Big Bang Data: In a Big Bang Institution

Big Bang Data is a major travelling exhibition currently set within London’s Somerset House. That a large institution is presenting a journey via data capture through ‘selfies, surveillance and infographics’ is in itself an interesting patchwork of intent and realisation. The aim of the exhibition is to ‘demystify data’. This is a grand, summative and in actuality slightly awkward claim which, in my view, encapsulates the character of an interesting, textured exhibition in an unintentionally astute way.

As Big Bang Data is dedicated to revealing data comprehensively through its various architectures and iterations, it makes sense for the underrepresented materiality of information to have prominence early on. This materiality, perhaps inevitably, was compromised in the gallery space. Entering the first room brings you face to face with Timo Arnall’s Internet Machine, which takes the form of multiscreen video documentation of not just the machines, but also the architecture, which supports mobile telephony.


I would have loved to have experienced the spaces shown more intimately and walked around one of these structures; the installation was illuminating but I was still most certainly watching at a remove. This initial interplay of removal and involvement is central to the way we experience data. How can people begin to understand something which exists as multiple codes and flows, on a scale and at a speed which is not concerned with making itself understood by humans? What form could an understanding of data possibly take? When learning about something this far from our grasp, it seems that ‘understanding’ must be replaced by ‘awareness’. Rather than seeking one answer via one route the visitor to Big Bang Data has to build an impression, obviously subjective and subject to change.

In its quest to expose and explain data’s social and cultural uses, it presents a fairly overwhelming amount of information. It is interesting to walk through the space thinking about how this information has been channeled by each specific project. Some representations, such as Owen Mundy’s ‘I Know Where Your Cat Lives’, link distant people and spaces via connected points, while others such as Phillip Adrian’s ‘One Second’ capture in great detail one specific point in time and space.

5522 Tweets within the same Second. Sent from all over the world.
Preserved and categorized in four Books.

Julian Oliver’s ‘Transparency Grenade’ brings together graphical, console and physical representations of data to offer a transportable means of leaking information as a response to impenetrable governing systems. Each of the works on display demonstrates a negotiation between temporality, materiality and spatiality, and often one is sidelined in favour of the other. Again, considering the exhibition in this way is also to consider the world of data in all its contrariness.


Data manifests itself at the same time locally and globally. As well as addressing specificity, the projects shown in Big Bang Data dwell repeatedly on scale. Works such as Tejka’s ‘London Data Streams’ and Nicholas Felton’s ‘Annual Reports’ pit scales against each other to cast light on the filters through which data is processed.

Tekja’s installation in the London Situation Room shows a live feed of Tweets,
Instagram posts and TfL data from London.

Ingo Günther’s ‘World Processor’ and Forensic Architecture’s ‘Liquid Traces: The Left-To-Die Boat Case’ are examples of resonant, atypical data visualisations which mutate familiar imagery and present alternative summaries of events. The section entitled ‘Data For The Common Good’ shows some of the ways data is being actively used in society to empower citizens with works such as Safecast’s ‘bGeigie Nano’ and IF’s ‘Data Licenses’, while a series of video interviews with journalists and other professionals working with data illuminate the processes through which information becomes communication.

Ingo Günther / World Processor.

The previously mentioned tension between object and their presentation recurs at various points throughout the exhibition, a great example being the array of undersea telephone cables, presented in cases of wood and glass which could have been magpied from a display of historical artifacts (each cable segment has a number next to it which corresponds to a factual description). It felt strange not being able to touch them. A work which I felt fully occupied, and knowingly played with, its surroundings was Ellie Harrison’s vending machine, which sits unassumingly in the gift shop; its secret is that when search terms connected to the recession make the headlines, free snacks are dispensed. Its presence in a exhibition on data in a gallery space felt appropriate.

Ellie Harrison. Vending Machine. An installation for which an old vending machine is reprogrammed to release snacks only when news relating to the recession makes the headlines on the BBC News RSS feed.

Big Bang Data, which runs alongside a programme of events and has previously been exhibited at CCCB in Barcelona, comes at a moment where large organisations are more frequently bringing concepts such as surveillance, open source and free software into public spaces. There is a great need to bring the concepts and processes surrounding data more wholly into the public eye, and this exhibition strikes me as, overall, a big step in a good direction. It makes real and challenging efforts to bring together world-spanning processes, complex concepts and extremely diverse content into an exhibition space. The task of the exhibition’s curatorial and production teams must have been difficult.

