Data Art in dialogue: Artistic Interactions with Technology and Society

Pulse of the EPO / Quadrature (DE), Photo: Christian Kain

Data art transforms complex data into interactive, aesthetic works of art. In “Pulse of the EPO”, the Berlin duo Quadrature uses patent data to explore social and cosmic boundaries.

Data art, an art form that uses data as the main medium for creating aesthetic artworks, is interpreted and defined in many different ways. Artists use various technologies such as virtual reality, AI or data visualisation software to translate them into visual and interactive forms, from digital animations to physical installations. This art form not only offers visual fascination, but also provides new insights into complex data from the environment, social networks or the economy. The works are often interactive, allow for audience interaction and pose critical questions about current social issues through their processing of data. There are many different views and opinions on what exactly data art is and what aspects it should encompass, making this artistic practice a dynamic and constantly evolving field.

With their work “Pulse of the EPO”, Berlin-based artists Juliane Götz and Sebastian Neitsch combine data and technology in a fascinating way to capture and reshape realities under the name Quadrature. With a broad, transdisciplinary approach ranging from time-based performance and installations to classical sculpture and two-dimensional works, they (until 2016 together with Jan Bernstein) explore the boundaries between the world and the cosmos. By using different methods and narrative styles, they create unique forms of artistic expression. In this article, we take a look at their most recent work, the boundaries of patent data and art, and the transformative power of data art.

Catalyst lab – The Making of Tomorrow / Ars Electronica exhibition at the European Patent Office, Photo: Wolfgang Stahl

Catalyst lab – The Making of Tomorrow 

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the European Patent Convention, the European Patent Office (EPO) invited Ars Electronica Export to jointly curate a central area in the basement of the EPO headquarters. This space of almost 1,000 square metres, which once served as an archive for patent applications, lost its original function due to the switch to digital patent granting procedures. This transformation provided a unique opportunity to rethink the space not only physically, but also conceptually. The collaboration aimed to develop a concept that would both preserve the historical significance of the space as an archive and introduce a new, future-orientated use. This strategic reorientation created an environment that respects the cultural and historical identity of the site while serving as an inspiring space for EPO staff and visitors.

Pulse of the EPO / Quadrature (DE), Credit: Sebastian Neitsch 

Creative visions from patent data

“Pulse of the EPO” utilises the transformative power of creativity in science and technology and draws on the extensive technical information and documents of the European Patent Office. The installation, which extends over 11 metres, is presented in a high-resolution 3 x 4k display. It visualises data from ten million patent applications classified according to the European Patent Office’s Y02 tagging system for climate-relevant technologies.

The immense amount of data from the EPO’s global patent database PATSTAT inspires a series of narratives that reflect the EPO’s global influence. Approaches based on real data are mixed with subjective speculation and poetic licence. The aesthetics and dramaturgy of the work are shaped by various parameters from the EPO’s databases, including the filing date, the place of origin of the patent application, the time between filing and approval or rejection, technical fields, application titles, status events and patent families. In each individual narrative, sound and image are generated in synchronisation with the EPO’s records, highlighting the importance of these technologies in the context of global sustainability.

Pulse of the EPO / Quadrature (DE), Credit: Sebastian Neitsch 

Innovation through collaboration

In an interview with Juliane Götz and Sebastian Neitsch, we find out more about how the project came about. At the centre of the project was the examination of patent data, which was metaphorically described as an “idea management machine” – a term that critically reflects the exclusivity and access restriction of knowledge as created by patents. Despite this critical approach, the artists also recognised the positive side: patents as an immense knowledge library and platform for innovation. Given the tight timeframe and the challenge of viewing the data from different visual perspectives, the team took an approach that aimed for simplicity and abstraction, both technically and visually. The aim was to create a comprehensive overview by first visualising basic data, such as the simple distinction of whether a patent has been granted or not. Furthermore, the team experimented with displaying up to 4000 patents per frame in order to achieve an effective visualisation of a total of 1 million patents, with each patent being assigned an individual sound.

“The diversity in the processing of data shows that almost any data set can serve as the basis for interesting artistic projects.” 

Juliane Götz

But what were the artists able to find in the data? “Data can function as artistic material, whereby the speciality often lies in the fact that it exists both on a factual level and on a meta-level. The meta-level raises questions such as: Who collected this data and what does it actually mean? This data is rarely available in its raw form; it has already been processed, coloured or interpolated. This leads to a fascinating challenge: it’s not just about looking at the data set itself, but also the environment in which it was created.” says Juliane Götz. Some data can be used relatively easily and directly for artistic projects, while others require more interpretation. Juliane also emphasises that they would probably not have dealt with patent data without a specific impetus. Dealing with such information requires a deep analytical approach. Despite the challenges, it is clear that almost all types of data have the potential to be transformed into interesting artistic projects; however, the effort required varies depending on the type of data.

When asked how data and art generally interact and enrich each other, Sebastian says that it is a combination of different factors. The way in which you approach the matter plays a decisive role. First of all, data material in itself is raw material. The challenge is to find the right technique and the right context for working with this material. As with any material, it depends on how you process it both conceptually and technically. “Data is extremely relevant to society, as it is becoming increasingly omnipresent and interacts with society, which in turn influences the data. I find this dynamic very exciting from a social perspective,” says Sebastian Neitsch.

Data provides an accessible basis for shedding light on technical, social and political issues. A common problem in working with it, however, is its technical nature. In media art, technology tends to take on a dominant role, especially in the use of artificial intelligence, which is undoubtedly a relevant topic. “For artists, data is above all a raw material that can be processed in a variety of ways. They can work with it directly, use it conceptually, analyse its influence and critically question where it comes from, how much truth it contains, which statistics are trustworthy, which may have been manipulated, and to what extent it can reflect reality. Is there an absolute truth? Data can represent different truths. The decisive factor is when it is appropriate to work with data and how this is best done. These questions always require individual consideration and answers.”. Therefore, the use of data in media art remains a constant challenge and an indispensable opportunity to further deepen and enrich the discourse on the interactions between technology and society.

Pulse of the EPO / Quadrature (DE), Credit: Sebastian Neitsch

Global networking at the interface of art and science

The Catalyst Lab, curated by Ars Electronica Export, highlights global issues and challenges of our time, examines the impact of technology on society and documents the rapid transformation of the world through innovation and technological progress. With more than 40 years of experience at the interface of art and science, Ars Electronica Export is committed to promoting knowledge worldwide through exhibitions, events, mentoring, residencies, lectures and workshops. The offer includes both customised solutions and cost-efficient complete packages that are precisely tailored to the specific needs and resources of the partners. The projects, which can be thematic, technological or historical, aim to develop inspiring endeavours that build on existing successes and highlight important developments in the fields of art, technology and society in order to further enrich the discourse on future innovations.

More information on Ars Electronica Export projects can be found here.

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