While the extended British winter has me thinking of warmer, sunnier places, I remembered that I never really posted about the work I did in Brazil back in October. I was lucky enough to go there for a 2 week residency with Active Ingredient for Timestreams – a joint research and development project between the RCUK’s Horizon Digital Economy Research Hub, University of Nottingham, and Active Ingredient.
Timestreams is a WordPress plugin that allows you import, edit, overlay and compare different sets of live and pre-recorded data in timelines, much as you would do in video editing software. This allows you to compose different streams of data, and play with the relationships between them, or simply just to use as an easy to access repository of live data.
Our role in the project was not to produce polished, finished pieces, but instead to explore the possibilities and capabilities of the platform by creating artistic experiments in response to the environmental data we collected.
We spent the first week of our trip on a farm in the Mata Atlantica called Vera Cruz (top image) just outside Miguel Perriera, where we explored, gathered data and tested ideas for things to make. As it turned out, other than being beautiful, our remote setting offered some valuable reminders about our creative process when working with data. Surrounded by nature, and faced with a total lack of web connectivity, we were eventually forced to come up with more analog, and to my mind more creative approaches. Trying things out quickly and simply is much more valuable when trying to get a feel for the stories you want to tell. It requires relatively minor investment and risk, and in doing so allows you to be more agile in your creatives process and decision making.
One example of this was an idea of Rachel’s that came from the possibility that climate change might bring about more frequent instances of extreme weather. She wanted to build a prediction machine that monitored humidity and temperature data in order to offer advice for how to deal with this changing weather. Instead of trying to build the machine immediately she decided to make these fortune empanadas.
They contained predictions and advice based on interviews she conducted with us, and local people. This was designed as a way to see what it felt like to receive such a prediction, without having access to the data needed to build the final machine. In order to fit the predictions inside empanadas meant that they needed to be brief while retaining their meaning. As a result, they were often cryptic, or mysterious, scary or mundane. We wanted to retain these qualities and so when we did eventually built the prediction machine, we used the same predictions.
Week 2 of our residency lead us back to Rio de Janeiro where we took up residence at Barracao Maravilha, an artist studio and gallery space in the city. We spent this time developing what we had started testing during our first week on the farm, but were also keen to collaborate with the various artists who worked in the studio. For many of them it was their first encounter with using data, and they had some really interesting approaches to engaging with it, and with us. These collaborations were similar in that because the artists at Barracao weren’t used to working with data, they bought ideas with them that we could test out equally quickly, and combine with data relatively easily.
This record player belonged to Bruno – one of the Barracao artists. He’d had it for a while and had recently become interested in Arduino, so we had a perfect opportunity to work together and hook it up to Timestreams. First though, we connected the Arduino to the motor that drives the turntable, and used it to vary the speed. Bruno made this makeshift, but surprisingly effective speaker out of a piece of paper and a sewing needle, and we were treated to a raucous, fluctuating rendition of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
The result of this experiment was definitely intriguing and compelling, both as an object and as a performance of the music. So, the next step was to get some data involved. We experimented with decibels, temperature, humidity and a few more, but we knew from the experiment that we wanted the speed of the record to fluctuate gradually up and down. We remembered the MaunaLoa CO2 data that we had come across in a previous project. This data set contains global CO2 levels from 1959 to the present day. Within each year, the levels fluctuate seasonally, but the overall trend is gradual and incremental increase. The effect of using this data was that the speed of the record fluctuated, but gradually got faster and faster – the pitch changing with it.
Two of the other Barracao artists,Hugo and Natali, make huge, brightly coloured inflatable structures and place them in various natural and manmade contexts. They made the one seen in the image above especially for us to experiment with. They had always wanted them to ‘breathe’ and move, so we attached the small fans that inflate them to an Arduino, and after some fine tuning, we were turning the fans on and off to make them appear as though they were breathing by themselves. The movement and their bright, vibrant colours were reminiscent of the street life outside the gallery, so we wanted to use data to draw the link between them. We had a decibel sensor sending live data from the street a Timestream allowing the three inflatable structures to respond to the noise of the street.
These prototypes reflect something of the environment in which they were constructed too – they are vibrant, warm, and at times ramshackle. A pretty fair reflection of our experience in Rio, and the area surrounding the studio we were resident in.
They also reflect an inherent tension when making ‘digital’ work, or at least work that relies on electricity and wi-fi connection. This was an environments where these infrastructures seemed as temperamental as the environment. In these circumstances though, we are still in the business of using data creating something engaging for an audience, which presents us with some interesting questions that we have encountered before. Where some part of the technical infrastructure you are using breaks down, it leaves you with a difficult choice. First, you can hang an ‘out of order’ sign on the work and apologise for the technical failures. But, this is always a bit embarrassing and ultimately gives your audience nothing to engage with, and nothing to take away. Alternatively, you can use some prerecorded ‘backup’ data. While this at least gives the audience something to engage with, it also leaves you with an ethical dilemma. If the work is described as ‘live’, people can find out pretty quickly that it isn’t, and that you are misleading them. Also, and this is particularly true when using scientific data, you are in effect giving people information that is not accurate, and therefore potentially misleading.
So which is more important, the experience or the science?
At the time of writing, it is not yet possible to get the Timestreams plugin, but stand by for news of it’s availability. If you are interested in using it yourself – the API is here.