Of course the challenges they faced have been dealt with before many times in many ways, and of course the practical decision-making involved in producing an exhibition invariably creates tension points. The reason I’ve dwelt on the problems of the organisers here is that the tensions evidenced within the space at Somerset House say much not just about the response of the publicly funded arts to data but also about the nature of data itself. The exhibition turns into at times a museum, a bedroom, a classroom, an information point, a scruffy new gallery space and a state of the art new media space. In bringing together the story of data the exhibition also brings together the story of representation in space more generally.

In writing about Big Bang Data I have had to choose to highlight certain works and not others. Your interpretation will be entirely different from mine, which is as it should be where data and cultural inclusion is concerned. What’s important is that the exhibition’s prominence and texture opens up conversation and critique. The exhibition is detailed, procedural and expansive. It is also alive with contrariness, generality and awkwardness. Perhaps one of the great things about the show is that these qualities are left to jostle for space. For me, reading this exhibition as a performative event was useful; others may leave Somerset House with an entirely different view having taken an entirely different route. This is inevitable where data is concerned – learning is incremental and procedural, but not traditionally linear.


Crypto 2.0 and DAWCs.

Crypto 2.0 and DAWCs: Dawn of Decentralized Autonomous Workers Councils.

Many of both Bitcoin’s most vocal proponents and detractors agree that the way the cryptocurrency operates technologically determines the form of the economy and therefore the society that uses it. That society would be anarcho-capitalist, lacking state institutions (anarcho-) but enforcing commodity property law (capitalist). If this is true then Bitcoin has the potential to achieve a far greater political effect than financial engineering efforts like the Euro or quantitative easing and with far fewer resources. Perhaps variations on this technology can create alternatives to Bitcoin that determine or at least afford different socioeconomic orders.

Bitcoin is already more than half a decade old and “Crypto 2.0” systems that build on its underlying blockchain technology (the blockchain is a network-wide shared database built by consensus, Bitcoin uses it for its ledger) are starting to emerge. The most advanced allow the creation of entire organizations and systems of organization on the blockchain, as Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs). We can use them to help create those different socioeconomic orders.

Workers’ Councils are a Liberatarian Socialist system of organization. Rather than implementing Soviet-style centralized command economies, workers councils are decentralized and democratic. Workers in a particular workplace decide what their objectives are then appoint temporary (and instantly revocable) delegates to be responsible for them. Workplaces appoint representatives to local councils, local councils appoint representatives to regional councils, and so on, always temporarily and revocably. It is a system of face to face socialisation and political representation rather than top-down control.

This system emerged at various times in Europe, South America and the Middle East throughout the Twentieth Century. It is a very human method of governance, in stark contrast to the “trustless” code of Bitcoin as well as to the centralized politics of the Soviets. That said, technology can assist organization as easily as it can support material production. In the 1970s the cordones of Chile interfaced with the Allende government’s Project Cybersyn network, and contemporary online workers collectives can use the Internet to co-ordinate.

A DAO is a blockchain-based program that implements an organization’s governance and controls its resources using code rather than law. There can be a fetishistic quality to the idea of cold, hard, unyielding software perfect in its unambiguous transparency and incapable of human failing in its decision making. There can be similar fetishistic qualities to legal and political organizational perfectionism, this doesn’t disqualify any of their subjects as useful ideals however they need to be tempered pragmatically.

Using the public code and records of a DAO can help with the well known problem of structurelessness, and can store information more efficiently and reliably than a human being with a pen and paper. The much vaunted trustlessness of cryptovurrency and smart contract systems can help build trust in communication within and between groups – cryptographically signed minutes are relatively hard to forge although the ambiguity of language is impossible to avoid even in the mathematics of software.

The delegates of a workers’ council can be efficiently and transparently voted on, identified by, and recalled using a DAO. This makes even more sense for distributed groups of workers, groups that share a common cause but lack a geographic centre. Delegates can even be implemented as smart contracts, code written to control resource allocation and evaluate performance in the pursuit of their objective (unless recalled by the council that created them).

Entire councils, and inter-council organisation, can be supported or implemented in their organization as DAOs. Support includes communication and record keeping. Implementation included control of resources, running delegates as code, and even setting objectives for delegates programatically.

