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Donnerstag, 17. August 2017

Schaustelle Vol. 7: Big Data Immersion

Bei der siebten Ausgabe der Schaustelle geht es um den kreativen Prozess des Versuchen und Scheiterns. In unserem Blog stellen sich die einzelnen Austeller*innen etwas genauer vor. Dieses Mal auf Englisch mit Katarzyna Nowak von der VR-Experience Big Data Immersion.


Why are you participating at the Schaustelle?

Big Data technology poses a new kind of research interference in our everyday lives. However, the way it affects us remains hardly tangible because the collection of our Data is run invisibly in the background and stored on the delocalized inaccessible servers in the clouds. Big Data Immersion project is an artistic attempt to create an alternative interactive human-technology interface in order to allow an access to a Data system, give it a sense of  tangible place and put the Data at our fingertips. It enables to virtually experience the Data system composed of a thousand art silkscreen prints and get immersed into the dimension of big quantity that took shape from the intermingled man-made and machine-like algorithmic processes. Trial and Errors gives us an opportunity to draw the societal attention to the challenges that Data flood poses for the sensous cognition. Through our participation in Schaustelle with our project, we hope to come into dialog with the broader audience and re-direct the debate on the Big Data omniscience to the backstage of Big Data technology, that is, to the questions: Does more mean more understanding or overwhelming for the understanding? And when it is more or less enough?


How did you come up with the idea? / How did your project evolve?

The idea for the project originated because of my long-standing background as a natural scientist. During my scientific work in the Institute of Molecular Systems Biology at ETH Zurich, I got exposed to Big Data technologies and became interested in the philosophical issues connected with deriving knowledge about the reality. I realized that results of any research are always open to re-evaluation, when the new technologies emerge. This happened exactly with the advent of Big Data technologies that have revolutionized the scientific methods, opened the new ways of approaching the research problems and emerged as a new promise of omniscience. However, I made an important recognition that every scientific method has some limitations, confining our capability to fully understand any subject of inquiry, and so does Big Data technology. Every scientific method is a trial and error, a better or worse attempt, bringing us closer or further away from the reality. The involvement with the epistemological limitations of Big Data technology as well as its increasing influence on our lives became eventually an impulse to start Big Data Immersion project.


What is your goal with this project?

We see our arts project as a spark for the critical societal discourse on the topic of Big Data technology. Rather than answering any questions, we hope to raise more open questions and shed the light on the dimension of quantity underlying Big Data. We argue that the challenges that big quantities pose for the understanding and deriving knowledge lie at a core of all the societal debates on Big Data technology.


What is the current state of the project?

Big Data Immersion is currently presented as a VR experience enabling the viewer to immerse oneself into the 3D environment of a Data system in the cloud. To create a Data system and address the subject of complexity associated with the volume of Big Data, we combined artistic and scientific methodologies and intersected man-made and machine-like algorithmic processes. First, we performed a large-scale systematic experiment deploying an artistic medium - silkscreen printing over the course of seven months. The trajectory of the experiment followed a self-conceived algorithm – a combinatorial function. Starting from defining the algorithm’s inputs, that is, geometrical patterns as printing templates and CMYK as printing colors, we followed the algorithm’s procedural steps to produce the algorithm’s final output of 1024 silkscreen prints. A single print is essentialy a Datum and the collection of all 1024 prints a Dataset encoding the algoritm-delineated creative process. Second, all the 1024 prints were digitalised, compared based on the experimental parameters and visualised as a cuboid network corresponding to the similarity degrees between the images. Finally, the Virtual Reality (VR) technology and automatized algorithmic processes were applied to spatially re-create the network structure into 1024 interconnected cubic rooms, each room being overlaid with one out of 1024 digitalised prints.


How did the project change over time?

