strike you as a cold or somehow impoverished title for artworks which, among
other things, communicate the pathos of an artist’s history of separation
anxiety (Cleo Broda, Personal Soft
Data Archive System), invite laughter at the idea that an undiscovered
ring of nail salons around London is the force which protects the suburbs from
urban sprawl (Richard Dedomenici, Nail Salon
Belt), or which propose grandly (or the opposite of grandly) to map the
heavens upon the earth (Jem Finer, On
Earth as in Heaven)? Isn’t this exactly what is eye catching about
the title Day-to-Day Data: the fire and ice tension between the strange
intimacies of day-to-day life and the suggestion that what we should be concerned
with here is, in fact, cold, hard data? On the other hand, the idea of a corporation
amassing consumer data or a government collecting data on its citizens is so
familiar as to seem almost natural. How did data get so far away, so
impersonal? How did data get such a cold
inhuman heart, so much in tension with life as it is lived?
yet, against these de-personalising tendencies in data, the spectacle of individuals
collecting and presenting data about themselves is an increasingly common one,
especially on the internet. To take three popular examples, consider blogs,
flickr and audioscrobbler. For
whatever else these sites are or do, they are predicated on the idea that individuals
will want to collect data on themselves in the form of diaries, photographs,
links, preferences, tastes and relationships and, moreover, will find compelling
reasons to do this collecting publicly. All out of proportion to their alleged
banality, individuals’ efforts in this direction have been the target
of disdain, parody, and summary dismissal. Why
the resistance? One answer is teleological, about
the uses of data. The scenario of the individual collecting data compels us
to ask, with almost unavoidable suspicion: what does he or she want with all
that data, and, more to the point, what can we-the-public possibly
do with the results? In the case of Day-to-Day Data, I’m not
sure the answer ‘well, it’s Art’ quite gets us off the hook.
If the idea of a government or a corporation collecting data is comparatively
unremarkable, I think this is because (whatever our opinions about them) institutions
come with a kind of inbred telos, an assumed purposiveness. We say: they need
data to do business, to generate new product ideas, to provide public services,
to defend the nation’s borders. But, whatever the answer, these Big Entities
(B.E.) seem to evade the teleological question about data without the
question ever needing to be asked – and it is always a significant accomplishment
when potential lines of inquiry are shut down. Not that challenges do not occur,
but they are exceptional rather than expected. Corporations and governments
appear to have a natural right to data.
These structural underpinnings of data are important – they are,
I think, exactly what the artworks in Day-to-Day Data ask us to recognise.
But there is something else. Corporations and governments, two of the usual
suspects of data collection, claim (in several senses and in varying degrees
of bad faith) to act on behalf of public interests –
that is, in the interests of consumers or citizens. Data, then, in its most
naturalised locution, appears to be about the public, for
the public or both – although rarely made available to the public.
For our purposes, I think Michael Warner provides one of the most useful descriptions
of how data’s publics function: ‘Public discourse…
is poetic. By this I mean not just that it is self-organizing… but that…
all discourse or performance… must characterize the world in which it
attempts to circulate and it must attempt to realize that world through address.’
When Warner refers to publics as ‘poetic world making’, he is writing
against the common-sense idea that publics simply exist – naturally, socially
or by fiat – and that individuals exist passively within them. In Warner’s
terms, the creation of data about or for the public – census data, market
data – is one of the many activities which substantiates that public –
which defines us as a national, global, ethnic or consumer body. Data
is, therefore, an instrument of our passivity in the face of B.E. In describing
us, it seems to constitute us.
In contrast to the discourses of B.E., individual or personal modes of speech
uncomfortably occupy publics, as evidenced (to take one current example) by
the number of people who pillory bloggers for being narcissistic.
If the works in Day-to-Day Data at first appear peculiar or flippant
or even narcissistic, I think it is because they appear to violate the requirement
that data be either about or for the public – that is, we tend to believe
that public matters exclude the work of individuals. Common uses of the terms
‘public’ and ‘private’ serve to enforce the irrelevance
of individuals’ activities to public life, to erect a prophylactic barrier
between the two realms (e.g. ‘do whatever you want in the privacy
of your own home’). Warner again: ‘It is often thought, especially
by outsiders, that the public display of private matters is a debased narcissism,
a collapse of decorum, expressivity gone amok, the erosion of any distinction
between public and private’.
