In the summer of 2017, I collaborated with industry professional and data artist Vishal Kumar on a creative project that fused our interests in art pushing boundaries in inter-disciplinary discussions. As two creatives with very specialised interests and active roles in the art market, one of the best aspects of our collaboration was the exchange of ideas between me as creative writer and Vishal as data artist.
Here, Vishal answers some simple questions to shed light on data art, and what it means to be a data artist.
M: What is data art?
V: Data art is the process of creating works of art using computer coding, data and design. It can be digital or physical. Static or dynamic and interactive. Typically, an algorithm is written and then the algorithm is run through a software to generate the work of art.
M: What makes a data artist different from other artists?
V: Not much at all. The creative process across all media and methods is the same. An artist has an idea, a theme of interest, and the determination to improve and excel their craft. An artist may use one medium or a range of media to create their art work. I see the code and the data as my medium and the screen as my canvas. I had an idea in mind, the last theme I explored (with you) was “symmetry”, and then I created my work of art using my craft. The key difference between me and other artists is that I use data and code to express my ideas, another artist may use oil paint, watercolour, or printmaking to do the same thing.
Another way to think about it is this: an algorithm is a set of rules to execute an operation. I write an algorithm with code which tells the computer a set of commands to make the data art. A print maker follows a very similar chain of rules and commands to make a linocut, for example: first cut and chisel the lino; choose what colours you want; apply the ink with a roller; put the whole thing on a piece of paper under a rolling machine; then, press; finally, the work of art is made.
M: What value can data art add to our daily lives?
V: One of my main missions for creating art with code and data is to communicate to my audience that computer programming can be creative, flexible and playful. There is certainly a preconception that coding (or the like - software development and IT, for example) is a nerdy and boring practice, which serves a functional or operational purpose. I have demonstrated that this is not true. I want to shift people’s focus from the boring to the more creative, playful and malleable aspects of the code.
So, to answer your question, data art can add value to people’s lives by helping them realise that code is not boring! Also, I think data art can help individuals understand the power of code and how it has become a vital part of our society.
M: What is the most challenging bit of being a data artist?
V: There are a wide variety of computer coding languages, syntaxes and frameworks. The majority of those cannot be used to create data art. There are only a handful of ones which can. You need to able to identify the whole landscape and then choose which languages and frameworks you want to use. My advice would be not to do all of them at once. Even then, sometimes you have to have a very particular piece of code installed on your computer to make the whole thing work! Once you have installed the framework or software of choice, you then have to be able to write an algorithm with code to create the data art.
All of this is quite challenging and can be completely daunting to someone starting out. I definitely got frustrated and gave up on some methods, but I love problem solving and I had the persistence to make it all work. For the record, I use currently use Processing, P5.js and D3.js, however, I am also interested in OpenFrameworks.
M: Does knowing coding or any other specialised discipline help me understand data art?
V: I believe you don’t need to know coding in order to understand data art. I don’t know how to play the violin or the piano but when I listen to classical music or contemporary jazz I still understand the art: I get the rhythm, I feel the beat, I sense the emotion. It’s the role of the artist to use the instrument in such a way so that the audience can understand the work of art. But, certainly, having specialised knowledge of coding will help you understand how the data art was created, but not always what it is trying to represent.
To read more about Vishal and my collaboration, check out Vishal's post Making Data Art and Collaborating with a Writer.