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Parsing nebulous data into work of art
IF you're seeing stars on those stock market charts you stare at onscreen all day, it's not a sign of an impending nervous breakdown. It's just your cue to go see Black Shoals: Dark Matter, one of the some 50 projects at the Big Bang Data exhibition.
The artwork which turns stock market information into a galaxy of stars and constellations and projects them onto a domed ceiling had in fact laid dormant for the past 12 years until it was "revived" for this exhibition.
Black Shoals made its debut at the Tate Gallery in London in 2000 (but in a very limited version), which was followed by a much bigger version in Copenhagen in 2004 where they worked closely with the stock exchange there. Although there was a lot of interest in the project, it was too expensive to tour, says Lise Autogena, one of the three creators.
Black Shoals was finally re-created for the Big Bang Data Exhibition in Somerset House London earlier this year, and it is now making its debut in Asia. "We had to completely rewrite the programme from scratch because technology had changed so much," explains co-creator Joshua Portway.
For example, when they did it in Copenhagen, they found out that the Stock Exchange didn't have enough data capacity so the Exchange had to upgrade for the project. Reuters, the project's partner, had to dig up the pavement to put in a cable from the Exchange to the nearby church where the project was held.
Before, when they could only work with satellites and cables, there's now the Internet - making the project more mobile. The same concept still holds. There are 25,000 stars each representing the most active listed companies in the Asian time zone. They are sized according to their market capitalisation and glimmer and pulse according to their trading volume.
At the end of the day, the Europe markets will come in. The 25,000 companies are named (there is a screen where you can zoom in to find out which star represents which company) and they are also programmed to gravitate towards one another in clusters according to their industry.
Sixteen years after the first project, it's still a tedious process to get permission from all the stock exchanges to stream real-time data, Ms Autogena says.
It took her a year to sort that out, and the only country they had to pay for their data is Hong Kong. "The first time we showed it we even needed CIA clearance to get the feed from the New York Stock Exchange," she recalls. The amount of data is impressive - as it's twice more than Reuters' biggest client.
And interestingly, while preparing for the inaugural exhibition at the Tate, they even experienced a "black hole" when all the market prices were going down and eventually crashed, in 1999. And the screen just went black. That's how "real" it is.
For Singapore, the artists also want to show supply chain data. And on the weekends when the markets are closed, they're devising a way to collate the whole world's trading data earlier in the week to show it on the screen. "But we don't quite know yet if our system can take all that data," Mr Portway admits. "And there might be too many stars, so we might have to configure them differently."
The artists have worked with technology for over a quarter of a decade, but when they created this, they knew nothing about the financial world. "So we roped in a long list of scientists and economists and financial experts to work with us. People get obsessed with it," says Ms Autogena.
Besides the stars, there are wriggly "aliens" which feed off the light from the traded equities. "They have a genetic code written in them that determine the way they grow and move and they're these random creatures which are up for interpretation," highlights Mr Portway, who adds that once, some traders were convinced the creatures could predict hidden moves in the financial world and stock markets in the "dark pool" of big offline deals.
"One thing that we want the audience to feel when they look up at this starry "sky" is this sense of vertigo and powerlessness - because that's often how we feel when we look at the global markets. That we can't quite grasp what's happening on the macro scale," he concludes.
Ms Autogena muses: "When you work with an idea over a long time frame and the world changes around you, it takes on new meanings. And the world of finance has changed so much - from 2000 to 2004, to now."
A future shaped by data
BY now, it's pretty clear to most urban professionals that anything you do can be captured by data. Every form you fill, every Facebook post, every ERP charge, or credit card swipe, can leave digital traces.
It's a pesky by-product of the digital world we live in, but how many of us truly realise the extent that it's shaping our lives today and in the future?
The Asian debut of Big Bang Data transforms the vast amount of data that the world is generating daily - from emails, selfies, Google searches and online purchases - into large-scale, immersive art installations and contemporary artworks.
Big Bang Data - an exhibition which debuted in Barcelona in 2014, then Madrid and London, sees artists, designers, journalists and visionaries present data in tangible - and often beautiful - ways, while raising questions and exploring issues about personal privacy.
"Having data means there's now this possibility of scientific research, which also opens a new way we approach and make decisions, in political, social and economic situations. Today, important key terms used in this new world include data, metadata, algorithms, prediction, pattern - we're used to hearing about them," says Olga Subiros, Big Bang Data's co-curator.
The two artworks that first greet visitors highlight the amount of digital data we have these days. Japanese artist Ryoji Ikeda tackles the infinite scale of the world's data where each pixel of the visual image is composed from a combination of mathematical formulae and data sets. The second one, Understanding the Cloud is photographer and filmmaker Timo Arnall's photography of data centres that store the "clouds" of this world.
To show context, there is a timeline installation which tracks how digitisation started with cassette tapes and floppy disks. Lisa Jevbratt's 1:1 is one of the first known visualisations of the World Wide Web from 1999. There is also a reproduction of Charles Joseph Minard's famous 1869 graph showing Napoleon's disastrous Russian Campaign, 1812-1813. "The discipline of information visualisation is that we've created images that tell stories based on data. We've turned information into numbers and numbers into images," explains Jose Luis de Vicente, the co-curator.
Data as complex as genoma and genetic information can be filtered through digital tools either to provide abstract visualisation of the genes, or to provide 3D construction of faces; while there are also artistic statements such as designer "face cages" to protect one's identity against face recognition tools.
There are the core exhibits which have travelled to Barcelona, Madrid and London, but in each country, the curators worked with the presenting country to find local voices and how to make it relevant to the local audience.
In Singapore, the exhibition opens during Smart Nation Innovations Week, organised by the InfocommDevelopment Authority (IDA) of Singapore, a week-long festival which highlights Singapore's ambition to harness data and digital technology to become the world's first Smart Nation.
Besides "serious" data used for healthcare and elderly care, on the lighter side, there is "Food Loves Fellowship" which is an interactive 3D map visualisation that celebrates Singapore's love of food, and enables its users to discover where their favourite dishes can be eaten. It also calculates how long it will take to eat all the available hawker food in Singapore: approximately 160 years based on the reported average frequency of eating at hawker centres.
"We are data-fying the world - data is changing everything. We are providing the data ourselves, through our devices, and we're also surrounded by other devices, installed by other people. It brings up privacy and security issues - and these all deal with our modern life and present reality," concludes Ms Subiros.
Big Bang Data will run from May 21 to Oct 16. Tickets are at all Marina Bay Sands box offices and website. There is a Curator's Guided Tour on May 21, 11.30am, and other programmes. For more information, please visit www.marinabaysands.com/ArtScienceMuseum