Data Portraits

Fiona Johnstone

13 February 2019

Fiona Johnstone

13 February 2019

One of the aims of People Like You is to understand how people relate to their data and its representations. Scott Wark has recently written about ‘data selves’ for this blog; an alternative (and interconnected) way of thinking about persons and their data is through the phenomenon of the data portrait.

A quick Google of ‘data portraits’ will take you to a website where you can purchase a bespoke data portrait derived from your digital footprint. Web-crawler software tracks and maps the links within a given URL; the information is then plotted onto a force directed graph and turned into an aesthetically pleasing (but essentially unrevealing) image. Drawing on a similar concept, Jason Salavon’s Spigot (Babbling Self-Portrait) (2010) visualises the artist’s Google search history, displaying the data on multiple screens in two different ways; one using words and dates, the other as abstract bands of fluctuating colour. The designation of the work as a self-portrait raises interesting questions about agency and intentionality in relation to one’s digital trace: as well as referring to identities knowingly curated via social media profiles or personal websites, the data portrait can also suggest a shadowy alter-ego that is not necessarily of our own making.

Erica Scourti’s practice interrogates the complex interactions between the subject and their digital double: her video work Life in AdWords (2012-13) is based on a year-long project where Scourti regularly emailed her personal diary to her G-mail account, and then performed to webcam the list of suggested ad-words that each entry generated. A ‘traditional’ portrait in the physiognomic sense (formally, it consists of a series of head-and-shoulders shots of the artist speaking directly to camera), Life in AdWords is also a portrait of the supplementary self that is created by algorithmically generated, ‘personalised’ marketing processes. Pushing her investigation further, Scourti’s paperback book The Outage (2014) is a ghost-written memoir based on the artist’s digital footprint: whilst the online data is the starting point, the shift from the digital to the analogue allows the artist to probe the gaps between the original ‘subject’ of the data and the uncanny doppelgänger that emerges through the process of the interpretation and materialisation of that information in the medium of the printed book.

Other artists explore the implications of representation via physical tracking technologies. Between 2010 and 2015, Susan Morris wore an Actiwatch, a personal health device that registers the body’s movement. At the end of each year she sent the data to a factory in Belgium, where it was translated into coloured threads and woven into a tapestry on a Jacquard loom (a piece of technology that was the inspiration for Babbage’s computer), producing a minute-by-minute data visualisation of her activity over the course of that year. Unlike screen-based visualisations, the tapestries are highly material entities that are both physically imposing (SunDial:NightWatch_Activity and Light 2010-2012 (Tilburg Version) is almost six metres long) and extremely intimate, with disruptions in Morris’s daily routine clearly observable. Morris was attracted to the Actiwatch for its ability to collect data not only during motion, but also when the body is at rest; the information collected during sleep – represented by dark areas on the canvas – suggests an unconscious realm of the self that is both opaque and yet quantifiable.

Susan Morris, SunDial:NightWatch_Activity and Light 2010-2012 (Tilburg Version), 2014. Jacquard tapestry: silk and linen yarns, 155 x 589cm.  © Susan Morris.

Katy Connor is similarly interested in the tensions between the digital and material body. Using a sample of her own blood as a starting point, Connor translates this biomaterial through the scientific data visualisation process of Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), which imagines, measures and manipulates matter at the nanoscale. Through Connor’s practice, this micro-data is transformed into large 3D sculptures that resemble sublime landscapes of epic proportions.

Katy Connor, Zero Landscape (installation detail), 2016.
Nylon 12 sculpture against large-scale risograph (3m x 12m); translation of AFM data from the artist’s blood.  © Katy Connor.

One strand of the People Like You project focuses particularly on how people relate to their medical data. Tom Corby was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in 2013, and in response begun the project Blood and Bones, a platform for the data generated by his illness. The information includes the medical (full blood count / proteins / urea, electrolytes and creatinine); the affective (mood, control index, physical discomfort index, stoicism index, and a ‘hat track’ documenting his headwear for the duration of the project); and financial data (detailing the costs to the NHS of his treatment). Applying methods from data science to the genre of illness blogging, Corby’s project is an attempt to take ownership of his data creatively, and thus to regain a measure of control over living with disease.

In the final pages of his influential (although now rather dated) book, Portraiture, the art historian Richard Brilliant envisaged a dystopian future where the existence of portraiture (as mimetic ‘likeness’) is threatened by ‘actuarial files, stored in some omniscient computer, ready to spew forth a different kind of personal profile, beginning with one’s Social Security number’ (Brilliant 1991). Brilliant locates the implicit humanism of the portrait ‘proper’ in opposition to a dark Orwellian vision of the individual reduced to data. Writing in 1991, Brilliant could not have foreseen the ways in which future technologies would affect ideas about identity and personhood; comprehending how these technologies are reshaping concepts of the person today are one of the aims of People Like You.