If you’re a JP frequenter, you may have stumbled upon the Boston CyberArts Gallery in the Green St. MBTA station towards the end of the Orange Line. This marks my first visit to the space and I am completely fixated on its brilliant location. The gallery lies street-level directly adjacent to the T-station entrance—the floors even have the same brick tiling, giving it a more habitable vibe than your typical, sterile white-wall gallery setting. The space is so accessible that I couldn’t help but think about these gallery pieces as public artworks. I took great pleasure in seeing people stumble into the space on their daily commute, learning about something or just enjoying the visual treats, and I commend the gallery’s ambition to foster a more casual, intimate and integrated art-life relationship. In our high-stress era of world-issue bombardment, I feel it’s just what the doctor ordered…
I had the pleasure last weekend of experiencing Boston CyberArts’ World Memory: The Art of Data Visualization exhibition, showcasing artists working in a range of media-related practices (in 2D, 3D and video) and navigating the “Big Data” field through artistic data visualization, to “examine the planet’s natural and artificial structures, both physical and economic.” Big Data is a growing field which analyzes data sets that are too large or complex to be dealt with by traditional data-processing, i.e., the bigger and more mysterious problems of our world, environmentally and socio-politically speaking. Thus, some exciting and important opportunities arise for investigative art-making.
The first and most memorable work I encountered was dust.zone by Dietmar Offenhuber. The piece brings physicality to an otherwise imperceivable phenomena: air pollution. The artist helps us to see the microscopic dust (PM2.5) of city air that accumulates on urban surfaces over time. The artist specializes in these public art installations of “reverse graffiti”– also dubbed “clean advertising.” He first creates a stencil, then uses a water jet to eliminate the dirt on city walls and reveal the fresh, clean surface underneath– and with it, a hidden “utopia,” or a glimpse of one. I was talking with a CyberArts gallery manager who relayed to me that Offenhuber had originally planned to do his reverse graffiti on the gravel outside of the gallery, and attempted to do so, but it turns out it was not dirty enough to make the stencil impression. So in case you were wondering, the rumors are true: Boston, at least, is one of the cleanest cities in the country.
dust.zone is also uniquely time-based: these crisp patterns will fade over the coming months as the dust accumulates again. Local passers-by in Germany can visit the project website (http://dust.zone) and download a map of every installation he completed so far in Stuttgart and track the progression of each if they please. They are also provided with the PM2.5 level of their immediate location. A term often used in air quality reports, PM2.5 refers to the ultra-tiny particulate matter (the microscopic dust) that comprises a major air pollutant. So tiny, their individual size is about 3% of the diameter of a hair strand! Their tiny size permits them to stay in the air the longest and they are dangerously easy to inhale. In dust.zone, Offenhuber draws our attention to both the urgency and futility of the situation at hand (air pollution mitigation), as Big Data visualizations tend to lay bare… We either make some sacrifices and change our industrialist, urban lifestyles, or await our coughing fate. I commend dust.zone for serving a meaningful public function, both as artwork and “advertisement,” and promoting awareness and education on this everyday but otherwise invisible concern, both human and environmental.
Steal Fire was the most captivating piece in the show for me for a multitude of reasons. It is created from both found video footage of recent forest fires in the Western U.S. and various digital animations. This duality of visual medium had the effect of grounding me in more worlds than one (the one we know, which I associated with the footage half), and overall it mimicked a video game experience. Video game sound effects and a level system (Level 1, 2) are consistent throughout the piece, which opens on a screen with a menu of worlds (that the mouse-hand chooses from) that the video travels between. The five red triangles in the lower left corner remind me of game lives (play-turns, but also red hazard signage. In the animation half, there is detachment to be felt from the grounded reality of these wildfire tragedies—fiery destruction is not depicted in this world. Then again, there is perhaps equal detachment to be felt from the video sections: most utilize posterized and color-temperature effects and capture more dreamlike scenes, like a sweeping drone shot of a forest or a dash-cam video of a car speeding down a forest road, dodging trails of fire in its path. They appear to be chasing the fire (not escaping it) for the thrill of it.
Most of the data related to this project is demonstrated within the video’s narration, which spoke through a robot-like vocoder as if in essay format (saying statistics like “80% of wildfires start due to human activity.”). Yet some sentences are unexpectedly poetic: “Winds carry the thick smoke for miles, turning the day into night…” and “I’m surrounded by mother nature’s feeling.” It seems these allusions to video game experience and the retreats into poetry are designed to call attention to our near-romanticization of wildfires. We tend to soak up their drama, and while we may broadcast these events as they happen, rarely are we educating people with the facts and advocating for a call to action after-the-fact, or simply bringing more awareness to the effects of climate change (on top of human causes).
The digital animation sequences of Steal Fire have a beautiful crystalline quality about them, particularly the trees and the green figures on the ground below them. At one point in the video there are crystalline, “icy” sounds that mimic the sound of wind chimes. The trees look as though they are made of glass, become uprooted and slowly turn in digital space (off the ground against a black-void sky), lingering in the air and feeling as though they might fall any second. And in this special case, the tree that falls in the forest would make a sound– a deafening shatter! (Here I reference the familiar philosophical question: If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?) As robust as we make them out to be, trees are fragile, too!
The end of the video loop confronts us with word “Paradise” and a palm tree silhouette. Is Beavers suggesting we flee to a “paradise island” instead of confronting the problem at home? Although it’s also my understanding that palm trees are the trees particularly susceptible to fires. Perhaps the takeaway is that there will be no paradise, no escape from reality, if we do not come to terms with our realities in the first place!
World Memory: The Art of Data Visualization, curated by W. Benjamin Bray and George Fifield, was on view through May 5th. However, you still find all the artworks & artists here on CyberArts’ website. Boston CyberArts Inc. is a non-profit arts organization that is consistently rotating their gallery with cutting-edge exhibitions, showcasing nascent media practices and the intersections between technology and artmaking.
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