Art has undergone a significant change in the last century. Dyson's bagless vacuum cleaner, for example, was installed in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1996, only 23 years after the death of Picasso. Now, 16 years later, even lines of code are seen as art.
A recent exhibition in Munich, Big Data Art 2013, was devoted to showcasing this next generation of art. It's no surprise that in a world where big data is being used by social networks, retail stores and shh, surveillance agencies, a number of artists chose to portray a political message through their work. After all, something that often accompanies big data is privacy concerns.
One of the more intriguing works on show was by APNOA, set up by Sebastian Drack and Tobias Feldmeier, two students at the University of Applied Sciences Salzburg. The premise of their art, bias, was simple: every time someone sent a Twitter message containing one of the 377 keywords the US Department of Homeland Security is monitoring, a string would flash with a fluorescent light, hindering the view of the rest of the room. A speech synthesiser would also read the word aloud and release a “mysterious sound”.
According the artists, the fluorescent light was meant to signify the invasion of data privacy and surveillance that is imposed upon our lives. The art installation was also meant to demonstrate the omnipresent nature of big data. Drack said:
The big data world is still some kind of abstract parallel universe for many people but at the same time data is incredibly real and it is definitely time to give statements, raise awareness and to be part of democratic processes. Do we live in an constitutional state or do we live in a surveillance state?
The political nature of this artwork becomes more evident after reading a question posed by this newspaper's editor with regards to British and US intelligence agencies, a question that echoes Drack's statement:
...is it right that we should know so little about who they are or what they do – that this dramatic loss of individual privacy, unprecedented in history, could be done without any kind of public knowledge or consent? Who agreed?
Big data now plays a very big role in our lives – our search history, location, who we talk to and text, and data from social media accounts is all collected, analysed and stored, according to documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
These revelations have sparked a worldwide debate about the nature of intelligence gathering. Beyond this, the bigger issue has perhaps been of putting this into context for the ordinary internet user. The Guardian has released supplements within the newspaper as well as interactives, the sole purpose to explain why “metadata” matters.
But Drack and Feldmeier may be on to something with their art. It's intuitive – just like the touch-screens that are now second-nature to our fingers. Their art explains that organisations are constantly looking at our information in some form or another and how that can disrupt our own lives. It's simple and that is why it carries such impact.