The idea of using VR technology for the presentation of 1024 silkscreen prints came spontaneously into being. Rather than simply hanging the prints on the wall in the setting of a gallery, I intended to design a more unconventional and interactive way to deal with the dimension of quantity. Working in Zitropress silkscreen atelier at F+F School for Art and Media Design, I got to know by chance Moritz Keller, who studied Industrial Design at HyperWerk in Basel and introduced me to the VR technology. Thanks to our collaboration the project evolved into a transmedial virtual direction. Application of the VR technology entailed, however, compromises on the tangibility and content of the analog prints. First, the prints had to be transformed into digital files. The digitalisation of the prints meant the separation from the physical matter of the analog prints. Although all the prints were digitalised under the same light conditions that were optimised to match as closest as possible the actual colors of the prints, still the deviations in some color combinations were unavoidable. Second, because the automatised actions of computer algorithms were involved in the construction of the virtual Data sculpture, the original content of the prints was also compromised. The algorithms' actions conceived mistakes in the original geometrical patterns, breaking these patterns and creating the new ones. This interference of the automatised processes in the original analog content of the prints gave rise eventually to a mixture of rasters with different degrees of departure from the analog actuality. Taken into account the effort made to produce the silkscreen prints, allowing these compromises and inviting the algorithmic mistakes may appear quite radical. However, these circumstances reflect the real-life scenerios, how Big Data is being collected, processed and analysed. There are no objective tools and methods to acquire Data. Thus all Data is only approximation of how things really are. Furthermore, the authors of algorithms have no control over the algorithms actions. Once in operation, the algorithms' actions can incorporate mistakes that are impossible to track and eventually influence the results of analyses. The above described hurdles rise questions about the objectivity of Big Data technologies. Alas, they are only a tip of an iceberg.


What is motivating you?

We are motivated by the independent and critical pursuit of the questions concernig the technological determinism and individuality in the age of Big Data: If everything could be statistically predictable, are there then some kind of pre-existent patterns to begin with? Are we just habitual creatures and our behaviour could be reduced to a bunch of algorithms? Is everything objectively calculable? These questions aren’t new at all and have occupied people for centuries since the scientific revolution and the Age of Reason. However, with the tremendous technological advances in computing powers and widespread usage of Internet and smartphones these questions are served in a completely new light to the society.


How do you deal with setbacks?

The project was first presented at the graduation exhibition at F+F School for Art and Media Design on June 28th this year and received a mixed feedback: from very enthusiastic to very sceptical comments. We do not see it as a setback though. It shows us rather that we are on the right track. We actually hoped to put people out of their comfort zones and provoke new questions. The new questions that arose were for instance: Is creativity still creativity, if it follows a logically conceptualised pattern? Do we have to use the new technologies simply because they are available? Can the Virtual Reality replace our sense of reality? What is hidden in the potential to touch that influences our visual appreciation act?


What difficulties did you face while creating the project?

The biggest challenge was naturally to manually produce the huge quantity of silkscreen prints, while avoiding the so-called register problems – small color misalignments by overprinting. This process took a long time. If i had to describe it in few words, it was a constant trial and error. It required a lot of patience. My manner of working resembled eventually a sort of an automatized machine-like operation, which felt really wierd at times. After all, I am not a machine but only a human being.


What was the easiest part?

The easiest part was to construct the Data sculpture in the Virtual Reality, because the computer algorithm did it for us. After Moritz designed the algorithm for the construction of the virtual Data sculpture construction, it took the algoritm few seconds to build it. Comparing it to seven months that took me for the manual execution of my self-designed algorithm and silkscreen printing, reveals a huge gulf in the performance capabilities between a human and a machine. This naturally gives a lot of consideration to how our future will look like with the super-computers and their algorithms.  


What kind of external help did you need?

The project could be realized as a VR experience thanks to the kind support of the HyperWerk Institute in Basel. At the present, it is possible for us to lend the hardware only for the short term. Thus we are looking into the funding possibilities in order to acquire our own VR setup, which would give us more flexibility in terms of exhibition possibilities and long-term installations. As the project is relatively new, we still lack the network with the people working on the similar topics and thus we hope that through Schaustelle we can acquire new contacts. Finally, we are looking into the new possibilities of exhibitions venues to make our project more visible. The addresses that we definitely would like to approach are the Museum of Digital Art and Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich, as well as Haus der elektronischen Kunst in Basel.


How do you see the future?

For now, it looks virtual.

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