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Driven by Data: Inventing a New Digital Art

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By Mary Daily

Published Jan 1, 2012 12:00 AM


From airplane patterns to Johnny Cash songs to crowdsourced digital sheep, techno-artist Aaron Koblin uses online data to explore new frontiers in digital arts.

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   Portrait by Michael Sugrue

Visualize an animated map of North America showing air traffic over a 24-hour period. Swarms of arcing lines shoot out from major cities, from the East Coast waking up in the morning, from the Midwest and finally the West. Later in the day, the pattern reverses. Different versions of the map show the arcs color-coded by altitude, manufacturer, model of aircraft and whether the planes are taking off or landing.

This is not just information; it’s art.

Flight Patterns was the graduate project of Aaron Koblin M.F.A. ’06, creative director of the data arts team in Google’s Creative Lab in San Francisco. For him, the overwhelming amount of air-traffic data from the Federal Aeronautics Administration was the digital equivalent of a painter’s brush and canvas. And the piece — now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is only one example of why the stock of the young Design | Media Arts graduate is rising like a rocket in the digital art world.

His interest focuses quite a bit on what he calls “data trails” left by human activity and interactions. Koblin has created other, similar maps of e-mail flow and the New York Talk Exchange, visualizing volumes of long-distance telephone and IP data moving between New York and cities around the world. Another map shows SMS signals sent from Amsterdam over several hours on New Year’s Eve.

“I’m not a scientist, not a statistician, not a graphic designer . . . I suppose that makes me an artist,” Koblin says. He’s also part anthropologist, as he maps the habits of contemporary human life. Melding statistical science and digital art into pictures, he uses data to reflect on cultural trends and the relationship between people and technology. And he often invites viewers to participate.

Indeed, Koblin is practically inventing a medium as he pushes the boundaries of digital visualization and crowdsourcing along an uncharted course.

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   See below story for caption information.

The native Southern Californian earned a bachelor’s degree in electronic art from UC Santa Cruz before coming to UCLA. He started his career in the computer-game industry and then worked with the design innovation team at Yahoo before joining Google. One of his most famous works, The Sheep Market, used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk data-outsourcing service, which enables online users to contribute a tiny part of a large project for very little compensation. They work in isolation from one another and have little knowledge of what the larger finished product will be.

Koblin asked workers to “draw a sheep facing left” and paid two cents for each one. Over 40 days, 7,600 people drew 10,000 sheep, from which Koblin created a black-and-white mosaic of tiny animals. When one speck in the big picture is selected, it emerges as an individual drawing and you can see an animation of the actual drawing process.

“My hope was . . . to express the individuals within the vast dataset,” says Koblin, “to juxtapose the humanity of an individual process with a gigantic, alienated system. There is so much humanity online, but it exists in such a visually sterile form.”

Koblin’s goal is to change that. As he explains, “An interface can be a powerful narrative device, and as we collect more and more personally and socially relevant data, we have an opportunity, maybe even an obligation, to maintain the humanity and tell some amazing stories as we explore and collaborate together.”

A foray into music videos in 2008 has catapulted Koblin’s already high cool factor. For Radiohead’s House of Cards, a Grammy nominee, he used lasers and sensors to scan the band into a 3-D, particle-driven data experience — music video without video. Koblin says the inspiration came from his work with UCLA’s Center for Embedded Network Sensing and Statistics Professor Mark Hansen.

For another Grammy nominee, Johnny Cash’s final music video Ain’t No Grave, Koblin invited fans to create drawings for a collective tribute. Each drawing is a frame in the video. Inspired by the song’s lyric, “Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down,” the work represents “a virtual resurrection” as the Man in Black lives on through music and fans. The piece keeps evolving as more people participate.

In Bicycle Built for Two Thousand, Koblin assembled 2,088 voice recordings collected from online workers into the song Daisy Bell, the first example of computer-synthesized vocals, and also sung by HAL in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Participants listened to a short sound clip and then recorded themselves imitating what they heard. It was “powerful and bizarre,” he says.

And a Koblin short that featured the music of indie rock sensation Arcade Fire — where users entered the address of the house they grew up in and Google maps and imagery were used to customize the video to that user — went viral and became a sensation.

Koblin has been recognized by the National Science Foundation with a first-place award for science visualization and, in 2010, was named one of Esquire’s best and brightest. In 2007, his work appeared on ABC World News and the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. The wide appeal surprises him.

“I never expected to create something of interest to the NSF, the Cartoon Network and art festivals,” he says. But “there’s so much data in the world; I’m constantly seeing things I’d love to play with.”


(Top) In Bicycle Built for Two Thousand, Koblin captured more than 2,000 online workers' voices and turned them into the song Daisy Bell from the classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Middle 2) Koblin's Flight Patterns made art out of air traffic during one 24-hour period and is now part of the permanent collection in New York's Museum of Modern Art. (Bottom) Set to Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire's We Used to Wait, this interactive short allowed users to input the address of the house they were born in and, with some Google Creative Lab magic, create their own customized video.

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