuations through a live feed from Google Adwords, which is constantly updating the value of key terms that visitors to the surrounding area will use in their online searches. Antinori has made separate accounts, one for when the work is installed in South Kensington, and another for when it moves to the Olympic Park this summer.
The artist has a longstanding interest in advertising communication: the language but also the profiling mechanisms that identify and determine how a marketing message is to be targeted. His works point out the sinister implications of these powerful agents of manipulation, but also draw out unexpected absurdities in how we read and make sense of visual information. In one of his earliest pieces, DPS, random combinations of images and text give rise to apophenia, the cognitive tendency to perceive patterns between unrelated phenomena. The results are often poignant or pedestrian, but the work rings with the comic tingle of the non sequitur. Shorn of context, words become funny but also strange again. This will be an element of The Cost of Your Words, where at any one time the display may be proclaiming the cost of South Kensington, sculpture, coffee, education, Westfield, swimming or Kapoor, in terms of pennies and pounds.
Antinori’s practice dramatises and interrogates the increasingly problematic concept of Free Will in a world that has lately been transformed beyond recognition by the creeping ubiquity of data. It provokes us to reflect on the price we have shown ourselves willing to pay for convenience in exchange for our privacy, and unsettles us by pointing to the trade-offs in play. The AI-powered systems which give us the immediate, visible benefit of streamlining our online experience – whether as consumers or in our recreational pursuits – are also codes cast across our lives like an invisible net and tightening around us, click by click.
From within the filter bubble, we still fancy we are free to choose the content we have access to, when in fact the means by which this knowledge arrives to us itself embodies a series of algorithmic processes which are incompatible with such a chaotic – yet ultimately free – relationship to the world of information. And this information – be it in the form of messages or products – is being sold to us as a result of a data economy where our online profile has a value. Whether or not we are comfortable acknowledging the extent to which this is true, unless we take steps to protect our identity, we are being digitally manipulated in all our online interactions.
At the risk of moving into the realm of conspiracy, we would do well to ask whether the masters of our digital data have hidden agendas. Those of us born before this paradigmatic shift can comfort ourselves with the notion of having once known our own minds. But we are already living with the political consequences of mass, targeted manipulation in the shape of democratic outcomes such as Brexit and elections around the world. Post Cambridge Analytica, how sure can any of us be of the freedom of our consumer, political and lifestyle choices now?
If you can control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words
Philip K. Dick, How To Build A Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later (1978)
What is the cost of our words?
As I write this, the word ‘Future’ is trending on the UK on-line market at $7.03 per click (SEMrush, 2018). In the highly lucrative world of on-line advertising, the price per click (or PPC) of a search word, hence a keyword, is the price for each click on an ad (technically defined as a PPC Ad) placed on Google AdWords, Bing Ads and Naver Ad Services and similar on-line platforms.
The live updated algorithm tracking the keyword overview of the word ‘Future’ is now blinking on the webpage; it wants me to know that it is ready to help, should I want to start planning my next advertising campaign. There are 8.533 Phrase Match Keywords I can choose from and according to my live update, at least 910 related keywords. Starting from the keyword, I could cast a digital net, made up of related keywords, just as wide enough to pick the right amount of potential buyers, depending on demographic factors such as age, interests, sex, race etc. Should any of the buyers be interested enough to click on one of my ads, my contract with the platform requires me to pay the agreed price for one click, based on the threshold of how much I am willing to pay or in other words, my maximum bid. This is because on-line advertising is a system based on continuous competition between those who want to advertise their products or services; the very same platform where they want to advertise is ranking them, based on how relevant their advertising is to the end users; the more valuable this is, the better the score and the ad placement and ultimately the better chances of winning their temporary place in the sun.
Powered by ultrafast digital technology and capable of fully automated marketing deployment plans, this ecosystem proceed by transforming every individual’s online search, into a potential for profit. The underlying principle is simple: the more a word is queried on a specific platform, the more value or high-volume it will have and the more expensive to buy it will be while the opposite is also true.
A technology that commodifies language in order to maximise profit on one side, also happens to be the one that, with the ultimate purpose of offering more and more tailored content to its users, analyses individuals’ data in real time, thousands times a second, in order to build potential digital personas for each one of them.
