Andrea Polli – Interpreting the Data Environment


First publication workshop Space: Planetary Consciousness and the Arts, in
collaboration with OURS Foundation, IAA and Maison d’Ailleurs, Yverdon, 2005

My art work has been in the area of the computerized interpretation of complex data sets using the natural world as a model.

In 1996, I developed the a system called “Intuitive Ocusonics”. This system used simple software-based eye tracking technology to translate eye movements into sound.

Brett Stalbaum defines one of the most important roles of a database artist to be the projection of meaning onto meaningless data streams. Stalbaum challenges artists not to be “bound to work through semantic models in a way dictated by the purposes for which the data is collected’,.

In The Aesthetic Dimension Herbert Marcuse says that under the law of aesthetic form, reality is necessarily sublimated, content stylized, and “the ‘data’ are reshaped and reordered in accordance with the demands of the art form, requiring even the representation of death and destruction invoke the need for hope.” When Marcuse uses the term ‘data,’ he is not referring to digital ‘data’, instead he’s talking about the raw material of experience. However, I see digital data as part of the landscape of raw material.

The interpretation and presentation of data using sound is part of a growing movement in what is called data sonification. In the arts, the direct creation of music from natural processes has a long history. Just a few examples: the idea of ‘music of the spheres’, or music created through the movements of the heavenly bodies dates back to Pythagoras, and Johannes Kepler created a music of the spheres in 1619 by transposing known planetary orbits into melodies.

The sounds of traditional Chinese musical kites depend on the direction and amount of wind in the natural environment.

More recently in 1971, Charles Dodge produced Earth’s Magnetic Field, a musical composition in which the sounds correspond to the magnetic activity for the Earth in the year 1961.

This process of translating data into an unfamiliar form for an aesthetic purpose can be compared to the ‘negation’ process, one of the primary aesthetic goals of the Situationist movement. In defining the function of negation, Guy Debord states that “insight into this reversible coherence of the world – enables one to … recognize the presence of … half-measures each time the operating pattern of the dominant society- … reconstitutes itself within the forces of negation.” In other words, if traditional ways in which to interpret information: the spreadsheet, visual graph, text document, etc. are the ‘dominant’ forces, in our digital society, in the manner of the Situationists, data-benders negate this dominance through brute-force, and therefore negate meaning in order to rebuild it.

In 2003, I collaborated with Dr. Glenn Van Knowe a Senior Meteorologist at MESO, a commercial atmospheric modeling firm. Dr. Van Knowe and his colleagues create highly detailed simulations of the weather based on terrain, initial conditions, and other factors. Together, we discovered that a system similar to the “Intuitive Ocusonics” system could read the data of a weather model to create sound compositions.

In a multi-channel sound installation, we explored data from two historical storms that occurred in the area of New York City. Historical storms were our choice because they could be modeled in great detail by combining data from the National Weather Service with the model, and they might trigger the memories of listeners who experienced that storm. We selected the 1979 President’s Day Snowstorm and Hurricane Bob from 1991.

Specific geographical points were mapped to each speaker. This multi-channel design allowed for a detailed examination of the movement of the storm and the storm’s structure.

More recently, I worked with climate change data for the New York City region in collaboration with Drs. Cynthia Rosenzweig, David Rind and Richard Goldberg at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Columbia University Climate Research Group. These scientists have created an atmospheric model of the city that is one of the most detailed models of any urban area. This model allows them to predict how climate change will affect New York and the surrounding suburbs. They provided me with actual data for the summers of the 1990’s along with projected data for summers in the 2020’s, 50’s, and 80’s formatted especially for the creation of sonifications.

Heat and the Heartbeat of the City is a series of sonifications attempting to convey the physical experience of the increasing temperatures centered on the heart of New York City and one of the first locations for climate monitoring, Central Park.

To more effectively do this work and to help others involved in art and science collaborations, computer programmer and video artist Kurt Ralske and I developed a custom piece of software for use in conjunction with Max/MSP. This software and its source code are open source. We are currently using it in a new installation commissioned by Lovebytes and currently showing at the Site Gallery in the UK called N..

UK based artist and programmer Joe Gilmore and I collaborated to create N., a real-time online sonification and visualization of the Arctic. Climate change in the Arctic is an important indicator of global climate changes.

For this project, we worked with daily data gathered and formatted by Meteorologist and convctive snow and ice specialist Dr. Pat Market of the University of Missouri and online data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Research Program.

The format of the data is in the form a sounding every 12 hours. That is, information about the weather from sea level to the top of the atmosphere as if you were taking a trip on a weather balloon.

Is the artistic process of transforming data different from transforming the raw material of the real world? Like a photograph, a data set is a representation, but unlike a photograph, this representation can be entered, explored, and transformed. A data set can be experienced, but unlike a real-world experience, it can be replayed from various points of view and under different conditions.

The weather and climate models I have been working with are designed to respond to various conditions. Simulations are tested against the real world and the results either confirm the accuracy of the model or force the scientists to reconsider and re-design. Stalbaum talks about the prevalence of simulations and how in many cases the simulation precedes and may even cause events in actual reality. Referring back to Marcuse, these simulations “break the monopoly of established reality, to define what is real.”

Therefore an active engagement with data models and databases is an important aspect of space art. Stalbaum sees the database not as a static subject on which an artist projects meaning, or even as a malleable piece of ‘clay’ transformed by an artist, but as a “catalyzing factor in the conversation.” He optimistically states that “data and control systems provide a channel through which ecosystems are able to express an influence in favor of their own protection.” But in order for the expression of the data to be heard, we have to be listening.

© Andrea Polli & Leonardo/Olats, March 2006 / republished 2023