Julie Freeman is using art to make data tangible.
Naked mole rats might rank among nature’s ugliest creatures, but for artist Julie Freeman, these bald, sabre-toothed rodents are muses for beautiful data-driven art.
“I’ve really fallen in love with them,” she says. “There’s definitely a lot that we can learn from mole rats.”
As our daily routines generate data faster than ever before, taking control of it and being able to highlight the meaningful patterns in that ever-growing sea of information, is crucial. That’s where Julie comes in.
"There needs to be another way to convey information," Julie says.
Data is paint for Julie, a TED senior fellow, founder of the Data as Culture programme at the Open Data Institute and a PhD in media arts technology. She is a pioneer in marrying fine art with data and technology to create thought-provoking visuals, animations and soundscapes. London’s Science Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art have displayed her projects and she has lectured in Madrid, Singapore and at St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum.
For her best-known work, Julie brought a colony of 28 naked mole rats to London’s Somerset House for a week-long installation and Liverpool’s FACT (Foundation for Art and Creative Technology) for three months. The animals, rare mammals who are ‘eusocial’ — like bees with a single breeding female while all others serve the colony as workers or soldiers — generate real-time data that Julie translates into kinetic sculptures, animations and other visualisations. Julie thinks harnessing unpredictable data, particularly from the animal world, can unlock new perspectives on human society. It makes people feel and think differently.
By crossing art with technology, Julie says she aims to create “a contemplative experience of nature — through data — in which I try to evoke a similar effect as watching the sea, or other mesmerising natural motion”.
Central to her work, Julie says, are the questions: “How does technology mediate the way we understand the natural world? And how we can change our perspective and thoughts based on new knowledge?”
Meanwhile, governments and businesses are creating data “portraits” of us humans. Algorithms everywhere interpret our personal data trails to shape our choices and experience.
“Data is a massive part of our lives and that’s why it’s really important that it gets the attention it deserves,” she says. “Society is almost entirely fed by these different data streams that determine what we watch, what we see and what we hear. I find it very oppressive and controlling. But I also find data can be very expressive.”
Big data is often seen as a tool to spot opportunities. Art can help us take control of data and use it in new ways.
“As soon as you think about data as an art material it opens it up conceptually and you start thinking about things in a different way” she says. “It turns it into something that you can have a conversation with.”
As an artist, Julie enlists her creativity to bring out nature’s voice — for an earlier project she electronically tagged fish in a lake — translating biological systems into visual and aural pieces that engage audiences with the incredible interactions animals have with their natural environment.
For the mole rats, data collected from 24-hour monitoring was used to animate silicon sculptures in real-time with the animal’s gestures. Using machine learning, the art highlighted patterns that reveal the hidden ways the species behave.
“I’m really proud of the way the project spans art, technology, biology and now the mathematical sciences,” Julie says. She adds, “future networks like the Internet of Things will rely on collaboration across disciplines as well as learning from the fluidity of nature to improve rigid human-made systems”.
“There needs to be another way to convey information,” she says. “When you’re looking at data visualisations on the screen, there’s nothing innate about it. Understanding another animal society is fascinating — it’s about pulling that innateness (of nature) into an area where it didn’t exist before.”
HOW I MAKE ENTREPRENEURSHIP WORK FOR ME
Think About Your Audience It’s about letting the audience choose the way they want to view, or experience, your work. I want people to see my work and if that means being flexible in how it is seen, then that’s completely fine. Relinquish control and give your audience options. You want them to get something out of it — regardless of the way they view it.
Smart and Creative Ideas Come from All Directions
I’m perceived as an artist but I work with a lot of scientists who are actually very creative. At first, the scientists feel that they can’t show their artistic qualities because I’m down as the artist in the relationship, and likewise, I defer to them for all the science and data stuff. As time goes on, our roles kind of switch around and you drop expectations of who is supposed to be the expert in what.
Gender Isn’t the Only Factor
You do need a balance of gender, but you also need a balance of people with different ways of thinking. I like the idea of different roles within any team and building a team with people who challenge you.