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Data Visualization/Affordance — Emotional Resonance — Behavioral Influence

We are living in the big data era when our life is surrounded by data and information. An increasing number of artists have realized this phenomenon and skillfully demonstrated their artworks via data. Then, what is the meaning of affordance to these artists? What are these artists’ opinions on the world in the data era? How do they realize to integrate data with art creations? All these problems have been widely examined by the current art circles.

In my opinion, the affordance of data-based art creations first refers to a natural expression. Affordance is a way for bilateral information communication, in which the artwork should deliver the target message, and audiences should be able to comprehend the message and learn something therefrom. Here, to learn something from the message is not confined comprehension of specific knowledge. Under most conditions, message learning is emotionally stimulated first and then evolves to rational thinking. However, different audiences proceed from different perspectives of affordance, so their focuses and comprehensions are also different.

The affordance of art should first emphasize on artistic attributes of works. At present, the human living environment has been enveloped by innumerous data and information, so artists will naturally make use of data or information for art creations or expression of their insights. Here, artistic attributes are the linchpin to emotional arousal of artworks. The new art experience encourages audiences to look at the data from different perspectives, promote them to think flexibly and, more importantly, get provoked to reflect on a specific topic.


Baidu Map designates the big data to seven contemporary artists and interprets the urban big data from the art perspective. According to the unique temperament of every city, a data painting themed on “City Expressions” and exclusive to each of the seven cities is customized.


In this cross-field cooperation between “technology and art” of Baidu Map, both urban dwellers and temporary stayers can appreciate the city as if appreciating an artwork in a gallery. The artwork named, Net, is created for Beijing, and one might wonder what is networked by it. As to the painting for Hangzhou, it seems that every element is theatrical. As to the painting for Shenzhen, one seems to see a flying bird and feels unspeakably touched. Though all these are “City Expressions”, they are more like “Human Emotions in the City”, because every painting is perceived by audiences as their general impression of the city.

The big data of the city are closely related to urban dwellers. As a cluster of human emotions, the urban big data are concentrated quantization outcomes of every person’s life. In the final analysis, the essence of big data is still human, and human is a combination of sentiment and reason. After realizing this characteristic, Baidu Map endows big data with the soul to have spiritual communication with users via artists’ sentimental recreation, thus enabling users to associate their perception process with their own image, develop a sense of recognition, and comprehend  “City Expressions” on their own. This collision between data and art achieves not only visualization of data, but also artistic creation and affordance of data. The city data are demonstrated via vigorous creation behaviours, and the city image living in our heart is activated through the artistic creation passion and audiences’ sense of belonging to the city.

The significance of data lies in how they are filtered and combined into a kind of well-organized structure or meaningful graphical representations. These meanings and forms play a guiding role, either spiritually or visually.

Apartment (2011) by Martin Wattenberg and Marek Walczak is a case in point which is directly inspired by the above idea. On an empty screen, observers can casually input the words and texts which they mind is associated with. These words can associate observers’ mind with corresponding settings of the apartment. The apartment appears to be a planar graph of an apartment, and the input words will be automatically matched with the corresponding region or provoke the human mind to think of corresponding settings. For example, the word “work” will directly lead to an office; “media” will create a library”; and “see” will add a window. The structure will then be translated into a three-dimensional architecture which is capable of navigation. The system will also automatically search on the Internet for the images which the words are corresponding to. The observers can navigate in the three-dimensional space, and the input phrases will be read out by relevant software. All these apartments built by users gradually form a city, and the cities thus formed are categorized semantically. At the same time, these cities are planned as a whole by relevant words, including “art”, “body”, “truth”, etc. The apartments which are used repeatedly for the most times will gradually stay close to the centre to set up a huge language space.


Text Arc (2002) by Bradford Paley is also a case in point of artistic creation based on the database. The artist turns the text of Alice’s Adventures in Dreamland into an interactive work, in which a whole page of text is represented in the form of an oval that is made up of interconnected phrases. The frequently-appearing phrases are far away from the background. Observers can tentatively read the text via the linking sequence of lines. Through this expression form, observers can find the word rules behind the text. 


We Feel Fine (2006) by Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamyar is also a good case in point to demonstrate the aesthetics of the Internet database. Every minute, the search engine will search for keywords, such as “I feel” or “I think”, from the latest blogs. When the keyword is searched, the sentence before the first coma is taken down. Sentences of the kind usually contain phrases directly expressing one’s emotions, such as happiness, sorrow and depression. At the same time, the age, gender and geographical position of these bloggers will be taken down together with the sentences in the database. Sometimes, even the local climate conditions will be taken down. The final outcome is a big database containing emotional changes of millions and updated on a daily basis. 


Bible Cross-References (2007) by Chris Harrison and Christoph Römhild is another case of data visualization. These two artists compile all cross-references from The Bible into the data. The vertical bar below the arc is corresponding to every chapter of The Bible. The length of the vertical bar is corresponding to the number of verbs. There are 63,779 groups of cross-references, all of which are marked by the arc. The colour is corresponding to the interval between two points. Finally, the rainbow-like data visual effect is represented.


The artistic Nathalie Miebach converts rainstorm data into visible and exquisitely-designed sculptures made up of willow twigs and colourful bears. These sculptures can be accurately identified by the temperature, wind speed and water flow mode, and converted into the music score performed by the string quartet. In this project, he makes data both touchable and audible via art and music.


What is Missing? is my favourite environment work created on the basis of big data. As a program integrating multimedia and interactive websites, it attempts to arouse the public attention to the growing crisis facing biodiversity and explores potential remedies. 


Lin Ying, the creator of the above work, says, “What is Missing? brings forward a question, that is, when the form of a work is fully emancipated, and when it can exist on different fields or forms, it can be permanent, temporary or even illusionary, what a scenario will there be? For example, the interactive network part presents the world map in three tenses, including the past tense (history of earth ecology depicted by original literatures), the present tense (introduction of efforts made by current environmental organizations), and the future tense (‘Earth Day’ to be initiated in 2015 reflects the human imagination of a sustainably-developing future).”


In my opinion, all Lin Ying’s memorial works are irrelevant to “missing” or to the so-called past. In my opinion, they are teaching methods with the instructional significance. Through these memorial works, audiences can reflect on the past, and seek a direction for their future. 


On the other hand, this artwork associates environmental issues with audiences from the global and regional perspective, respectively. It invites audiences to share their personal stories, and the audiences can reflect these problems in their personal life to recreate their connection with nature and get inspired to what contributions they can make to the environment and environmental protection organizations. 


In this big data era, data have provided information sources and bases for artistic creations. As to description of environmental issues, I think it is necessary to proceed from data and sentimental intention, and choose a suitable method of art creation and expression medium to finally realize the outcome of information input and emotional output. 

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