One artist commonly accused of narcissism is Cindy Sherman, who infamously stars
in all of her Untitled Film Stills and in most of the rest of her work.
If the artworks in Day-to-Day Data appear to similarly disdain publics
– appear, that is, narcissistic – do they reference the artist in
the same ways that Sherman’s work references the artist?
Leo Steinberg suggests that we understand a public’s difficulty with new
and unfamiliar works of art as a ‘sense of loss, of sudden exile’
from what that public knows or believes. In this
light, complaints about art’s narcissism are instructive. They allow us
to ask: what has been lost, from what familiar or comfortable notions have we
been exiled? In the perhaps discomfiting proposition that data might be thought
of as art, or visa versa, I think two things have been lost, or must be given
up: the belief that data is neutral or un-invested by power and the belief that
affairs of public life should exist apart from the subjective taint of individuals’
private affairs (‘why should we-the-public want to know what Ellie
Harrison did today; why should we want to know what any blogger did today;
what does it have to do with us?’). In opposition,
Day-to-Day Data suggests 1. that data is always made, and that the
making inevitably has vested interests; and 2. that publics rely on the day-to-day
lives of individuals far more than they have been willing to recognise.
Now I think we are in a position to appreciate what I take to be one of Day-to-Day
Data’s central assertions. We can think of it this way, answering
a previous question: the artworks in Day-to-Day Data do indeed reference
the artist as Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills reference the artist:
not simply as artist, nor narcissistic subject, nor content (as critics would
have it), but as the vector along which viewers are invited to think about themselves
as connected to the larger systems which seem to subsume them. In Sherman’s
work, these include visuality, gender, sexuality, Art, film. In Day-to-Day
Data, the systems addressed are varied, the works alike less in their concern
with particular systems than in the way they invert the expected relationship
between individual and structure in those systems. That is, they show how structures
which appear to encompass individuals, to bestow meaning on us, are actually
constituted by individuals, by our actions. This
is why the artists in Day-to-Day Data present data not as it is, but
as it is made – in all cases, they make their own data.
In this, they exhume the steps by which any form of data becomes, in succession:
thinkable, legible, familiar, invisible, and finally, authoritative. Their interest
in the day-to-day says that this is how all data is made: step by banal step,
in people’s day-to-day lives – whether we make it ourselves, or
whether we tacitly authorise others to collect it for us. Although, as our experiences
with Day-to-Day Data will suggest, there is a big difference between
doing it ourselves and having data collected for us.
In this light, Day-to-Day Data seems a very serious affair. In which
case, whence the show’s humour? Hannah
Brown presents what she calls her Daily Efficiency and Behavioural Analysis,
Self-evaluation Checklist (DEBASC), an obviously parodic data entry form.
Helen Frosi (Life/Lotto) tries
to divine the winning Lottery numbers from ciphers she finds hidden in the minutiae
of her everyday routine. Adele Prince
(Trolley Spotting) literally tracks and maps purloined shopping trolleys.
Anders Bojen & Kristoffer
Ørum (Detergent (Real imaginary system)) give the genealogy
of a box of detergent. Are they serious, these artists? Better perhaps to ask:
what exactly are they serious about? At what is their humour directed?
If their work provokes laughter, it is a kind of laughter frequently heard today.
Are blogs serious? Is a flickr group devoted to photographs of food or feet
serious? They are, in any case, the subject of
serious public discussion: e.g. the transformation of democracy, journalism,
property, copyright, creativity, celebrity. If
we laugh at the idea that blogs could transform anything, let alone those unwieldy
systems, maybe our laughter betrays the limits of our ability or willingness
to think about the individual’s capacity to act in or on public life –
to influence the systems which seem, on the contrary, to encompass and define
The artworks in Day-to-Day Data stage a vexing irruption of the individual
– the artist or viewer, their choices and behaviours – into publics
which seem designed specifically to overwrite that very figure. But art discourse
has always had some use or other for the personal life of the artist. How then
does the individual uniquely inhabit the works of Day-to-Day Data?