Profiling techniques aimed at understanding customers individual brand preferences and on-line tracking behaviour advertising greatly contribute to twisting the very essence of time.
My online present and past behaviour, from the links that I click on, to the time I spend on specific pages, to the paragraphs that I seem to read the most, to the keywords I search for, is collected, filtered and analysed, in order to allow advertisers - and the platforms collecting data in the first place - to imagine potential future patterns of my behaviour.
This way of imagining our future, constantly based on partial versions of the past, ultimately collapses time into one dimension where it is bound to repeat itself infinitively in the name of instant advertising. Created through personalised data filtered by artificial intelligence, these manufactured futures, see the individual as a mere passive figure at the centre of the experience through data and we are left wondering what is the role of the individual and if it is still there or if anything instead has gotten irremediably lost. It is a future that has lost its inscrutability, the triumph of the deterministic mind over nature, illusion of control of manifested destinies, paper tiger infrastructure vulnerable to the inescapable cyber attacks and data breaches.
When in 2001 four-year old Tia from South East London was made to compete against a seasoned trader and a financial astrologer to see who would make the most amount of money, on the stock market, in a week-long experiment organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, she won by picking her stock randomly (News.bbc.co.uk, 2018).
In addition to data profiling, and in order to improve relevance in on-line search results, platforms employ ranking algorithms, that scavenge millions of pages found on each search, in order to filter the ones deemed more significant for the user also have the consequence of isolating the same individuals in one impermeable bubble of information: the filter bubble.
Internet grows at incredible rates. To give you an idea, data analysts at Ahref discover on average 1.8million new pages every 24 hours! Of which 91% don’t get any traffic on search platforms such as Google. This is a universe of knowledge without a face nor a shape (The Internet does not exist, 2015) and if one puts it in relation with human’s short attention span currently rating at 8.25 seconds (3.75 shorter than it was in year 2000 when it was last recorded), it is easy to understand why being on the second page of Google’s results, is the equivalent of being banished to oblivion, as Scott Galloway puts it (GALLOWAY, 2018).
It might also be easy to imagine how influential those platforms are. And how latent bias in data analysis and machine learning might affect the filtering algorithms responsible for selecting the content we are presented with, every time we search; they are ultimately responsible for individual’s freedom to access unfiltered information.
From word to keyword. In the realm of the virtual brain and shared information, our ability to remember is being more and more altered by the possibility of immediately accessing an apparent unlimited amount of facts. The possibility is so tempting and digital technology so pervasive, that we so often fail to remind ourselves who is filtering our access to information and what are the ethical considerations behind the way this filters are designed, too often by a handful of private companies.
The dream of Internet as a free space that would unite individuals from across the globe and allow them to collaborate has morphed into the dystopian reality of a controlled territory where digitally built monopolies work against democracy itself in the name of profit and convenience of an easier life for the masses, or at least for those who can afford it.
The dichotomy of private and public has long characterised the on-line domain; after all in South Korea as in many other countries, Internet was initially developed in the world of research and universities before becoming the hunting ground for private profit. Internet is always associated with the idea of free access to information, where in reality the opposite is true as we pay considerable amount of money in order to connect to it. Not to mention the fact that our interaction with it - the raw data we leave behind - is collected, analysed, sold and monetised to make us […] ‘buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like’ as David Ramsey puts it. (insert graph body shaper with caption (Shopify's Ecommerce Blog - Ecommerce News, Online Store Tips & More, 2018)
Nowadays, as institutions worldwide struggle to keep the pace of technological developments and even fail to understand their value, impact and future consequences, there seems to be a market inspired philosophy at play, promoted by a plethora of startups and digitally driven companies offering quick and easy solutions and racking up instant scalable profit in exchange for our data. Instead of lengthy public debates on shared facts, we get private meetings between few individuals shielded behind morning briefing session in a private meeting room; instead of public laws made accessible to every member of the community, we have an army of sealed black boxes kept close in order to protect the various proprietary technologies from indiscreet eyes.
