This interview was published in german by Chapter Magazine under the title «Konstruktive Datenkunst», and it is inspired by the ongoing exhibit of OBIETTIVO at STATE-Studio in Berlin with the HYPERTOPIA project.
We report below the full text in english with the permission of the magazine.
The two of you work as an artistic duo under the moniker AOS (Art as Open Source) Since when, and guided by what mission?
AOS was founded by Salvatore in 2004: we have worked and live together since january 2007.
A few years after that, we created Human Ecosystems – which has now become “HER: She Loves Data” – a private research center of a very special kind. It uses art and design together with sciences, humanities, engineering, to study the existential, psychological, relational and social implications of data and computation. And it allows us to own a technological infrastructure and to be able to deal with other institutions as an institution ourselves – to place our arworks and researches in the middle of society, establishing partnerships with them and with city administrations, companies, organizations and other research centers.
Can you give us a glimpse of your backgrounds?
In no particular order: skateboarding, robotic engineering, rave parties, cyber-ecology, communication, hacking, philosophy of science, writing. We both love cooking.
Neither of us has been trained as an artist, but, rather, as communication scientists, engineers and philosophers. This, we think, says a lot about the times we’re living in.
There’s many definitions of data. Back in the 1940ies, it was described as “transmissible and storable computer information”. Today, we think of it as a currency, a means of communication, a medium to describe the world, and so forth. What’s your favorite definition? What does “data” mean to you?
For us data and computation have become the existential boundaries of human beings and societies.
They are cultural artifacts that affect the way we can express and define ourselves.
But they are also the biggest extractive phenomenon of the contemporary world, more than oil.
We need to deal with it.
I’m asking you this because you are the heads behind a project called Datapoiesis. What is its mission and what sparked the idea?
Datapoiesis is a neologism: “the process in which data brings something into being that did not exist before”. It was born in Ivrea, during a workshop organized by our friends at PlusValue and ICONA, a group of entrepreneurs who are regenerating the Fabbriche ex Olivetti: in Ivrea, a European Silicon Valley (before Silicon Valley) existed, but with a strong orientation towards a form of capitalism which was able to bring welfare, wellbeing, arts and culture to their communities, and which sadly collapsed around the 60s.
While fully immersed in Olivetti’s story, we asked ourselves: what would an entrepreneur like Adriano Olivetti do today? Answer: he would design and produce objects that used data and computation, and that are able to respond to desires, expectations, aspirations, visions and needs of our times. His company would seek profit, but also take on a new ethical and social responsibility extended to data, calculation, artificial intelligences – embracing all the consequences, opportunities and dilemmas that these technologies bring with them. Thus the term “Datapoiesis” was born. Datapoietic objects are indeed new type of art and design objects whose essence and character depend on data and computation: artworks, furniture, devices, gadgets and wearable technologies (for homes, schools, offices, public spaces and other spaces of our life) which use large amounts of data to come alive – and to allow us to experience the complex phenomena of our globalized world, transforming them into opportunities for reflection, emotion, sharing, discussion and, above all, for taking responsibility and participatory actions.
Together with PlusValue and ICONA we gathered into a consortium, we won a public call, and we started to materialize this idea into actual objects and actions.
In philosophy, the Greek term poiesis refers to “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before,” you cite that phrase on your website. In what way do you consider your project a game changer?
Datapoiesis is a neologism: “the process in which data brings something into being that did not exist before”. It was born in Ivrea, during a workshop organized by our friends at PlusValue and ICONA, a group of entrepreneurs who are regenerating the Fabbriche ex Olivetti:“Senseability” is a beautiful English neologism that emphasizes the ability to feel, to perceive through our body and senses. In a globalized world characterized by hyperconnection, we need new senseabilities. An example. To perceive climate change the body alone is not enough: we need tremendous amounts of data from all over the world, and the power to elaborate it. in Ivrea, a European Silicon Valley (before Silicon Valley) existed, but with a strong orientation towards a form of capitalism which was able to bring welfare, wellbeing, arts and culture to their communities, and which sadly collapsed around the 60s.
This means that to experience climate change we need a new alliance with data and computational agents. The concept of Datapoiesis addresses this issue, to shape these new alliances so that we become fully able to express, perceive, interact, understand and relate with our environment and with our society.
The first data-poetic object, Obiettivo, is currently on show at STATE Studio Berlin. How has the collaboration come about? (Connection AI for Good, etc.)
Art/science collaboration is becoming a topic. But in our experience what makes the difference is when artists and cultural institutions are able to take an active participatory stance in giving shape to the strategies of research and innovation processes. Art’s scope cannot be limited to “decorating” science. Rules, perspectives and power relations can change when/if these new players manifest themselves. In this way, with our research center, for example, we were able to give shape to a process of art/science collaboration, not only to provide some content as artists. And it changes how needs are understood, how technologies are designed, how they arrive on markets, how people will use them and what for.