Diversely is one good answer. When Christian
Nold invites people to collect data about their own Galvanic Skin Response
(a simple measure of stress or excitement), certainly there are different tactics
at work than when Ellie Harrison uses
daily self-observations to instruct gallery staff to create a live visual display
for that day. So, we notice that some of the artists use their own lives as
the data source while others look outward.
But Day-to-Day Data asks us to think about all of its artists as data
collectors, whoever or whatever they collect data about. In the past century,
artists have frequently traded the figure of the Artist for a wide array of
substitutes. How, then, does the artist-as-data-collector
guide our reading of these works? Data collection is an additive process; data
becomes significant when individual data points melt into the satisfying uniformity
of the informational Whole. But in requiring that we learn something about,
if not come to care about, the individual lives out of which data is generated,
the works in Day-to-Day Data counter-intuitively and beautifully resolve
an image of the individual out of the uniform static of data. They
focus our attention on an inverted picture of process.
Christian Nold’s, Lucy
Kimbell’s, Sam Curtis’ and
James Coupe, Hedley Roberts &
Rob Saunders’ works literally cannot be thought apart from considerations
of process. In this, they recall Robert Morris’ ‘The Box with the
Sound of its Own Making’ (1961). But whereas Morris’ box forces
us to consider process retroactively, thinking backwards from the conventional
art object to the process by which it was made, these four works force us to
consider process as the artwork (rather than the unmaking or unmasking of the
artwork). Process exists in the experiential present of their work: Nold’s
exists when people take a walk wearing the Bio Mapping device; Kimbell’s
exists when people answer a question by removing a sweet from the Physical
Bar Charts; Curtis’ exists when people are counted by Curtis himself
as part of his IDUK census; Coupe, Roberts & Saunders’ exists
when their 9PIN++ network of computers records or informs the activities
of the SCAN network. Each work generates a product
(documentation and analysis) but the conventional relationship between process
and product has been reversed – the works exist most forcefully in moments
of action which involve us as more than onlookers. We could say they are performative
if we do not think of the artist as the performer.
By comparison, the other pieces in Day-to-Day Data seem to keep process
at arm’s length, although never out of reach: the documentation or translation
of their research guides our reading of the work. All of the works in Day-to-Day
Data, however, go beyond the old idea of process as a theme internal to
art (painting, for instance, has always been about the act of painting). By
appropriating processes of data collection which live in other social registers
– politics, commerce, science – the works assembled here discuss
not just the processes by which an artwork is made, but the processes through
which any data is transformed into products, e.g. census charts, segmentation
models, new products, gerrymandered voting districts, tighter immigration laws,
and so on. In this, Day-to-Day Data reveals data’s political
investments. But more far-reaching still, the works in Day-to-Day Data
model, exaggerate and thereby lay bare the processes by which we, as individuals,
come into relation with the worlds, the B.E. which appear to define us…
including the art world. This is what data normally accomplishes, be it census
data, public opinion polls or market research: by informing us about ourselves,
it subsumes us within social registers which appear bigger than individuals,
which seem untouchable and unchangeable. To invert this process, I believe,
is the broadest ambition of the exhibition’s appropriation of data. And
it is in support of this ambition that Day-to-Day Data prioritises
the right to create data in the first instance – because whoever makes
data makes the publics that data purports merely to describe.
But the first thing we might have noticed about the works in Day-to-Day
Data, and which I have left until the end, is how they seem to be extreme
in one way or another: e.g. ridiculously thorough, exaggeratedly scientific,
painfully introspective. To notice this quality of the works is to notice their
humour, which I mentioned before. I think, however, that we can notice this
quality differently now: namely, as part of a challenge to the presumptive place
of individuals in public life. If they seem absurd, why is this – what
would we have to give up to take them seriously? If Gabrielle
Sharp’s hand drawn studies (Losing it in London) seem somehow
insanely mismatched to the task of tracking and ordering Transport for London’s
massive collection of lost items, what is the sanity, the proper data, that
they swerve from? If
Tony Kemplen’s documentation of Eating pizza while watching the
news seems random, then what more sensible data do we imagine he is withholding
from us? If, in a very different register, Kevin
Carter’s database of sounds made by his 11 month old son Jake (De
do do do, de da da da (They're meaningless and all that's true)) seems
too personal or too invasive, how do we draw the line between ‘relevant’
and ‘narcissistic’, public and private, and in the service of what
comfortable distinctions do we draw it where we do?
