Day-to-Day Data
Ben Highmore
April 2005


The everyday has been there all the time; it is the world hidden in plain view. If, at the moment, it is becoming the focus of a certain amount of attention (from
artists and academics, for instance) then we should remember that this is nothing new, and that artists (think of Picasso’s use of newspaper and wallpaper) and social investigators (think of those massive Victorian studies of the habits and habitats of the working class) have been scrutinising the everyday for years. And yet the everyday (yours, mine, and theirs) often exists in the shadows, relatively free from our own scrutiny. Everyday life tends towards the unnoticed; its way of being seems to crave our daily inattention, and its natural environment is most often the unexamined life. And when it is scrutinised it is inevitably transformed. The half-awake and half-ignored daily ablutions become something different when their traces are measured with precision, for instance, in the work of Mary Yacoob (Trace Elements). And the spots and markings on a banana take on a different patina when scrutinised as runic signs or maps for divination in the work of Helen Frosi (Life/Lotto).

Ordinarily, as unexamined life, you could say that everyday life harbours the vast range of attitudes that make up ‘normal life’, while also working to maintain ideas of what constitutes normal life (ideas which, of course, may have little to do with actuality). Everyday life is both ordinary and extraordinary. Indeed, properly speaking, it is the place where the extraordinary becomes ordinary (who, for instance, doesn’t have an everyday life?) and where the ordinary is finally ready to be recognised as extraordinary. While it presents itself as the great swath of the unexceptional, everyday life needs only a little jiggling for it to reveal most of us as exceptions, or, more routinely, as contradictions: the arch rationalist who will talk of illness, disaster and death and quickly search out for a piece of wood to touch (increasingly difficult in certain environments); the obsessive tidier whose bathroom is filthy. Everyday life is the realm of loosely held together contradictions and the realm of low-resolution ideology, usually paraded as ‘common sense’ and ‘nature’. And this is more or less the problem of the everyday: endless peculiarity meets the endless ‘quiet’ reproduction of social norms. Which is it then? Is the everyday to be mined for its mass of minor infractions of social norms, its ceaseless generation of idiosyncrasies? Or should we recognise that in the everyday lurk the most trenchant ideological beliefs, the most hard-to-fight bigotries? Isn’t there something insidious and surreptitious, as well as ferociously depressing, about the way racism and sexism have kept a stronghold in the everyday long after substantial victories had been won at the level of legislation? Any attempt to celebrate indiscriminately the everyday needs to face the fact that it also provides a safe-house for our very worst attitudes and activities.

Contradiction, then, might be seen to be at the very heart of everyday life, and it is fitting that the artists of Day-to-Day Data are adept at exploiting the power of the unresolved (and irresolvable) contrast. Tea, as used by Tim Taylor (Our Daily Drugs (Morning Action Patinas)), produces subtle visual haikus on a daily basis: it is also a product that bears the history of Western imperialism and the continued uneven relationship between the West and Asia. Soap powder, as seen by Anders Bojen & Kristoffer Ørum (Detergent (Real imaginary system)), contains a whole cosmology of strange biomorphic forms, unsettling satellites, a Ferris wheel and various bubbled figures, and yet it remains a commodity, available in any supermarket around the world. Soap was an instrumental ingredient in the everyday cultural colonisation of India and Africa, for instance: it carries its history as a secret cargo
.[1] Soap powder is the example that Henri Lefebvre, author of various volumes of the critique of everyday life, often gave for the way that the commodity is ‘thoroughly penetrating the details of daily life’. Soap, tea, and sugar,[2] with their colonial histories and neo-colonial presents, are evidence of the way that imperialism and capitalism colonise the recesses of the everyday through the most ordinary materials. And yet, these ordinary materials and their possibilities are not, in the end, simply reducible to forces of imperial capitalism and its derivatives.

When day-to-day objects became commodities they were encouraged to dream (so as to obscure the shabby and exploitative conditions of their production), but this dreamworld quickly surpassed the pragmatic need for subterfuge. The world of things has conjured a fantasy world of elaborate dimensions. Soap powders can contain Ferris wheels, just as a new car can make you more attractive. There is an excess of dreams out there. And the ability of objects to dream has not just served a world determined by profit; it has given expressive potential to the world of things. Thus when Cleo Broda (Personal Soft Data Archive System) charts her emotional attachment to the things she is letting go of, she also recognises their attachment to her. And when Adele Prince (Trolley Spotting) maps the routes of deserter shopping trolleys as they head for the countryside, waylaid in the shallow streams on the edge of town or caught in back alleys, she recognises the trolley’s dream to escape the army discipline of the supermarket. Gabrielle Sharp’s (Losing it in London) investigation of mislaid and misplaced objects uncovers a treasure trove of mnemonic objects silently waiting for their mediums and mediators who will once again let them speak. It is this unpredictable and in some ways unmanageable remainder that is one of the subjects of Day-to-Day Data.


