Black Shoals

There was one piece of work in the Big Bang Data exhibition that I did not mention in my last post: Black Shoals – Dark Matter by Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway. [1] More than any other piece in the show, many of which I was already familiar with from the Internet and academic texts, this is the one I was most excited, and most nervous, about seeing, ‘in the flesh’ so to speak.

Set in a dimly lit room towards the end of the exhibition right in the bowels of Somerset House, the viewer is invited to lie on one of a number of beanbags spread on the floor beneath a miniature planetarium dome suspended from the ceiling. Inside the dome, artificial stars twinkle against a black sky; through which swim tiny white animated ‘creatures’ each no more than a few conjoined lines. Set apart from the dome is a flat-screen monitor and joystick interface, which allows viewers to virtually fly through this sky and examine each of its stars in isolation. Controlling all of this is a bank of computing equipment, including three Mac Pros, locked in a glass-fronted cabinet.

I have not written about Black Shoals in the context of my PhD before, but I have written about it in the past. As such, I came to the work with a substantial degree of foreknowledge, not to mention a set of expectations, which could not help but affect my reading of the work. Each star in the dome represents a company traded on one of the world’s major stock exchanges, flickering and glowing each time stocks in that company are traded. It is a fair bet whenever a star glows white hot millions of dollars have just changed hands. The stars are fist arranged randomly in the planetarium, but over the course of the exhibition, cluster into ‘constellations’, based on correlations in the history of each company’s stock and that of its neighbours. According to the artists, this often results in constellations of different industries: a banking constellation, an energy constellation, and so on. [2]

The animated ‘creatures’ inhabiting the dome are a form of artificial life, little software programs coded with a set of behaviours, which feed off the energy released by every glowing star. To begin with, the creatures are a little like single-celled organisms: they cannot more, only spawn, wither and die. Over time, successive generations of ‘creatures’ begin to evolve: growing larger and exhibiting more complex behaviour, such as actively seeking out food. At the time of my visit, the installation had been running for roughly three months, meaning the ‘creatures’ were quite mobile and active in seeking out food.

Black Shoals takes its name from the infamous Black-Sholes formula created in 1973 by Fischer Black and Myron Scholes. The formula is essentially a means to calculate the probable future value of stock options and thus reduce the long-term risk to investors. It is infamous because it was used as the basis of the company Long Term Capital Management (LTCM), which began trading in 1994 – with Myron Scholes and his collaborator Robert Merton in key positions – as a spectacularly successful company, but then collapsed in 1998 having lost over a billion dollars in two days. According to the artists’ website, the precise cause of the crash is unknown, but one theory is that LTCM failed to take into account the effect their own investments would have on the world market. [3]

Already knowing a good deal about the piece, it is impossible for me to express how someone encountering it cold for the first time might respond. Coming towards the end of the exhibition, the first thought one might have of the beanbags is that they represent something of a relief, an opportunity to get off one’s feet. More practically, they indicate this is a piece with which one should take their time to lie back and gaze, not simply stand beneath craning their neck: the allusions to stargazing here are difficult to miss. Lying down on one of the beanbags, it is just about possible to observe the entire dome, to watch as different clusters of stars pulse with light. It is difficult, however, to feel completely comfortable: the space is narrow and other visitors continue to mill around the edge of the dome; never quite allowing one to slip into the same contemplative space inspired by staring into the night sky.

It is an impressive sight, but somehow it feels too small, like its size belies the complexity of what it is depicting. When we gaze up at the night sky it is difficult not to get a sense of our own smallness, faced with thousands of stars, suns like our own with yet more planets orbiting around them. The stars are a classic expression of the sublime – that sense of greatness or wonder often mingled with fear. Where Romantic artists may have associated the sublime primarily with nature, increasingly the sublime may be experienced when faced with a system the size and complexity of the world financial markets. The scale of the dome, however, brings this complexity down to a scale more easily absorbed by the human senses: an example of Manovich’s concept of the anti-sublime. [4]

An important aspect of this work is that it responds to activity on the stock market in near real-time, unlike the stock market information freely available online – such as that used in my own KODK work [5] – which is normally delayed by around fifteen minutes, Black Shoals responds within seconds of a trade occurring. The integration of real-time data adds a sense of ‘liveness’ to the work, as well as a degree of unpredictability, which manifested quite spectacularly in the course of the exhibition of the first iteration of Black Shoals at Tate Britain when the US energy firm Enron collapsed, causing a number of stars to glow brightly before caving in on each other like a black hole. [6] No such financial calamity occurred during my visit and the stars simply continued to twinkle above my head.

Watching those stars twinkle, I found myself wondering how I would feel about this work if I had encountered it without knowing what each twinkle represents. Would I understand that the twinkles are not simply random animations but responses to an event outside of the gallery? From snatches of conversations overheard in the gallery, I got the impression that many of the other visitors struggled with this point. Once again, it seems that the work’s ‘key’ – in this case the joystick-controlled interface and explanatory text – play an important role in the viewer’s understanding of the work and, more importantly, their ability to connect the work to an external referent. Much like my own work KODK, though one may get a sense that something is going on, it is difficult to make the jump between what is seen in the gallery to ‘stock market’ without some kind of cue.

