The ambitious theme for the 22nd Noorderlicht International Photofestival sought to address the world of data. Almost a decade on from the establishment of WikiLeaks, photographers are now more interested than ever in the uses and abuses of data. Data Rush sought to provide a snapshot of a new generation of artists interested in exploring how and why data irrevocably shapes our lives.
The wide ranging show included included artists from Europe, Asia and the US and occupied the vast and now deserted factory floors of the reclaimed Sugar Factory on the outskirts of the city Groningen. Installations of flickering banks of fibre optic cables sat alongside photographs, projections and screen-based rotating 3d visualizations (my own work).
As Noorderlicht director and curator Wim Mellis notes, data is something that affects all aspects of our lives. It is also something that is invisible to the naked eye. Representing something as sprawling and amorphous as data clearly present challenges to photographers. Exploring the variety of visual strategies adopted by artists to address this problem was interesting. Some, such as Catherine Balet chose a simple and direct approach. Balet photographed groups as they sit together yet apart, all individually illuminated by the light of their phone screens (‘Strangers in the Light’ 2009).
Others, such as British artist James Bridle showed how it is to digital imaging – and not to photography – that we must now look as the medium of record in the future. ‘In his installation SEAMLESS TRANSITIONS, James Bridle shows that which must not be seen: the assessment, detention and deportation of refugees in Great Britain. He used techniques stemming from investigative journalism, eyewitness accounts and other research to form a picture of each of these links in the refugee chain. Using this research as a basis, Picture Plane, a company that visually brings to life the designs of architects, has created a film in which the viewer can walk through spaces that would normally remain hidden’.
Like Bridle, a significant percentage of artists involved in Data Rush make surveillance a key theme in their work. In doing so, they highlight the ways in which technology is used to both control and reveal. British photographer Lisa Barnard’s project Whiplash Transition (2011-2013) also took surveillance as its theme, exploring the heightened artificiality of drone warfare through a photographic record of the locations where pilots control RPA (remotely piloted aircraft) destroying military targets in a far away country. ‘The abrupt transition from the brutal reality of operating a drone in a war zone back to family life, is often referred to by the pilots of the drones with the term whiplash transition.’
Other artists such as Doug Rickard’s project NA (National Anthem) focus on the vast repository of the Internet. By collecting images uploaded to Youtube by Americans (many of which explore themes such as race and politics), Rickard explores the dark underbelly of America culture not normally visible to the naked eye.
Rickard, like the other artists in DATA RUSH, recognizes that in many circumstances data can reveal what the single image cannot. His work poses the question: how we use the endless repository of images around us to make work which accurately reflects our place in the digital universe?
Image Credit: Julian Röder
Wendy McMurdo, OCA tutor and assessor and co-author of the OCA’s new course The Digital Image in Culture.