Protected against any cognitive dissonance and truly believing that our personal ecosystem of information is a credible reflection of reality, we forget that our “computer monitor is a kind of a one-way mirror, reflecting your own interests while algorithmic observers watch what you click”. (Pariser, 2012)
The artwork I am presenting as part of the show, makes use of different techniques in order to identify the most valuable South Korean keywords to be searched online. It contains a list of keywords ranked to be among the most profitable ones for the days of the duration of the show. They were selected by using payed-for online forecast reports; compiled by Saju master Janet Shin by using the dates of birth of Never as well as the date of the first Internet connection operated in South Korea; randomly picked among those who have been most popular during the last few months. The artwork is made out of a structure in aluminium, modelled after the graph of the most important keywords searched for in South Korea over the recent months (source Naver 2018). Three paper panels, screen printed with conductive paint, feature visual motifs derived from the same selected keywords.
The work has a strong sculptural component, but it also comes to life, revealing its interactive nature, when the audience chooses to come in contact with it. A choir of synthesised voices are the sonic outcome of each of the audience interactions with the work, whether touching the interactive prints or simply moving their body in close proximity to them. The ‘singing’ paper announces each one of the forecast keywords, followed by a choir of echoing their relative pay per click.
Through this intimate interaction, the artwork creates a connection with the audience, that is both private and public at the same time; the tactile experience of exploring the surface of the interactive panels, implies a direct and personal relationship with the piece. It also implies that the public decides to go against the unspoken rule of not touching any displayed work of art in general. The acoustic output that takes place as a consequence of the interaction, finally transports the privacy of the tactile experience, to the public domain of sound. It is in doing so that the interactive sculpture becomes a metaphor of the relationship we entertain with the invisible world of data. The audience has the illusion of being able to affect the sonic output of the work, when in fact the sound is already predestined through the use of the keywords.
Like in contemporary life, the illusion of empowerment and a promise of convenience through ‘free’ digital services, results in the cost of our lives becoming productised. Our every step recorded and measured and the paths we take increasingly, yet quietly revealed to us by the master algorithm.
‘The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory’ wrote G.S. Halifax (Halifax, 1750). Recent scientific discoveries are increasingly proving he may have been right. It appears indeed that imagining the future involves the same capabilities we normally employ to remember the past: in other words, we can only imagine our future if we can access our memories.
This means that we construct future events in our brain – by recombining past memories of events we have lived or which we have read or heard about. When we tell someone about our plans for the weekend, we imagine our future – by projecting memories of past weekends onto it. In other words, we mentally travel back in time by re-remembering past events, and similarly we visit the future and imagine how this will be like. When we do so, we employ imagination to enrich the scene with the greatest level of detail; we hear the voices of friends we will visit and write the entire script of the conversation we will entertain with them. We even anticipate the emotions we will feel. We de-facto remember them before they take place.
Imagining and rehearsing our future based on past experiences has been an indispensable tool that has allowed humans to increase their chances of survival greatly across millennia of history. Psychologist Endel Tulving believes our brain has evolved to be constantly aware of the past and the future; he calls this state of being able to project oneself in the non-present time Chronesthesia (Tulving E. 2002). Slowly, over millennia, mankind realised that they could learn how to behave in the future from past events; this way they could refine tools and strategies that functioned well and abandon those that didn’t, reinforce friendly relationships, stay away from enemies and be prepared in case of danger.
The job of science has always been intimately concerned with understanding the future. This is because the scientific method onto which science is based generates predictions as a consequence of the hypotheses or ideas about why nature behaves in a certain way.
If, as Yann LeCun suggests, ‘Prediction is the essence of Intelligence’ (LeCun, 2017), then it comes as no surprise that technology with the power to produce great shifts in human history is indeed being taught to predict the future with as much accuracy as possible.
By crunching a large amount of data, AI models learn to accurately predict the weather, predict the likelihood that you will commit a certain crime, and even (on a more mundane note) predict the final results of a football match.
The oracle of predictive analytics’ models, coupled with statistic data and machine-learning techniques, can indeed foresee future events with an increasing degree of accuracy.
In order for the most accurate predictions to be produced, information needs to flow as freely as possible between an ever-growing number of interconnected data processing systems. Obviously, as the amount of data being produced continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for humans to be able to compute it and make sense of it. Gaining knowledge is a lengthy process, which requires the ability and time to focus deeply. Human brains simply aren’t fast enough to make these computations, especially brains kept in a state of constant and shared digital distraction.