I have thought a lot about Black Shoals in the days since my visit, and I realise that after seeing it, I don’t know what to call it anymore. I had always thought of the work as a ‘data visualisation’, and in the strictest sense it does take ‘data’ and map it onto a visual field, but looking at it afresh, I find myself asking if ‘data visualisation’ is really the best term to describe the work. Speaking to visitors at my own recent exhibition, when asked to describe what comes to mind when they think about ‘data visualisation’, the vast majority described graphical representations of data such as those that appear in David McCandless’s well-known publication Information is Beautiful. [7]

As Julian Stallabrass notes in his writing on Black Shoals, [8] people tend to understand complex information better when they see it presented as a picture: an observation that underpins the practice of data visualisation. While Black Shoals does visualise data, and in the process creates information, its aims feel very different from work like that of McCandless, and of some of the other artists included in Big Bang Data. McCandless’s visualisations seek to make complex data easy to grasp, to understand at a glance, which does not seem to be the intention behind Black Shoals. The choice of stars to visualise the data is too loaded a metaphor to ignore; unlike simple geometric shapes that carry little weight of their own the stars link us to a number of metaphors concerning not only the sublime, but concepts like time, myth and navigation. It seems naïve to suggest then that Black Shoals is of that class of data art that seeks to present the data ‘in itself’. Bearing that in mind, would it be better to speak of the work not as a ‘data visualisation’, but as a work in which data is a material?

Julie Freeman, whose work We Need Us [9] is displayed nearby Black Shoals in Big Bang Data, has, along with her collaborators, proposed a taxonomy of terms that can be used to describe data when it is used as an art material. [10] Using her taxonomy, Black Shoals could be described as a work using data that is:

  • commercial, as it uses financial information about different companies
  • closed, as special permission needs to be granted in order to use the stock market data in the work
  • real-time, as the data is immediately disseminated
  • temporal, as the data is only relevant to a specific time
  • processed, as the data has been ‘visualised’

Using Freeman’s taxonomy to describe works like Black Shoals could help to clarify precisely what is meant when talking about visual works that use data as a material, rather than falling back on the catch-all term ‘data visualisation’, and make it easier to distinguish between works that seek to create information and those that do not. It also helps to pin down the word ‘data’, which, as is evident from Big Bang Data, is often an unhelpfully vague term encompassing many different types of data and practices.

The relationship between data artworks and their interpretative texts remains for me something of a conundrum, and one which I am not going to solve in a couple of blog posts. Seeing Black Shoals and the other works in the Big Bang Data exhibition, has given me a lot to think about with regards to the staging of data art exhibitions and the terms I use to talk about my work and that of other artists in my thesis. I said that I was nervous about seeing Black Shoals ‘in the flesh’, and its true I was concerned that it somehow wouldn’t live up to my expectations, being a work that I’ve read and written about so much in the past. Though a part of me wishes it had been more immersive than it was, I can’t say that it disappointed me, and I’m glad that I got to see it for it may be some time before it is exhibited again. [11] What is missing from my experience, however, is the sense of discovering a work for the first time.

 

 

 

 

 Notes

1. See: Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, ‘Black Shoals’ [online], 2015, http://www.blackshoals.net/ (accessed 24 March 2016).

2. Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, ‘The Project’ [online], 2015, http://www.blackshoals.net/the-project-1/ (accessed 24 March 2016).

3. Lev Manovich, ‘Data Visualisation as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime’ [online], 2002, http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/048-social-data-browser/47_article_2006.pdf, (accessed 21 January 2015).

4. See: Catherine M. Weir, ‘KODK’ [online], http://www.cmweir.com/portfolio/kodk/ (accessed 24 March 2016).

5. Lise Autogena and Joshua Portway, ‘The Project’.

6. Ibid.

7. David McCandless, Information is Beautiful. London: Collins, 2009.

8. Julian Stallabrass, ‘A View from the Fish Tank,’ 2004, http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/essays/view_fish_tank.pdf (accessed 3 April 2012).

9. Julie Freeman, ‘We Need Us’ [online], 2015, http://www.weneedus.org/ (accessed 21 March 2016).

10. Julie Freeman, Geraint Wiggins, Gavin Starks, and Mark Sandler, ‘A Concise Taxonomy for Describing Data as an Art Material’ [online], Proceedings of the IEEE VIS 2015 Arts Program, June 2015, http://visap.uic.edu/2015/VISAP15-Papers/visap2015_Freeman_ConciseTaxonomy.pdf (accessed 24 March 2016).

11. Big Bang Data is only the third time Black Shoals has been exhibited. Its previous exhibitions were at Tate Britain in 2000, and the Nikolaj Copenhagen Contemporary Art Centre in 2003.

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