The latter finally brings the concept of DAOs into direct conflict with the spirit of the Workers’ Council. Councils exist to allow individual human beings to express and agree on their objectives, not to have them imposed from above. Being controlled by code is no better than political or economic control. It is the nature of this relationship to code, politics or the economy that is positive or negative – writing code to charge someone or something with seeing that a task be undertaken is no different from writing it in the minutes and makes mroe explicit that organization is production as the subject of work in itself. A democratic, recallable DAO that sets objectives is very different from a blob of capital with unchangeable orders to maximise its profits online.

The resources that a DAO controls need not be monetary (or tokenized). A DAO that controls access to property, energy or other resources can contribute to avoiding the pricing problem that conventional economics regarded as a showstopper for the Soviet cybernetic economic planning of “Red Plenty“. DAOs need not even be created to represent human organization – “deodands” can represent environmental commons as economic actors. These can then interact with workers council DAOs, representing environmental factors as social and economic peers and avoiding the neoliberal economic problems both of externalities and privatisation.

Workers Council DAOs – Decentralized Autonomous Workers Councils (DAWCs) are science fiction, but only just. Workers councils have existed and been plugged in to the network, structurelessnes and scalability are problems, DAOs exist and can help with this. Simply tokenizing “sharing economy” (actually rentier economy) forms, for example replacing Uber’s taxi sharing with La’zooz, while maintaining the exploitative logic of disintermediation isn’t enough.


If we are unable or unwilling to accelerate the social and productive forces of technology to take us to the moon, we can at least embrace and extend them in a more human direction.

The text of this article is licenced under the Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 Licence.


Synthetic Selves: Mediated Body Art

Synthetic bodies, mediated selves. What themes become relevant in a technoprogressive world – as objects proliferate, what do the inundated people talk about?

You are alone, at a computer. You talk to people but they are not around. There is no bar, no village square, no space in which you speak. There is your device and your physical presence. The social location is your body and its interface with the communicative device. What is the language for landscapes which can’t be seen, and yet which predicate subjectivity?

You express yourself. You are certain state statistics, a resume, you are a myspace profile long defunct. We require your legal name. Certain cards, from when you were born, from when you became qualified to drive, define you, make or break you. You are an ok person provided your paperwork is in order – morality is preceded by bureaucracy.

What’s the relationship between a legitimated self and that person’s body? The more modes of documentation we have the greater possibility for fictional aberration. The disparities between someone’s situated life and the records which make up their memory proliferate.

The image above by artist Toast McFarland was taken in a cartoon world. It is a selfie, a socially streamed validation of presence, but it is also a meticulous reframing of that practice. Everything is subtle, deceptively common, and yet the composition is entirely irreal. Flat colours, almost abstractly plain costuming, this is what happens when a vector world invades your computer room. It exists between personal expression and the self as actor within the surreal.


Leah Schrager

Leah Schrager‘s modelling-inspired self-portraits covered over with bright streams of paint. The model image professionalizes the act of self-representation in image form. In the profession there are industry demands – self-validation may be about confidence and friendship, where industrial success might tend towards epitomization and abstraction. Are you a good model – do you meet the sexual and aesthetic demands of the collective consumer unconscious? Schrager’s work combines a toying with such psychological implications with a background in their material underpinnings – the body in dance, the body in biological study. This combination allows for work and commentary that penetrates the relationship between the vessel you are indelibly given and the psychological relationship it develops mediated for oneself and a public.

Do you view Schrager’s images out of an interest for her or for the type of beauty she represents? Once the image is painted over, is there any interest left? Through different personas, she delivers these in a variety of web contexts, each time asking us to reconsider who we’re looking at, and who we are to look.

Aoife Dunne

Screens, correspondents, professional speakers. We are happy to take your call. These two screenshots are taken from two videos by media artist Aoife Dunne. Both combine a juxtaposition of found broadcast footage, the enveloping commercial TV world, and her own crafted filming sound stages. They are installations, videos, and imagist combinations that take our question of the self directly to the media world. In the second, Dunne acts directly over top found footage, performing as doppelganger of the telemarketer in the projection. Her simultaneously comic, retro and coolly provocative aesthetic places her into an 80s infomercial dream world. She acts her own fiction, the selfie is the superlative thought experiment, and yet the proliferation of doubles buries her subjectivity in an imagined space of marketed image sheen. In the first work we only have a double, and Schrager’s biological world is fleshed out and externalized. This is what you really look like. Dunne’s own medicalized outfit says that this telecommunication is also a biological translation. For your image, we need your face, but for your face, we need organs and cells. Between the public and economic demands of the screen, and the material demands of your body, where are you?