As a result, our society is being drowned in a flood of unusable data.
So, if humans won’t be able to do this job, who (or what) will transform all this data into information and knowledge? In one of the scenarios imagined by Max Tegmark in Life 3.0 (Tegmark, 2017), the super intelligent and all-knowing AI Prometheus, seeing itself as an enslaved god, decides to break free from its creators and seize control of its destiny. It does this for the purpose of helping humans. In comparison with Prometheus, the humans are incredibly incompetent and without realizing it, are greatly slowing their own progress.Prometheus knows best.
Through the use of handsets, wearable biometric devices and personalized data-based services, private companies are busy gathering personal data from millions of users scattered around the globe. Digital technology is not “neutral”, and, as Yuval Noah Harari tells in Homo Deus (Harari, 2016), e-books’ functioning algorithms are reading us at the same time that we read them, getting to know us better, collecting accurate personal data for the purpose of understanding our customer profile, often with the simple purpose of being able to sell us more targeted products.
In this age of data processing, personal data is considered to be the most valuable asset individuals can possess. So “valuable” is it that we are happy to give it for free to data-collecting companies and profiling entities dressed as software and sophisticated digital advertising agencies.
Algorithms analysing your buying patterns and information preferences will know so much about you that by cross-referencing their data with your social network they will get to know you very well. According to a Facebook’s 2016 study, their algorithm can know you better than your family does, just by analyzing your clicks and likes. And it is very likely that in a matter of clicks on interconnected multiplatform devices (that never sleep, constantly checking your geolocalised position, heartbeat, tastes and habit, etc.), the generated algorithms will soon know you even better than you know yourself.
And when this happens, what type of relation will we have with each other?
Technological advancement has always come with a change in human’s behavior: we can no longer recognize the smell of fear among our peers or examine berries in the forest with the greatest attention, trying to gauge if they are edible or not.
Today we are busy adding items to a growing list of disappearing skills: I can hardly remember the last time I wrote someone a letter; and I have already experienced, to my surprised naïve self, the subtle embarrassing hesitancy of struggling to recall my own clear handwriting.
I read online that this is perfectly normal. Together with other skills we once thought necessary for survival, such as the ability to do mental math and remember the most important telephone numbers, we realise we can no longer navigate the physical world without our precious maps and we prefer to trust the network and isolate ourselves, instead of asking a stranger in the street.
In an era dominated by ‘the lack of a robust conceptual framework’ (Greenfield, 2006) and a culture that prefers to skim the surface of short message communication, often caring more to achieve the wow factor then to go deep into details of matters, the idea of immediate shareable experiencing may become more important than learning.
Recent research claims that creativity and imagination flourish in scarcity, while tend to become absent in abundant mindsets; it also states that young adults have been steadily becoming less creative and imaginative over the last 40 years. Artificial intelligent systems instead are being equipped with the ability to imagine very well. Perhaps they will become the next generation of artists.
Google’s Deepmind developed I2As (imagination-augmented agents), AI systems able to deduct information that might be useful for future decisions, fully capable of displaying skills such as intuition and creativity, learning from strategies and imagining possible scenarios for specific tasks.
At the same time, we are growing more and more accustomed to storing our personal memories, the fundamental bricks of our very imagination, outside our bodies, on external shared devices; while unprepared for the consequences of such an evolutionary new step. We are allowing our private sphere morph into a public stage, an arena where everything is recorded and nothing ever dies or is truly forgotten.
If the Bell Labs’ dream of an Internet of All Things will ever manifest, with interconnected sensors converting to data everything ‘animate or inanimate,’ and data travelling at a speed 60 times faster than today – then human’s evolutionary algorithm, unless upgraded, will soon be outdated.
Who, then, will be imagining the future… and whose future will that be?
Making Art Across the Financial World and Systems of Belief in the Work of Fabio Lattanzi Antinori
Etienne Verbist: Who are you and what do you do?
Fabio Lattanzi Antinori: I am an artist working in a range of mediums from sculpture, print, sound, text to interactive installations. My work lies at the intersection of different disciplines, that is why I often collaborate with other artists, thinkers, designers, engineers, scientists and researchers.