For us the collaboration with STATE studio is an example and a continuation of this process: a wonderful dialogue started when they saw OBIETTIVO on AI for Good, and each party was able to use the nature of the artwork as a platform to make important statements and to make sure that they were accessible and usable in society.
Can you explain how Obiettivo works (including the AI / technical component)?
OBIETTIVO is a lighting system for public spaces which is connected to the data produced by international organizations about the number of people living in conditions of extreme poverty (less than 1.90$ a day, as established by UNDP). Data sources are composed by: UNITED NATIONS & UNDP yearly report & UNSD UN Statistics Department; WORLD BANK poverty and equity data; OECD poverty and inequality data; WORLD POVERTY CLOCK. Data are first harmonized (different providers use different standards and references) and then two things take place:
>> the periodic reports of the UN, of the OECD and of the World Bank are used as static updates and used as baseline;
>> the modeled real time updates coming from the World Poverty Clock are used in a Neural Network which has been trained with the historical series of these data (UN, OECD, WB and WPC) to help us better estimate the effective value of the people who are effectively entering or leaving the condition of extreme poverty.
This value, and its variation with the previous ones, is sent to the physical object of Obiettivo (since all this processing takes place in the cloud) and used in a circuit to modulate the light. Obiettivo’s light oscillation frequency indicates how many people are entering or leaving a condition of extreme poverty: a faster frequency indicates more people, a slower one means less people. If light moves towards the front of the sculpture, it’s positive: it means that people are leaving poverty. If it’s towards the back it means that they are entering poverty.
Obiettivo’s light will turn off when there will be less than 500 thousand people in a condition of extreme poverty in the world.
You’ve described Obiettivo is a “totemic object” and envision it to become the “center of urban neo-rituals”. What would such a ritual look like? Do you feel we have to establish new traditions and cults, to function as a society and deal with the consequences of the systemic crisis we’re facing
We don’t have to necessarily think of cults or traditions when we speak about rituals. Our lives are full of rituals: at school, at the office, in the street, in consumption, in communication, in self expression and self representation. What is important to notice is that the technologies which we use in our daily lives are directly connected to many of these rituals, but they have a deficiency: very few of them are processes that we can use to orient ourselves in our current cosmology. We’re a bit lost, because of many reasons, among which is the fact that these rituals have been around for so little time and, because they are so powerful, they have changed so much.
On top, these technologically driven rituals are not really something that has been “discussed” in society: they’re there to make money, to turn people into financial assets that you can buy and sell at an auction. They’re currently processes that are very extractive. We need to reinvent them, but it’s difficult, because in our opinion what we are facing is first of all a crisis of imagination, which nowadays concerns our relation with data, technologies and non-human actors. The rituals that connect us with technology and computation are mostly driven by consumption and shaped by utility: we access them as services.
What we need, instead, is to recognize them as existential and cultural artifacts, and elaborate new cosmology helping us to re-think what we have become. What we will soon realize is that humans are not at the center of anything. A good first step to inspire our imagination is the end of human centered design.
Obiettivo was originally conceived as a lighting system for public spaces. Now we encounter the prototype in a gallery setting. How come? And is it still the goal to have it installed in the public realm?
Datapoietic objects and their processes are peculiar, because the artwork assolves two functions: to bring something into existence under the form of a new possibility or capacity for sensibility/senseability, and to act as a prototype, so that different types of actors, communities and organizations can imagine how to use it.
Obiettivo is the artwork, and as a prototype it is in the process of inspiring the institutions, companies, ministries, foundations, schools and communities that we’re working with to understand what we can make of it, where we can place it, what processes it can have a part it, how we can turn it into a product, workshop, lesson, etc. It’s really a generative process.
If you had three lighting systems – three Obiettivos – to be installed in the world, where would you put them? Where would they be needed most?
The answer is: not a space but a global process to make it alive.
Here an example. The Sustainable Development Goal of the UNDP number one is: “No Poverty”.
OBIETTIVO can be a concrete piece of the annual conference: a totem around which the international community of researchers, policy makers and citizens can reunite, feel poverty but also work together to decide what to do and, during the following conference, to physically experience what has changed, through this enhanced sensibility which is enabled by art and technology.
The gap between rich and poor has been widening for decades, with Covid19, the situation is getting worse, poverty is increasing. Even in countries where people felt relatively safe over the past decades. “We cannot afford a second wave”, I heard Angela Merkel say yesterday, in a press conference. The economic situation is serious, so is the ecological situation, along with other aspects of this systemic crisis. What makes art a valid form of activism, in such tricky times?
We partially answered by stating that we are in a crisis of imagination. But we can offer a concrete example. From January we are in the middle of a (r)evolution. We left our associates to rebuild our research center, and focus entirely on a non-extractive datapoietic approach. How can we design and build the rituals of a “new living” that includes the computational dimension of our existence? This is what we want to address at HER: She Loves Data.