Everyday life seems to have a peculiar penchant for data; just as data seems always ready to be seduced by the daily. Trawling through the mass of facts that circulate on the internet, the most readily available seem to consist of the mass-regularities of the daily. For instance it turns out that US citizens drink 35 billion cups of tea each year and use 68 million kilograms of tea to do this. More interesting might be the ‘fact’ that over 1,000 tonnes of space dust falls to earth each year and that this might be responsible for flu epidemics (I imagine that a few tonnes must be falling into the cups of tea). Alternatively you might be fascinated to know that dogs living in the UK produce 1,000 tonnes of faeces every day (collectively, that is). Data, as used to map regularities, quantities, frequencies, probabilities, and so on, produces a landscape rich in surreal potential. It also maps a landscape that is useful to social planners, the stock market, trans-national retailers, security services, practitioners of cultural studies, and so on.

The everyday use of the word ‘data’ has a quality which is similar to the way that the term ‘the everyday’ is used. Data, as my dictionary informs me, is a plural noun that is often treated as a singular one. It is therefore grammatically incorrect to claim a single piece of information as data; it is more correctly a datum. Facts about tea drinking and dog excreting are produced via a range of information: they coalesce as a composite form – one giant dog, one giant turd – one monstrous orchestrated chorus of tea drinking. The term ‘the everyday’ exhibits some of the same qualities: essentially plural (a single day clearly won’t do) it often seems to veil itself in the singular – as if one everyday belongs to us all, as if everyday life is not characterised by unevenness and conflict. But, and it is a big but, this is not a plural noun becoming ‘singular’ by stressing the material particularity of an object existing at a specific moment. It is the singular as an abstract entity that works to veil the concrete singular that we all exist in. And it is against this ‘abstract singular’ that the artists of Day-to-Day Data are most thoroughly engaged as champions of the insistent materiality of the ‘concrete singular’.

One way out of the abstractions of data processing (and one step nearer to the concrete everyday) is to reverse its operational logic. This is what Lucy Kimbell does with her Physical Bar Charts. She begins with the abstractions of processed data and works to make this material concrete by getting visitors to claim and possess specific bits of datum. Abstraction becomes subtraction and physical data is ‘returned’ to the source. Another way out of abstraction is to literalise the process of data collection in the way that Borges suggested when he imagined a map being made that was as detailed and of exactly the same scale as the land it represented.[3] This is the tactic of Sam Curtis as he proceeds to conduct his own IDUK census by personally counting everyone in the UK. Yet another way is to discover surprising concrete actualities in the abstractions of numerically raw and random data: this is what Richard Dedomenici does when he ‘discovers’ an uncanny conglomeration of nail salons surrounding the satellite cities on the edge of London (Nail Salon Belt) and protecting them from metropolitan encroachment.

Routine Matter

As defenders of the ‘concrete singular’ the artists of Day-to-Day Data share a number of similar manoeuvres. In their fight against the abstractions of mainstream data-processing they have all found ways of short-circuiting the absorption of datum into data. Probably the one element that unites all these artists is a vigorous emphasis on materiality – on the stuff-ness of stuff. Hence it is no uncanny coincidence to find that among the various projects here it is often the substances of daily life that are most emphatically stressed (soap powder, tea, toothpaste, bananas, etc.). One of the main effects of abstraction is the production of a human subject that is similarly abstracted – a disembodied, virtual being – and one of the best ways of re-embodying this human subject is to remind ourselves that we all eat, drink, get ill, excrete, digest, sneeze, get hot, smell, wash, secrete, have sex, absorb, process proteins, fats, minerals, vitamins, have babies, bleed, get old, get fit and so on. Emphasising the materiality of bodies is, and this may seem counter intuitive, also a way of defending the everyday against the ideology of individualism and identity (which is another abstraction of the singular). By foregrounding the literal consumptions and productions of the body, the body becomes a site of interconnectivity that throws into question the very premise of identity (which is, according to psychoanalysis, based on fantasy relations that produce an imagined sense of wholeness). Christian Nold's Bio Mapping device, for instance, measures the body's Galvanic Skin Response – an index of physical excitement – and connects this to specific geographical space. Such bodily responses are not the signs of a consciousness or agency reacting to place; they are the body's ‘own’ form of dialogue. Our bodies give ‘us’ away precisely because ‘we’ do not control them: who is it that can voluntarily blush?

In a similar vein, Ellie Harrison’s Daily Data Log is a record of the material conditions of the body – its inputs and outputs – its irruptions – its affective states – as they are measured via a number of low tech instruments, including the artist's subjective view. Affectivity is the body producing meaning (by being embarrassed, by laughing, by being anxious): it is the material unconscious of the everyday – a material source that is undervalued precisely because it doesn’t seem to be produced or controlled by the subject of rational thought. The eradication of the irrational and the inefficient (as well as the anti-social) in material day-to-day life is the topic of Hannah Brown’s Daily Efficiency and Behavioural Analysis, Self-evaluation Checklist (DEBASC). It is a checklist of such magnitude, of such competing demands that to embark on it will send you spiralling into the world of pathological inefficiency and anti-social and irrational behaviour.