EVB: Tell us about your work.
FLA: Through my work, I try to understand mechanisms that underpin notions of belief in the society and how these are shared between individuals. Exploring how the language of corporate systems and economic power can reshape our perception and definition of reality, the creation of value and even influence our language of the interior are also main recurrent themes of my artistic production. In the last couple of years, my main focus has moved to the world of international finance and some of its more mysterious aspects concerning the relationship between faith and belief. After all, the financial system is kept alive by millions of daily voluntary acts of faith, as Neil McGregor once said. It is this apparent dichotomy of a system being perceived as solid and virtual, that truly fascinates me.
EVB: What is your goal?
FLA: Keep making art and in the process, to find out whatthe whole thing is about.
EVB: What is your dream project?
FLA: Something unusual with at least one ridiculouscomponent.
EVB: Why do you do what you do?
FLA: I guess it is my way of learning about life. Life is short, it would be wasted doing something you do not like.
EVB: What role does the artist have in society?
FLA: I think artists embody different roles. The extremely complex world we now live in is the result of at least 150 years of merely one economic model deeply penetrating our lives: a phenomenon that accompanies us in every aspect of our daily existence. I think of Debord’s idea of the spectacle, which assimilates every aspect of culture to the point that no cultural form can exist outside of it. And artists work with culture.
So, in this context, an artist is one who works to contribute to identify and illustrate the way that this type of power works. One who builds metaphors as part of a process of assimilation and interpretation of reality and who, more or less consciously and through personal or direct collaborative action, is capable of pinpointing the interrelationships – often private ones - that such power has with the individuals within the community. This can be from the way we coexist in the space, to the way we imagine and interact with the environment, to the truths we absorb, to the facts we choose to believe in.
In a society where the omnipresent performative role of branding occupies every single space, in order to maximize profit; where everything new can become an opportunity for targeted groups of consumers to merge in semi-divine experiences with their brands. I see art as one of the few remaining spaces where to imagine cultural meaningful operations that would be otherwise impossible to actuate, a large and differentiated space for the preservation of our imagination. And it always comes at a cost.
EVB: What themes do you pursue?
FLA: I am ultimately interested in exploring languages and the mechanisms thanks to which they develop, as an attempt to provide an answer to our usual big questions.
EVB What is your favourite art work?
FLA: I am a big fan of Superflex, I admire Allora ad Calzadilla, Jeremy Deller, Stefanos Tsivopoulos and the list goes on. I have quite a list of favourite artworks, probably enough for another interview…
EVB: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
FLA: The first time my work entered a museum’s collection.
EVB: What do you dislike about the art world?
FLA: I prefer to seek to understand rather than to dislike.
EVB: What role does art funding have?
FLA: It is vital, though difficult to navigate and very competitive. Some works, collaborations, residencies and research simply would not happen without the help of funding bodies and individuals. Or at least they would not in my case. I was lucky enough to receive funding for projects that were taking place on other continents and for which I could use the financial help in order to produce and transport the work, as well as to find a place to stay.
The role of funding in the arts is of great importance, especially in such difficult times with government cuts and a political power that struggles to recognize the value that art produces in the economic, social and political landscape of the community.
Art is one place where experimentation can happen without the constraint of immediate profit. Funding is mostly important because it helps tackle individual economic disadvantages that would otherwise prevent many artists from being able to develop their practice, exhibit, collaborate and network. It also helps with validation and endorsement; something that artists, especially when they work in the solitude of the studio or travel abroad for production of new artworks or exhibitions, can take very good advantage of.
EVB: What research do you do?
FLA: I get a lot of inspiration from critical theories and ideas, especially from economists, philosophers, anthropologists and neuroscientists. For this reason, I spend lots of time reading books, essays, meeting people and listening to podcasts and recorded materials, before actually doing something. This is a process, which continues even during the production of the artwork. I have piles of half-read, twice-read and unread books lying around at home and at the studio.