The pieces in Day-to-Day Data, in common with many new forms of personal
data collection, are engaged in a type of activity which is forcing a new and
lively public reckoning: namely, a reckoning with individuals’ attempts
– in text, in photographs, in video and mobile and audio blogs, online
and off – to create measures of their own worlds, and not just for themselves
or their families, but for others to see and use.
When Lawrence Lessig defends cultural ‘remixing’ against new laws
which threaten those activities, or when McKenzie Wark gives his manifesto for
‘hacking’, or when proponents of sousveillance encourage individuals
to collect their own data (sousveillance is ‘watchful vigilance from underneath’),
I hear each championing the kinds of activities which concern the artists in
Day-to-Day Data: that is, efforts on the part of individuals to record
their own observations, to make and measure and analyse culture, society and
other B.E. – and to do so (and this, I think, is the critical move) publicly,
for others to use. If we resist the idea of artists
generating data, or the kinds of data we find in Day-to-Day Data –
if we are tempted to call them narcissistic or obsessive or glib – I think
this resistance says as much about how we esteem individuals as about how we
esteem art or artists.
Eve Sedgwick expresses what is at stake in our capacity to recognise individual
acts of ‘remixing’ or ‘hacking’ or ‘sousveillance’
or ‘day-to-day data collecting’: ‘What we can best learn from
such practices are, perhaps, the many ways selves and communities succeed in
extracting sustenance from the objects of a culture – even of a culture
whose avowed desire has often been not to sustain them’.
The works in Day-to-Day Data give us the figure of the data collector,
and in the humility of this figure – the absurdity, the banality, the
intimacy – we get something much greater: we get the individual artist
or viewer or blogger or anyone as a maker of the publics that he or she inhabits.
It is a big idea resident in the smallest and unlikeliest of sources; a transformation
of the very idea that ‘individuals can make a difference’. But this,
behind the innocence of its laughter, is what Day-to-Day Data can do.
1. I use italics to indicate that the
intended sense of data, here and subsequently, is twofold: both data-the-word
(its connotations and denotations) as well as data-the-concept (its history
and social uses).
2. In order to proceed
from this point, we might seem to need a definition of data. But to
think about data beyond its naturalising connotations, as I believe
Day-to-Day Data asks us to do, requires not a definition of data
so much as an armature, a diagram of the networks data sits within. Schematically,
these would be: 1. the people or things data describes, 2. the descriptions
or representations themselves (the forms data takes), and 3. the ways those
representations are used, their effects and intended effects. We will be more
concerned here with the operations of data, its actions – how it is made
and what it effects. The works in Day-to-Day Data encourage this perspective.
3. Blogs or web logs are frequently updated personal
web sites which often take the form of a diary and which have been one of the
most popular and hyped internet technologies over the past five years. www.flickr.com
is a photo-sharing community. www.audioscrobbler.com
is a ‘free service that builds up a detailed profile of your musical tastes’
and creates networks of affinity between users based on those tastes.
4. Many bloggers and flickr users describe their sites
in these terms: as amassings of personal data in the form of photographs, memories,
dates, references, histories, etc. At the time of writing, I am nearing the
end of two years of research on blogs and bloggers, during which I have been
especially interested in the uses of photography, and so latterly have come
to study flickr (thanks to the Economic and
Social Research Council for my current research fellowship). If I speak
about those kinds of sites here, then, it is not only because they have been
on my mind, but because I think the questions they have raised with regard to
data and the interplay between individuals and publics are highly relevant to,
if not co-extensive with, the concerns of Day-to-Day Data. For more
information on this research, see: www.photosleavehome.blogspot.com;
‘What does the photoblog want?’ in Media, Culture & Society,
Winter 2005; and ‘A Welcome for Blogs’ in Continuum special issue
on ‘Counter-heroics and Counter-professionalism in Cultural Studies’,
5. There has also, of course, been massive, sometimes
6. This was a central criticism, for instance, in the
recent struggle over ID cards in Australia. Simon Davies writes about it here:
7. Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics
(New York: Zone Books, 2000), p. 113-4.
