Exposing Data: Art Slash Activism

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Dec 26, 2011 06:10 AM |
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Tactical Tech and the Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) organised a public discussion on the intersection of Art and Activism at the CIS office in Bangalore on 28 November 2011. Videos of the event are now online. Ward Smith (Lecturer, University of California, LA), Stephanie Hankey and Marek Tuszinsky (Co-founders, Tactical Technology Collective), Ayisha Abraham (Film maker, Srishti School of Art Design) and Zainab Bawa (Research Fellow, Centre for Internet and Society) spoke in this event.

In the information societies that we live in, data is the new currency. While data – objective enumerations of life – has been around as the basis of providing evidence in research, practice and art, there is a renewed attention on data as the digital technologies start mediating our everyday lives. Digitization (like electronification in earlier times) is a process by which messy, chaotic, everyday life can be sorted, classified, arranged and built into clean taxonomies that flatten the experiential and privilege the objective. In many ways, the process of ubiquitous digitization goes back to the Cartesian dualism of the immaterial mind over the emergent materiality of the body. Historically, different disciplines and practices within the social and natural sciences, humanities, arts, development work, and governmentality, etc. have established protocols to create robust, rigorous, efficient and reliable data that can be used as evidence for thought and action. These protocols are not permanent and are often questioned within the disciplinary framework but especially with interdisciplinary dialogues where conflicting methodologies and reading practices often render the same data sets unintelligible to each other.

With the rise of the digital, these disciplines and practices start new negotiations with the world of databases, networks and archives. There is a growing anxiety that data, which was supposed to be an objective representation of reality, is increasingly becoming opaque in how it is structured. There is also an increasing awareness that the work that we make the —‘idea of data’— is not transparent. The Exposing Data Project came as a response to these anxieties, as we seek to unpack the processes, methodologies, challenges and implications of living in a data-rich, data-based world mediated by digital and internet technologies through a cross-disciplinary multi-sectoral dialogue.

Exposing Data is a curated practice of bringing together differently located researchers, academics, practitioners, policy actors, artists and public interlocutors to tease out the tensions and conflicts that digital data brings to their own practice and thought, especially when talking to people who are ‘not like us’.

Art Slash Activism1

For its first conversation titled ‘Art Slash Activism’, we decided to look at the tensions that often split communities and practices across historically drawn battle lines. There has been a huge tension between artists and activists, who, even though they often use same kind of data sets, are often at logger-heads when it comes to using that data for their practice. Artists, especially those dealing with public and community art projects, often work in the same spaces and communities as the activists, in making strong political statements and working towards a progressive liberal ideology. Activism has depended on artistic expressions – especially those around free speech, censorship, surveillance, human rights, etc.  – in order to not only find peer support but also to oppose authoritarian forces that often seek to quell artistic voices. And yet, within the larger communities, the idea of political art – art that makes direct political statements – or activism as an art form – activism that takes the form of cultural production and overt subversion – often emerges as problematic. ‘Art Slash Activism’ brought together four people, identified (reluctantly, because they wear so many different hats) as an academic, as a researcher, as an activist and as an artist, who all straddle these chasms in their own work, to unpack the tensions through the lens of digital data.

Zainab Bawa, who is a research fellow at the Centre for Internet and Society, working on a monograph that deals with politics of transparency in Indian e-governance systems, set out the terms of the debate as she questioned the very meaning of the word ‘data’. Zainab, by looking at case-studies of land-record digitization in the country, started to look at how the word ‘data’, despite its apparent transparency and objectivity, is actually an opaque concept that eclipsed the politics of data formation – what gets identified as data? What gets discarded as noise? Who gets to identify something as data? What happens to things which are not data? What happens to people who cannot be identified through data? What are the systems of rationality that we inherit to talk of data?

Video of Zainab Bawa Talk

These questions persisted through the different conversations but were brought into plain site when Ayisha Abraham, a film and video artist who also teaches at the Sristhi School of Art Design, showed us a digitally restored piece of an old film that disintegrated even as it was being saved. Heidegger in his Basic Writings had proposed that “Art assumes that the truth that discloses itself in the work can never be derived from outside.” Ayisha  built on this idea to look at material historicity and physical presence of data to question the easy availability of data that has been established for data in art practices. When does data come into being? What precedes data? What happens to data when it decays beyond belief? How do we restructure reality in the absence of data? She mapped the role of affective restructuring, historical reconstruction and creative fictions in our everyday life when we deal with realities which cannot be supported by data.

Video of Ayisha Abraham Talk

Ward Smith added a layer of complication in his questioning of the established cause-effect relationship that data has with Reality. Within activism as well as in development and policy work, there is an imagination that data always followed reality – that it is a distilled set of abstractions based on experiences, information, knowledge, analyses, etc. However, Ward presented us with a case-study that shows that data is not benign. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Often, the creation of data sets and databases leads to construction of alternative and new material realities. Even within existing realities, the introduction of a data set or an attempt to account for the reality using data, produces new and evolved forms of reality. Drawing partly from the discussions within digital taxanomies and partly from conversations in quantum philosophy (remember Schrodinger’s Cat?) Ward showed how data realities need to be unpacked to reveal what lies underneath.