My practice is often collaborative, depending on the project I am working on. I might be working with a perfumer to develop a scent that combines theories of psychology with financial data; or something as practical as going about developing a new approach to a specific technology, by collaborating with engineers and designers; or researching into future predictive algorithms and work with traders, scientists and astrologists trying to predict the future of the stock market. At present, I am developing a new piece that is the outcome of a collaboration with economist Graziano Ceddia, which focuses on ways to expose the effects of a society becoming more and more market-driven.
EVB: What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
FLA: Try to stay healthy as this is going to require a long effort. Always persevere.
EVB: What would you have done differently?
FLA: I used to wish I had started making this type of research earlier in life; I spent many years making music. More recently, I have accepted that we are the result of our previous actions, making choices on a path of knowledge towards a higher awareness. I could not be this present version of myself without all the good and the bad things I have experienced. And as I cannot change the past, I have decided to be more concerned with learning from it to make better decisions in the present. I see it as a tedious, beautiful effort to always try and improve what we do and who we are, knowing that it is an unfinished job in a Flawed yet intrinsically perfect reality.
EVB: Which use of technology do you practice and or do you combine different technologies in your work?
FLA: I find it hard to separate technologies from one another. My main concern, fascination and curiosity lies in data and with its role of providing knowledge, hence power, in our present society.
Once the data is chosen, then the media varies. There is a lot of DIY culture in what I do and some of my artworks could really look like devices that would fall under the ‘Internet of Things’ category, if they were put on sale in a design shop or hosted on a brilliant page of a pre-made WordPress site. Context is king I suppose as it deeply influences the social, cultural and economic object of the conversation; and especially these days, when the boundaries between disciplines or sectors of human knowledge are becoming so liquid and difficult to identify, categories do not seem to last too long. On the other hand, digital technology is so pervasive that it is becoming increasingly harder for all of us to go about our lives without engaging deeply with it, one way or another, willingly or not.
I make use of and refer to digital technology, as a language to provide a critique of the actual system in which I live. The system speaks to all of us through it, so I must use it, appropriate it and reverse engineer it if needs be, in order to make space for meanings, associations, networks and possible scenarios.
EVB: What is the role of the people, the crowd in your project?
FLA: My works would not exist without them.
EVB: How can they participate in your project?
FLA: Much of my artworks shares a physical, threedimensional presence, as the translation of digital aspects into our denser reality. As such, in the majority of times the audience participates with their physical presence, by decoding the experience in their own personal and subjective way. Sometimes they do this in unexpected ways, turning the initial meaning of a specific piece upsidedown and in so, offering a new perspective on the concept or the form of the work itself.
EVB: How are you connected with the people or the crowd?
FLA: We share languages and stories in a mutually influential relationship.
EVB: The crowd economy creates meaningful experiences and shared value. How do you see it for your work?
FLA: When it comes to crowd economy, it is particularly difficult to fully identify and understand the relations of power existing in and around it. There are so many essential components that remain in the dark, whose intrinsic nature is derived on assumptions we gather from experiencing offline reality and which, when applied to digital life, simply do not work.
Trust is of uttermost importance in crowdsourcing and still the same platforms we use daily are based on nontransparent infrastructures.
The data we leave behind is being used, more or less in real-time as part of fully automated networks, to feed digital advertising. Thanks to online tracking behavioural algorithms, there is a constant correlation between our activity on-line and the generation of private, non-shared profit in the hands of those corporations that ultimately run the same platforms. If this sounds a bit too much like a conspiracy theory, it is because there is a diffused feeling, among many of us, that there might be a conspiracy of power limiting our resources and opportunities.
We need trust in order to co-exist as a community, but we also live in an age where we find it increasingly difficult to exercise trust. As Nato Thompson declares in Seeing Power, there is an extensive, global and publicly-declared war on meaning.
How can we trust the media we are using, the news we hear and overall, the genuine idea of information in the age of alter-reality, without thinking for a second that there might be a political or economical agenda behind algorithms writing news and trading on the market, facial manipulation technologies and seamless audio editing that allow you to be the puppet-master of every influential politician or individual? I feel that, thanks to being exposed to different types of advertising and similar information techniques, we are becoming more and more aware of the genuine aspect of our daily experiences and we value those that grow outside the direct involvement of branding and corporations, which instead appropriate sectors of human culture for private profit.
