Day-to-Day Data
Kris Cohen
April 2005

Does ‘data’ strike you as a cold or somehow impoverished title for artworks which, among other things, communicate the pathos of an artist’s history of separ
ation 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?[1] How did data get such a cold inhuman heart, so much in tension with life as it is lived?[2]

And 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.[3] 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.[4] Why the resistance?[5] 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.[6] 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.’[7] 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.[8] 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’.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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?’).[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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?[15] They are, in any case, the subject of serious public discussion: e.g. the transformation of democracy, journalism, property, copyright, creativity, celebrity.[16] 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 us.[17]

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.[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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.[21] 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’.[22] 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. is a photo-sharing community. 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:; ‘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’, June 2006.

5. There has also, of course, been massive, sometimes hyperbolic support.

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: 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. 7.

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:

15. For one of many flickr food groups, see: ‘What’s in your fridge?’ at; For the foot group, see:

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

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

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: McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). For more information on sousveillance, see Steve Mann writing here: For a less polemical introduction to sousveillance, see:

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.

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