Video of Ward Smith Talk

Marek Tuszinsky rounded up the conversations by introducing us to different ways of looking at data. Drawing from a rich ethnographic and experience data set at the Tactical Technology Collective, Marek questioned how our relationships and reading practices – looking at data side-ways, for example – influences the shape, form, structure and meaning of the data under consideration. What came up was a compendium questions around data ethics, data values, our own strategies and reflectivity in dealing with a data-mediated and data-informed world. What are the kinds of imperatives that lead us to produce data? What methodologies do we deploy to render data intelligible? What kind of data manipulations do we engage in, in order to make it comprehensible to digital systems of archives and storage?

Video of Marek Tuzinsky Talk

What are the politics of exclusion, inclusion and making invisible of data sets?

The conversation further opened up to the other participants in the conversation to crystalise around three areas of concern:

Data Decay

An audience member pointed out that one is always confronted with the physical decay of data. While old film is an incredibly fragile medium, it has survived over 70 years to become a part of Ayisha’s work. A digital format, on the other hand, would likely become inaccessible within six years due to format changes and problems with compatibility. The discussion shifted to the temporary aspect of data. The digitization of data allows one to illuminate it in significant ways by adding new components and blowing up details of focus. Such options are not available in analogue form.

However, the fact that digital media has a limited lifespan is something that one must consider. Are we depicting data for immediate attention and action, or for future reference? How far down the timeline of history do we want our records to stretch? Regardless of whether the producers of the film that turned out to be a hidden treasure for Ayisha asked these questions, the persistence of the film 70 years later served to illuminate an important moment in history and spoke of lives and stories the knowledge of which is still of interest and inspiration in our time. The future accessibility of data can be seen as our legacy and the inheritance of the generations to come.  

Data Realities / Subjects

At the same time, can we be sure of the factual nature of recovered and existing data? It is important to ask who commissioned the source of information, who collected the data, who depicted and disseminated it? When asking “who”, one should also ask what their motives were, what resources they had and what settings they were working in. These are only several factors that influence the accuracy, message and understanding of the presented data.    

Data has political power, being used as a catalyst and a justifying factor for various policies and interventions. However, data that is collected and presented by policy makers, research organizations, NGO’s, and other institutions may not reflect the realities as they are experienced by the population represented by the data. Researchers may be asking the wrong questions, or seeking answers in the wrong places, as it was the case in the Atlanta homeless programs discussed in Ward’s presentation. Inaccurate or incomplete data can confuse cause and effect, as well as become the cause in and of itself by feeding into stereotypes and creating faulty convictions that shape conventional views and social action. 

Data Values

The importance of deconstructing the nature of how data is presented was remarked on by an audience member. The question posed was how, in the process of data collection and presentation, one can make data more reflective of reality as it is experienced by the studied population through incorporating grassroots efforts to create a community-based ownership of data. 

To tackle this question, Marek brought up the example of mapping out the Kibera slum in Kenya. An open source approach was used in the project, where locals actively participated in the process of mapping. However, as Marek pointed out, it was still an intervention from outside the community. Somebody funded the project, someone gave the equipment, and they followed a certain methodology for reasons of their own. A completely unbiased and neutral representation of the slum was not possible due to the various agendas and perspectives of the parties involved, the dominant agenda being that of the project funders. Complete objectivity, even when efforts are made, is impossible.

Is it really more data that we need then? Even though information exists, it may not be accurate and not everyone within the society has an equal reach to it. A worker from a village lacking in literacy skills has significantly less access to data than a PHD student from a renowned university, even though they both navigate within the same system. Access to data stems farther than what is put up on a website or a file that can be picked up from a government office. More important than having access to open data, Zainab believes that one should look for relationships and systems where there is responsiveness and responsibility of negotiating.     

However, what came clear from the discussion is that there are existent infrastructures that enable researchers and activists in their quest for information and its fair representation. People, in their interactions with each other, in the institutions and ad hoc organizations we develop, take part in creating these enabling infrastructures. Being embedded in the system within which one is collecting information allows one to understand and manoeuvre the necessary avenues. Questions of data collection, representation, and dissemination are multidisciplinary, spanning across issues that touch all members of our society. From land property records, old abandoned film, government statistics, classifications, and artists’ quest for truth, data takes many forms and defines our lives in ways we cannot always control. Through revaluation and questioning of these processes we gain a better understanding of what shapes societal views, government action, and how we can take control and use data to illuminate the unseen and wheel social change.

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This has been the first of our experiments at creating dialogues around Exposing Data. We invite people interested in these questions, to not only participate in the future conversations, but also help us draw upon different disciplines, questions and concerns around the subject of Data. The next conversation seeks to address the question of “Whose data is it anyway?” and we hope that the momentum of talk carries on.

Nishant Shah
Maya Ganesh
Yelena Gulkhandanyan

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https://www.google.com/accounts/o8/id?id=AItOawnZnyXEPO4l4yJ8GACsD987IuEkNVwVeSU says:
Feb 13, 2013 10:16 AM

More essential than having entry to start information, Zainab considers that one should look for connections and techniques where there is responsiveness and liability of discussing.

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