Can we implement policies that call for transparency, at least in digital infrastructures as professed by ideas such as stacktivism and open-data culture; in other words, can the Internet ever be free? All these aspects, issues and questions deeply inspire my artworks.
EVB: Co-creation and participation are emphasized in the crowd economy and communities take an active stake in crafting positive futures.
FLA: Certainly, but the platforms that host digital interactions are also controlled systems, whose invisible interfaces too often fail to deliver a complete transparent and balanced relationship between all participants. So, on one side you have a community wanting to co-create, on the other a series of interested companies wanting to provide opportunities and means to improve their profit by selling a specific product or service to an interested audience. And in between are often a growing number of entrepreneurs that can link the two, by providing the necessary database that the community produces to attentive buyers. It is an interesting evolution of the old direct mailing systems or if you prefer, door-to-door salesman operations. As we become more and more dependent on these platforms, we risk missing the ability to see valuable alternatives to the platforms themselves and become increasingly unaware and oblivious to the consequences that our digital personas have on the virtual and non-virtual dimensions.
EVB: How do you use the crowd?
FLA: It provides an endless source of inspiration.
EVB: How do you interact?
FLA: My works are the result of an ongoing conversation with myself, informed by considerations over the way our language is being shaped by the continuous decoding of a shared reality. This dialogue exists on very different levels and it progresses by following a circular motion, touching upon specific places or artistic production and dissemination, from the studio to the gallery or museum space.
EVB: How do you handle feedback?
FLA: Feedback is good, be it good or bad.
EVB: How do you create the interaction?
FLA: It evolves more or less naturally as the consequence of creating a specific artwork, if the artwork requires it. It takes place within closed territories of predetermined and evolving rules.
EVB: What are the results?
FLA: The meaning of the artwork changes through the experience it provides; as a result, the piece conceptually evolves, depending on the context and on the interaction with the audience.
Some aspects of the works I make will only be revealed after months of continuous and specific interaction and should that not happen, they would otherwise lie silent and unnoticed within the body of the piece itself.
EVB: How do you measure results?
FLA: To measure the outcome of a specific show or artistic production can be tricky; sometimes it will take ages for something to happen as a direct or more or less indirect result of having had a show or having made something, somewhere.
EVB: How do you measure the effect?
FLA: On a general level, I keep records and documentation from different exhibitions and try to gather meaning out of it. I also make use of more specific tools, designed by funding bodies and arts organisations.
EVB: Why participate in your project?
FLA: Why not?
EVB: On which segment is your activity or platform based on the segmentation of the crowd economy?
FLA: My activity and presence are quite transversal. I participate a lot in online communities, non-equity based crowdfunding, citizen engagement and support and more or less directly, in some causes initiated either by non-profit organisations or individuals.
PROFILE Abstract data and complex financial figures are brought to life in Fabio Lattanzi Antinori’s multimedia installations, which use printed materials to communicate surprising information in surprising ways, writes Wuon-Gean Ho
Fabio Lattanzi Antinori graduated from Goldsmiths University with a Masters of Fine Arts in Computational Technologies, a subject which he says laid emphasis on making art using sophisticated digital tools.
Collaborating with engineers and ceding control to algorithms became part of his artistic approach. While it could be said that all artists reinterpret and comment on information in another medium, Fabio’s end results are a unique example of what can happen when the media and methods are from the space age.
Fabio started working with interactive art and installation in earnest after a commission for the MAK Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art in 2010. This grand building in Vienna boasts a beautiful covered courtyard ringed by columned and vaulted walkways. In collaboration with London-based creative laboratory, Bare Conductive, and designer Alicja Pytlewska, he developed a large-scale printed installation that invited audience participation. The piece was installed in the courtyard, and aimed to bring a new understanding of the building to visitors.
‘This is a living house. A living, breathing house. / I hear it sighing, all night long.’ Thus begins The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa, whose narrator sees the world as a chameleon, through a magnified scale and with a sensitive touch. In response to this elegant building, Fabio too elected to view it as a living, breathing body, and collected data that monitored elements such as the outside humidity, air-flow and temperature. Sensors were installed that gathered information using machines that are normally used to record the human body. The data from the machines generated a variety of soundscapes, ranging from whistling, crackling, tapping and fluted tones. The sounds were augmented with commissioned, archived and found sound, and condensed into component tracks in the artwork.