In February, when the pandemic broke out, suddenly our research issue became a planetary emergency, and data a matter of survival. In every corner of the planet, people of all social classes felt their basic rights (going out, celebrating a funeral or a wedding, going to school or work) hanging on the thin thread of data, apps and statistics.
Mainstream media approach was very aggressive: we all suffered serious forms of “data-bombing” through the constant and violent display of data under the form of death tolls, maps, infographics and more, without anyone wondering about the psychological, relational, social and psychiatric implications originating from these uses of data . To escape the war bulletin on the number of deaths, intensive care, infected and healed people was impossible… As artists and researchers, we began to ask ourselves: how can we transform the experience of this very rich data from an info-warfare to an opportunity for observing ourselves and the environment? We started to work on meditation practices. We put our art – and new research center approach – to work on this opportunity. This is how the concept of Data Meditations was born: a ritual that, even in extreme conditions of separation, allows us to come together in groups, establishing forms of empathy, solidarity and bonds by sharing data as an autobiographical expression. In July we did a workshop (remotely) with the Hackers and Design Academy 2020, and we conceived the first ritual of HER: She Loved Data: 2 exhibits have already been created (one in Trieste and one in Rome, on show until december).
An ascetic-meditative version of the lockdown seemed to us one of the few opportunities to re-elaborate a very hard condition, made up of social, human, psychological restrictions and deprivations. All tragedies, including pandemics, have their catharsis: it is called agnition, and it is not a technical solution or a happy ending. It is about changing our perspective, once we discover who we are – and what our condition is.
Our relation with data and computation (algorithms, artificial intelligence and all other forms of software data processing) is today at the center of our ability to understand the world we live in. OBIETTIVO tries to go beyond data spectacle, to enhance human sensibility and create new forms of activation. Think of a school involved in a cultural program within the artwork: how do you define poverty? Students working in groups can come up with different parameters, so we can have multiple versions of OBIETTIVO, showcase and compare them. This is far beyond “just” visualizing data. This is about performing and criticizing them, to discover that they are not “objective” but a matter of construction and of interpretation.
At STATE Studio, Obiettivo is situated in a rather optimistic context. “The exhibition is guided by the question of how the state of perceived emergency can transform the relationship between humans, nature and technology in ways that favor resilience and encourage sustainable action,” the curators say. Do you identify with this? In what way is Obiettivo a constructive type of alarm?
Our relation with data and computation (algorithms, artificial intelligence and all other forms of software data processing) is today at the center of our ability to understand the world we live in.
OBIETTIVO tries to go beyond data spectacle, to enhance human sensibility and create new forms of activation. Think of a school involved in a cultural program within the artwork: how do you define poverty? Students working in groups can come up with different parameters, so we can have multiple versions of OBIETTIVO, showcase and compare them.
This is far beyond “just” visualizing data. This is about performing and criticizing them, to discover that they are not “objective” but a matter of construction and of interpretation.
What helps you, personally and artistically, to stay positive?
To be in love and to always try to be constructive.
When we are exposed, as we are now, to all of this complexity, conflict cannot be just a molotov bottle anymore. We cannot do things alone anymore. This statement needs to be taken seriously, because “doing things together” could also mean to bring on on board people or organizations you don’t like. How else, we ask, could you think about dealing with planetary issues such as climate change?
Many people are having objections – or at least reservations – when it comes to AI pervading our lives. How do you convince them that it can also bring about change for the better?
Convincing people is not our job. As artists and researchers we create experiences in which people can perceive the transformation, express and have a say about a future in which we co-exist with AIs, for example.
Data, AIs, computation can no longer be the domain of technicians and live in separation: it concerns the social pact that unites us, and allows us to benefit from our rights – which must be continuously updated.
This is the real issue.
Art alone won’t solve the problems. And do you think we need new global regulations, regarding data, AI, and so forth? What would be a start?
Nor economy, or engineering or law. We need to work together, and art is underestimated. Technology is about “perception” before being about “usage” or “utility”. It affects the way we experience and feel reality: we invent technology, and technology invents us. All of it has psychological, social, existential implications that art can explore – as it always did in history. Concerning AIs and data, the regulatory/activist approach is mostly defensive: how to preserve privacy for, to name one, etc…? Which is ok, and thanks god there are people, institutions and organisations fighting to preserve our rights. But this has nothing to say about how we are changing, as human beings in a complex environment which we share with other human beings as well as with non-human entities – such as legal entities, computational agents (AIs and algorithms), forests, animals etc.
To deal with this transformation we can’t just think about defense. What is needed is an act of imagination, of social imagination involving not only technicians (being them engineers, or lawyers, or scientists), but a diffused, accessible effort. So, imagination and inclusive actions: isn’t it again a perfect job for art?