8. Narcissism, as I quote its use here, and as it has
been commonly used to criticise blogs, tends not to reference the extensive
psychoanalytic literature on narcissism. Popular criticism which invokes narcissism
tends, most tellingly, to forget that Narcissus, in the founding myth, didn’t
realise that his love was self-love. Narcissus’ self-regard occurred to
him, mistakenly but earnestly, as the loving regard of another. In the argument
I am making about individuals in relation to data and publics, this ambiguity
between the individual’s regard for self and his or her regard for others
is significant. Narcissism, as a concept, contains this ambiguity and is therefore
a far more telling epithet than its wielders realise. People who call blogs
narcissistic deploy a comparatively one-way definition which connotes an unhealthy
interest in oneself and an unseemly display of this self-interest in public.
Here is one example from a newspaper article: http://flacklife.blogspot.com/2005/02/ottawa-citizen-gets-it-utterly-wrong.html.
The article quotes Sam Vaknin, author of Malignant Self Love: Narcissism
Revisited. Even though his book’s title pretty much says it all,
here is what Vaknin says about the internet: ‘The Internet allows us to
replicate ourselves and our words… to communicate instantly with thousands…
and, in general, to realize some of our narcissistic dreams and tendencies’.
The author of the article later elaborates Vaknin’s idea: ‘Similarly,
weblogs (or blogs) allow individuals to indulge grandiose fantasies of who they
are, cataloguing the nuances of their lives – real or imagined –
for all to see’.
9. Warner, p. 62, op. cit.
10. As Joan Copjec points out in Imagine
There’s No Woman: Ethics and Sublimation (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
2002), p. 74.
11. Leo Steinberg, ‘Contemporary
Art and the Plight of its Public’ in Other Criteria: Confrontations
with Twentieth Century Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1972), p.
12. If these don’t seem like losses to you –
if they seem like well-learned lessons of a century of anti-Enlightenment thinking
– I submit that it is far easier to accept them theoretically than to
accept them in one’s day-to-day life.
13. Here, I am drawing in part on Bruno Latour’s
talk ‘A Possible Alternative to Social Explanations?’ presented
at the Centre Launch Party, March 18, 2004, Centre for the Study of Invention
and Social Process (CSISP), at Goldsmiths University. Latour criticised
the ways people use Big structures – Society, Culture, Art etc. –
to explain the behaviours of individuals. He emphasised that those structures
which seem to be explanatory are, in fact, what need to be explained.
14. In contrast, for instance, with works of ‘data-mining’
which focus less on the making of data than on the appropriation and uses of
it. For more on data-mining, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Datamining
15. For one of many flickr food groups, see: ‘What’s
in your fridge?’ at www.flickr.com/groups/88412962@N00;
For the foot group, see: www.flickr.com/groups/foot
16. For lots more information on blogs and democracy
try googling ‘blogs democracy’, for blogs and journalism, try ‘blogs
journalism’; for property and ownership, see any of the writings of Lawrence
Lessig at www.lessig.org
17. Whatever is said about the irrelevance or narcissism
of blogs, no one seems to have been able to ignore them. Day-to-Day Data
provides many answers to the question of why blogs vex us so.
18. e.g. the humble manual labourer, the pop celebrity,
the scientist, the rock star, the collector (of junk or found objects) etc.
19. SCAN (Southern Collaborative Arts Network). A consortium
of arts venues / organisations in southern England www.scansite.org
20. Compare this public airing of personal data to,
say, photo albums, which are typically only seen by family and friends.
21. Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture: How Big Media
Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity
(New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), available at: www.lessig.org.
McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2004). For more information on sousveillance, see Steve Mann writing
For a less polemical introduction to sousveillance, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sousveillance
22. Eve Sedgwick, ‘Paranoid Reading, Reparative
Reading’ in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity
(Durham, N.C. and London: Duke University Press, 2003), p. 151-2.