The final piece, called Contours, was three huge rectangles of Tyvek floating from the ceiling, printed with a set of abstract graphics resembling a stripey keyboard. The futuristic element was that the Tyvek was screenprinted with conductive ink, which embedded capacitive sensors that reacted to human presence. In other words, when the prints were touched, they started to hum, crackle and sing, in a constantly evolving harmony. What they sang about was the space itself, a tune generated from the body of the building and all its measurements.
‘How do I ultimately prove I exist?’ Fabio recalls his invisible credit rating when he first moved to the UK from Italy. Much of his recent work has been concerned with other forms of abstract data: for example looking at the language of ratings with which people are assessed and compared, and questioning how perfect credit scores are generated. These numbers talk of our financial health in contemporary society: as if they are merely an extension of cholesterol measurements and hours slept. And what happens when the figures tell a tragic tale? Moreover, what happens when financial institutions, particularly ones that appear to have a sturdy constitution, suddenly fall into ill health and die?
The Dataflag series deals with the notion of failure in the corporate world, taking data from the rise and fall of the Lehman Brothers, a bank that collapsed in 2008. Trading figures from the share prices over its final ten years were used to generate a geometric artwork in keeping with Fabio’s sparse modernist aesthetic. Again, using Bare Conductive electrical conductive ink, the graphics were screenprinted onto huge sheets of Somerset paper. Every time the flag was touched, the share price would be announced, either sung, spoken or whispered, from hidden speakers. Melodious harmonies happened when people touched the flag in several places at the same time. The piece was installed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2014 over a weekend that attracted 12,000 visitors. The vertical orientation and size of the paper alludes to a flag, a symbol of importance and corporate identity, which imposed a reverence to the viewer, yet Fabio says that the flags also looked like big banknotes that brought happiness when touched.
‘The point is, ladies and gentlemen, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good.’ (Gordon Gekko, from the film Wall Street (1987)) After commissioning the making of Dataflag in K2, a specialist screenprint studio in London, Fabio became artist-in-residence at East London Printmakers, where he spent time developing his technique.
The Belvedere and Dry Mountain series of prints that he made are based on screenshots of the financial market whenever micro flashcrashes happened. These mysterious flash-crashes result from the market being driven by computer algorithms that sometimes spin out of control. The abstract shapes are legible from left to right, as they depict value changes with timelines along the bottom. As static images, they confront the viewer with coded imagery, only obliquely referring to imagined dramas of betrayal and recovery.
Bringing an element of interaction back to his work, data from other flash-crashes has been incorporated into The Intelligent Investor. This sculptural installation, supporting three prints made with conductive ink, takes its title from a book first published in 1946 by Benjamin Graham, that gave readers instructions on how to get rich with the share market. Touching a part of the work results in synthesized female voices reading from chance sections of the book. Fabio states, ‘The final result is rather theatrical, as the three structures can either respond to each other’s lines or choose not to comment.’
‘I’m interested in creating a bridge between data and the language of the interior.’ Fabio’s upcoming projects are equally fantastical and inventive. He is developing a perfume sculpture for a two-person show with Jeremy Everett at the Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery in London, that aims to translate a series of human features into essences, in a quest to develop a perfume inspired by greed. For another installation called Fortune Tellers, currently being developed for the Pavilion of MoCA Shanghai, with generous support from A-N Artist Information Company and The British Council’s Connections through Culture, he is plotting a work hinged on the concept of being able to see the future. For this, a choir of ethereal voices will sing together, triggering various emotions in the listener depending on the tone and pitch.
The notes begin low, in a fearful register, ascending to a mid low tone of calm, then a higher brighter sound, and finally a shrill anxiety.
The printed element of these works will feature as a gateway to viewer interaction based on an algorithm made to predict future market behaviour. ‘Printmaking forces you to know what is going to happen without necessarily knowing it. Being in contact with other printmakers allows me to understand the importance of prototypes, testing a hypothetical space. I have to leave space for mysterious things to happen as well.’ While the technical process of making is essential to Fabio’s work, it is only a small part of his complex investigation into revealing the unseeable data that surrounds us.