Dafna Ganani

Dafna Ganani‘s work, through a combination of images, code, social internet art and theoretical reflection, gives us an exemplar of how self-representation meets technical distortion. Her own performative presence proliferates in her work, yet always accompanied by animations, entire interactive worlds complicating any personal space. In this image, self-reflection is directly addressed – at first glance it mirrors what is represented but on closer inspection nothing of what that would look like quite match up. Where are the dragon head things located, where is she, before and after mirroring – the almost comical comparison is undermined by a disquieting sincerity. She appears intent on knowing where she is, however much the dragon doesn’t have her best interests in mind. And the right hand, reaching into the animation cloud on the left, nowhere to be seen on the right.

Georges Jacotey

Dunne’s world of media culture screens is made specific and celebratory in Georges Jacotey‘s self-portraiture as Lana del Ray. An internet performance artist whose work explores media culture and self-image, the picture’s combination is both nearly seemless and parodically collaged. We all participate on some level in commercial culture, but we can never admit it. We might genuinely like aspects of it, we might hate aspects – but the popular bent of this culture means that as long as it is pleasing to a common consumer base it will gain a cultural existence. You know so much about iconic entertainers you never asked to know about. Jacotey takes on this conundrum, joins in on it, participates – what if instead of merely liking a celebrity, you seek to emulate and become them? Some people like del Ray’s albums, Jacotey’s the one who sang them. Capitalism asks that you buy, what if you take the role to sell? Human images make for great products, before we make the necessary transactions let’s make sure we know how to transform ourselves into them.

Good self-representation requires good media savvy. Before you think about your online identity simplify the process by becoming a celebrity. They’ve already figured out all the questions of the self in society – the right names, dress, mannerisms, the right look. Everything is acceptable, everything is inspiring, nothing is quite familiar.


Rafia Santana

Rafia Santana further draws out Jacotey’s comparison of the celebrity image and the selfie. Two different trajectories are taken up here – one is to deconstruct the fictions of the “real celebrity image”. The second is to fictionalize and play with one’s own portrayal. The result is layered, offering multiple points of entry for both observation and critique. If the digital image is just bits and bytes, what happens to ethnic history, to situated lives and experience? Putting herself repeatedly in her own work, Santana asks the basic question at hand – what, in re-representation, am I? And, with Jacotey, she probes the obverse of media celebrity existence and identification. If I like a celebrity, am I participating at all in their imagery or life? If so, in what way – what right to I have to their life, or in turn, what right do they have to be omnipresent in mine?

Subjectivity is the sentence, objects the fetish – be sure to glamour up.


Sam Rolfes

Be sure to dress things up so you can recognize them well. Try not to mix up hair with noses, and composure with distortion. Each act of mediation further twists and reinvents our own images. You thought you knew where your lips were, what your skin looked like, but everything that goes through the machine comes out different, strange. It’s not a human, it’s a landscape. There’s an eye at the top, but you have no idea what it’s for. In the work of Sam Rolfes, the self is almost abstract, technical distortions take over any recognizable vestige of a human. Technique is everything, humanity nothing.


Carla Gannis

The self is painted, photographed, symbolized. It’s not a live image on the phone. Sometimes people in canvases try to get out. There are a few people here, all the same, that have nothing to do with one another. In Carla Gannis‘ selfie series, we return to a cartoon realism – but this time with a few added mirrors. Is the skull in the background also her? What is that a memento of?

Death in the image, life in its reproduction. You are now invisible, but we know more about what you look like than ever. Technological proliferation upends and eliminates traditional context but can never efface bodies and their identities. Indeed its societal saturation emphasizes these presences, their inevitability and all their embodied ties that digitize incompletely.

These practices work to situate the self, the body. Physiological maps are now more important than ever – they give us the image of the virtual. Mythology says we are in an immaterial age, that humans are obsolete and will be succeeded by machines. Reality says something far more disturbing – that our own materiality is the means of that obsolescence.