Art has always been a means of communication, reflection, persuasion, storytelling, and interpretation. Artists use their imagination to create visual representations of the world, both literal and abstract. The earliest art, prehistoric cave paintings, used simple representations, such as a cross to represent a man, and a triangle for a woman.
As the caveman’s charcoal and manganese oxide gave way to modern paint, and more recently to digital bits, visual art has become more refined.
But paint has always represented color, at its most primary just red, yellow, and blue. From those ternary states, artists have created great works of art. Data, at its binary core, can also be used as paint. A new breed of artist is arising–data artists.
Data artists use data as paint to construct imaginative representations of the world in their own way. Instead of reconstructing representations of what they see with their eyes, data artists create new ways for our eyes to see the massive flows of data that are constantly around us, yet invisible.
Like traditional artists, the work of data artists can be literal or abstract. It can try to communicate a particular point of view, or not, and can be open to the viewer’s interpretation. At its most simple, data artists bring data into light, and let us see facts, flow, and patterns that were previously invisible. Instead of recreating views of things we could have observed ourselves, they create views of things that can not be seen directly. Out of darkness, comes light.
Data art is in its infancy. Like cavepeople drew stick figures of people and buffalo, we can create pie charts in Excel. The more talented can use tools like the open-source d3.js data visualization library to code up something novel, but even then it takes a unique combination of expert coding and design skills.
Most visual art is static, it doesn’t change over time, and is not interactive. This is not due to lack of artistic creativity, but an artifact of the nature of paint. Paint dries.
Data doesn’t dry. It continuously flows. Any static view of it is inherently almost useless, and any non-interactive view is non-satisfying. Today’s data artists can spend weeks or months creating static visuals and infographics which are out of date the minute after they are published, and that even while fresh don’t provide the viewer any way to dig in and explore.
Tomorrow’s data artists need new tools to use their data paint to create interactive and fresh visual views of otherwise invisible data. At my startup, Zoomdata, we are creating these tools. We hope to make the creation of interactive data art easier and more accessible. While we may not all become a data Picasso, we can move beyond being data cavemen.