Therese Stowell’s Emotional Stimuli and Responses Over 24-Hour Period – an attempt to produce a diagrammatic account of her emotional and affective life over an entire day – is portraiture performed by an anthropological ecologist. Pregnancy (which is one aspect of the ‘state’ of Stowell during the 24 hours) is a condition that makes vivid a more general truth: ‘we’ (though the unification of this pronoun would need to be undone) are tough and fragile, chemical and ideational, life-supporting and life-supported – we are ourselves a complex ecosystem living within a larger and even more complex ecosystem. Whether or not such ecosystems can become predictable is the question posed by
James Coupe, Hedley Roberts & Rob Saunders as they monitor the everyday activities of office life in various organisations in 9PIN++. For Stowell the ‘individual’ is forever spilling outward, producing surprising connections: for Coupe, Roberts & Saunders complex ecologies are treated as organism-like entities that might be habit forming in their routine, day-to-day life.

Agitated Layers of Air

It is tempting to see the term ‘material’ as pointing to the physical actuality of life – for instance, the pizza in Tony Kemplen's work (Eating pizza while watching the news) – and to see the world of images and words – the TV news items in Kemplen's work – as somehow at one remove from the material. Yet by juxtaposing pizza and TV news Kemplen plays on the non-fit between the two (the necessary contingency of their coinciding) while also suggesting that materially we ingest both, both are matter that we absorb. It is worth looking to Marx and Engels for an understanding of materialism that would understand language as a base material of existence: ‘From the start the “spirit” is afflicted with the curse of being “burdened” with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language.’[4] ‘Agitated layers of air’, as a base material of the day-to-day, is the emphasis of the sound artist Hywel Davies (Basic Set) as he weaves together what film theorists call ‘diegetic sound’ (the sound – including ‘wild sound’ – recorded on location) into orchestrated soundscapes. It is this vital relationship to the practical materiality of sound and language that is also emphasised in Kevin Carter's work (De do do do, de da da da (They're meaningless and all that's true)) around the chatter of his pre-verbal 11 month old baby.

Language is the material of the day-to-day from the pops and fizzes of baby ‘talk’ (a musically affective sequence of cadences) to the cosmological language of the stars. Jem Finer (On Earth as in Heaven) literally brings the ‘stars down to earth’.[5] By tracing celestial bodies onto the earth's surface by dint of shared names (but this time instead of naming astral bodies the names tag cars, streets, people, and so on) he maps new constellations, which though essentially random, are also ‘written in the stars’. Finer produces maps that simultaneously reconfigure the cosmic as the banal world of the day-to-day while also revealing the day-to-day world as linguistically saturated by the cosmic (1,000 tonnes of space dust falls to earth each year). These everyday earth-bound names remain heavenly. It is this fascinating and facile linguistic world that Abigail Reynolds pictures when she tabulates the strange permutations connected to the word ‘table’ (Dictionary Ranges: Diagram of ‘table’). In this way that slight slippage that seems to occur between ‘word’ and ‘world’ points to an actuality: for Reynolds a word is already (very nearly) a world.


The artists of Day-to-Day Data are crusaders fighting the abstracting impulses of sociological quantifiers and market researchers alike. Like quixotic evangelists they are taking on the powerful forces in our present moment that would work to sever everyday life from the bodies that inhabit it, and empty it of its sensuous specificity. If the shopping mall and the security services are interested in bodies as abstract indices that need to be controlled and compelled (in a variety of ways and for a variety of reasons) Day-to-Day Data wants bodies that pulse with their own idiosyncratic possibilities and proclivities. These are bodies that interact with a physical and ideational world that is as material as they are.

The artists of Day-to-Day Data reveal the everyday world to be made up of concrete singularities. The concrete, here, is a world where bodies are simultaneously biological and cultural, where ‘things’ are at once dumb-matter and agents that act in the world, and where language is a matter of practice and a practical matter. And the singular is revealed as the very opposite of both the false unity of the abstract singular (‘woman’, ‘the British’, ‘India’, ‘youth’, and so on) and the monadic fragment of individualism. The concrete singular of the everyday is the singular lattice of connections and disconnections that always exist in specific times and places: it is the everyday as a complex of competing, conflicting, consensual, contrasting and conflicting concretions. It is the living world of material social relations. Who knew that data could be this sensual?

1. See Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (London and New York: Routledge, 1995).

2. Henri Lefebvre gives the example of someone buying sugar for demonstrating the way that a seemingly banal moment of daily life is connected to both global capitalism and personal desire and memory (and everything else in between) – Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life: Volume 1, translated by John Moore (London: Verso, 1991), p. 57. This passage was originally published in French in the 1958 second edition of the book.

3. ‘The Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it’, Jorge Luis Borges, A Universal History of Infamy (1935) translated by Andrew Hurley, in Collected Fictions (New York: Viking Penguin, 1998), p. 325.

4. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1970). The text was written in 1845.

5. Coincidentally or not this is the title of a long essay written by Theodor Adorno in 1953 which analyses the astrology column of the Los Angeles Times as part of a mass everyday irrationalism. See Theodor W. Adorno, The Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).

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