James Bridles' Watching The Watchers series, part of Data as Culture 2014
James Bridles' Watching The Watchers series, part of Data as Culture 2014

DATA AS CULTURE: Interview with Shiri Shalmy


21 July 2014

In June, the Open Data Institute's Data as Culture exhibition comes to Lighthouse. Storyteller and Technologist Natalie Kane caught up with curator Shiri Shalmy after her Lunchtime Lecture at the ODI.

Shiri Shalmy at the opening of Data as Culture 2014, at the Open Data Institute
Shiri Shalmy at the opening of Data as Culture 2014, at the Open Data Institute

In Data as Culture, you’ve placed together work that straddles the political and the playful. Why do you think it’s important to address the absurd in conversations about data?

I must start by saying that a sense of the absurd informs a lot of my work, as much as my interest in politics. I am fascinated by the tension between the hopefulness of political engagement and the hopelessness of an existentialist worldview.

I haven’t worked with data in a particular professional capacity before being commissioned for this project. I shared the common mistrust of the way data is collected and handled; from the mild annoyance of the T&C box, to the grotesque feeling of being spied on and the sense of disempowerment in the face of large corporations and government. I think these feelings are so common that they now inform our entire culture and politics.

My curatorial approach was to identify and commission works that would engage the viewer in questioning and responding to these notions and I think humour and play are a great way to achieve that – Anxious about sharing your personal data? Confront your fears through a make-believe data consultation with no defined output. Not sure you understand how your money is being spent (despite the promise of openness)? Sit on YoHa’s primary coloured contraption and feel it through your bottom!

You made a point at the ODI Data as Culture lecture about the reversal of the secret and open in regards to James Bridle and YoHa’s work. Could I ask you to elaborate on that?

My starting point was that the tension between secrecy and openness is a question of agency. Through answering the question ‘Whose data it is?’ we can determine our response to the way it is gathered, handled, processed and shared. Or not.

The method in which data is made public or kept secret is key to this – James Bridle’s Watching the Watchers series features images and the locations of military drone bases worldwide. These are meant to be secret facilities but the information shared in the piece is freely and openly available online. The secret, in this case, is maintained not through sophisticated encryption or even legislation but through an unspoken ‘contract’, in which we agree not to see. These military bases are secret only because we say they are. It is a multilayered piece that also questions the role of the artist (James talks about ‘photography without a photographer’) and the technology itself but essentially exposes the viewer.

Yoha’s piece Invisible Airs, on the other hand, deals with what is officially public information. Bristol City Council’s spending data is available on the council’s website through legislation that is meant to make local authorities more transparent. But YoHa say: “After attempting to read 20,000 comma separated lines of apparently open-data, we understood that power revealed itself through boredom.” Despite being freely available, most people are still unable to read or make sense of this information, rendering the gesture of making the data open meaningless.

You could argue that the reversal here illustrates our – probably misguided – general trust in official sharing or withdrawal of data: we accept that some things are invisible even when they are right in front of our eyes (the Wall Street Journal recently accused James of being a ‘spy’ for sharing Google Earth images) while accepting that the things we cannot access are ‘open’.

In your curation of the show you’ve chosen a few pieces that play on the theatre of formal bureaucracy – thickear’s The Pink Sheet Method and Sam Meech’s Punchcard Economy – why did you choose works that had this performative element?

The moment of bureaucratic exchange offers an opportunity to examine the relationship between individuals and large organisations, which inevitably revolves around giving and receiving data. thickear’s The Pink Sheet Method, consisting of three separate events taking place on different times in three cities (Manchester, London and Brighton), uses the visual and gestural language of official data collection to explore the notion of trust which is inherent to this exchange. Utilising the familiar performative nature of customer service – the inviting smiles, the exaggerated politeness – thickear created a sleek, corporate-looking environment (poetically described as “a cross between Natwest and Carphone Warehouse”) and convinced FutureEverything visitors to take part in a data gathering exercise that relies entirely on trust.

However, unlike in similar real-life situations, there was no offer of service or product in exchange, but a signed, numbered and authenticated work of art containing the information given by the recipient. Unvalidated and possibly untruthful, the data provided was processed and analysed at the second intervention at the Open Data Institute, where it is currently on display as a sculptural object. The last event, at Lighthouse on 3 July, will conclude the series. It is yet unknown how thickear will use the accumulated data, which was made clear to the Manchester participants.

I commissioned thickear to develop this piece for Data as Culture based on their previous collaborative work Ministry of Measurement. I loved their humorous, yet fully committed and dead serious approach to exploring the ritualistic nature of bureaucratic exchange and was curious to see how they would further develop it in the context of the wider programme.

In his piece Punchcard Economy Sam Meech uses punchcards to collect information about work patterns and then uses the same medium to create knitting patterns to illustrate it. In this case the medium – also shared by early computers – is being employed to provoke a discussion about workers rights, referencing Robert Owen’s 888 movement and the history of trade unions in their battle for shorter working days (and decent pay), an issue that remains current and urgent as ever. Inviting ‘freelance creatives’ to submit their working hours, Sam challenges participants to examine their place in an invisible workforce that is mostly overworked and many times underpaid (commenting, for example, on the cultural sector reliance on interns, work experience students and volunteers). The data is provided through one gesture (clocking in and out using a real or virtual punchcard) and manifested through another – the repetitive action of using an electronic (hacked) knitting machine.

What happens with our data and who deals with it is often a tension felt by the public, even more so after the NSA/GCHQ revelations. What does art that confronts this tension directly do in terms of exploring our own anxieties about data use?

Again, I think it all goes back to trust, both in case of data provided and of data asked for, or, in many cases, taken without permission. The current NSA scandal offers a beautiful example of how this anxiety affects all sides. James Bridle deals with it a lot in his work, for example through tracking CCTV cameras or sharing non-consensual data collected by his mobile phone. There are, of course, many other artists who explore these issues which weren’t included in the show, such as Ben Guillon and Trevor Paglen. I feel that the role of artists in response to these challenges is similar to what it has been in response to any other social and political issue – it is to provoke and challenge, both popular perceptions and the official line, to expose and deconstruct, and when possible, to agitate and subvert.

Some of the works in Data as Culture deal directly with the use of technology to spy and control (for example YoHa’s Endless War which analyses in real-time the Afghan war diaries exposed by Wikileaks) and the artists use the same technology to expose these mechanisms. Artistic authority, in these cases, relies on our assumed trust in informational authority – accepting the truthfulness of the data, we are being provoked to question the agenda behind its collection, concealment and use.


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