Lisa Gwillam and Ray Sweeten form the code-art creating duo DataSpaceTime. Engaging in the aesthetics, the politics, and various undersides of contemporary backend technology, their pieces break down digital images, investigate how visual data interacts with other visual data, and look at how new technologies play with old ones. Their work also demonstrates how coding can be a form of artistic control and freedom. In 2011, they launched their first project, a succession of large-scale QR code-based portrait paintings of iconic people and objects like Hosni Mubarak, or Carpaccio’s “Portrait of a Young Woman.” The QR codes that form the portrait components each hold their own bit of information–the results of a single internet search, for instance–and work in concert with a proprietary app, which after giving over the necessary permissions, and downloading, unlocks the data for the user.
Their current series of works is a different sort of exploration of data informatics and the components of the visual, turning to moving image, browser based GIF and video compositions that are directed into iterative relationships, composing and decomposing live. Recently on view at Microscope in Bushwick, their dual-browser piece, “the _______ of strings and objects,” uses short videos recorded by the artists themselves, turned into several thousand animated GIFs, which were then placed on a grid the same dimensions as the browser and made to interact with each other through a web socket. Meanwhile, a smaller third browser transcribes the activities of the two screens. Like much of DataSpaceTime’s output, it’s a work that helps you to figure it out as you watch it.
Their latest installation, Debugging, which was on view at Moving Image, is a larger scale, slightly more representational and aesthetically uniform version of some of the same ideas at play in “the _______ of strings and objects.” The video source of the GIFs, which occasionally align so as to give a seamless picture, depicts divers in an artificial eco-system. Dual-projected, rather than playing on screens, like their other installations it unfolds in real time, but the projection makes the whole experience more immersive and sensorially captivating.
I spoke with them at their studio in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
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Rachael Rakes: Perhaps we can begin by discussing your QR code pieces, which was your first collaboration, and how they relate to the current pieces, conceptually, visually, and technologically.
Lisa Gwillam: The foremost similarities in the two series’ are that the image is on the surface, and the programming and architecture is hidden. But in each there are inroads to architecture for the viewer.
Ray Sweeten: The idea behind the QR code portraits was that you could combine two very different mediums into one succinct gesture. You have an analog physical object that is data, that is not representing something else, rather it also is something else. There’re also the concepts of search and capture of information, and of data, and of security and protocol. And of formats–how they need to be valid to be accessible, and that there are varying degrees of accessibility. If you don’t have our app, you are looking at the piece in a conceptual way. You don’t have access to information. You might think the piece is broken, or that what you see is all it is.
LG: They could have been constructed in a way that a QR code on the market could read them. But we were interested in creating a system where we collected data on the people scanning the piece, and about when and how often it was being scanned, which we couldn’t have if we used a commercial QR code reader. We were interested in the informatics, and the capture.
Both the animated GIFs in the new pieces and the QR codes are these funny little things, these technical things that are primarily used in a commercial environment, and we wanted to give them another use, to put them to work in another way.
RR: Ah, subverting the foreclosed use of these things …
RS: It’s not that we care exactly whether they become obsolete or not, but we want to find out what else they can be used for while they’re around. The QR codes are increasingly hard to maintain even now, since we built out own app for them, every time a new update is installed, it’s a whole new round of work for us, and the wars between Google and Apple make this even worse. But with the newer GIF work, we wanted to remove ourselves from the constant need for reassessment. We wanted something that people could appreciate, and if they wanted to dig in, they could.
LG: The GIF pieces run independently of all these other systems that you often don’t have control over. They need to run on the Internet, but we can run it on our own subnet. We don’t need to rely on a working wifi connection. The client and the server is on the machine that your running it from. All you need is that machine to run it.
RR: There’s clearly a lot of precision and control on the backend of this, but aesthetically, there are moments that approach the look of glitch art, that smeariness.
LG: The fragmentation that you see is more because of the juxtaposition of what we’ll call the data and what happens in your own brain in the receiving of the information and what you’re trying to construct while you’re watching it.
RS: But were not setting out to have the machine break, or do something you don’t expect it to do, something like [Cory Archangel’s] Data Diaries. The application is supposed to work.
We do like the visual degradation of the GIFs themselves, how when you blow them up you can see the compression in them. Which could be seen as a form of glitch.
LG: We’re now used to expecting to see things in incredibly high definition, but, being GIFs these are naturally blurry, and it’s important that you can sometimes see the pixels.
RR: You’ve mentioned before how the process of creating these is similar to editing celluloid film. You aren’t using programs with presets to make adjustments, you’re watching the whole thing through, going back to make adjustments to the code, and then watching it again from the start. Do either of you come from that practice?
RS: In terms of comparisons, I was doing a lot of sound and video with analog systems, and was a projectionist for a while. For me this analogy is really about the immediacy and specificity of the analog process that strives to be its own medium, not an imitation of something else. This work is so specifically digital in that we’re not engaging in circumscribed interfaces imitating other mediums.. like Protools which simulates the analog multi-track recording studio or something. We try to work with these systems as their own material, so it feels similar to the analog process.
LG: Ray now works in programming as a dayjob. It’s also quite different from writing things from scratch, instead making things function according to preset needs. Which seems totally different.
I have connection to film production from my work as a set designer, so I think that helps with the analogy. I also worked in oil painting for years. Compared to this it’s very limiting: the square that doesn’t move! I began wanting to show over things time, or in spaces other than this one dimension. I like that here both time and space are viewable. It feels more flexible than the static environment.
I had a whole twelve-canvas run of trying to paint sparklers. It was really fun to try to get that detail, to try and make them seem like they were moving a little bit. I had a friend who was going to animate them somehow. They were all the exact same size and I was going to hang them as a grid. But the medium wasn’t the right medium for what I was trying to do. To suddenly have movement, time, the ability to blend images, and sound, it’s become really fruitful.
RS: At the same time, what we’re doing in “Debugging” could be viewed simply as a diptych. It’s about the relationship between two different things. They do also happen to help explain each other and what’s going on technologically.
LG: They’re two browsers having a conversation. With signals going back and forth in the visual information. Sometimes they’re two totally different images that go together in a complementary way, and other times where one image continues over two screens. Two points of view of the same thing that sometimes integrate.
RR: Both Debugging and “the _______ of strings and objects” are presented without sound. Have you considered adding that element into the program?
RS: We’re set up to use sound, but it’s an option we haven’t used in exhibition yet. Similar to the way the browsers interact visually, there are all these different parameters for a synthesizer in the browser. One side is on one screen and the other is on the other screen, and there about 20 different parameters that you can map information to. It takes the left and right screens and maps the GIF number to a parameter.
LG: The sounds we ended up with for Debugging actually felt pretty appropriate–kind of eerie and under-water sounding, but when we installed it in the gallery, it took up too much of the space of the piece. The imagery of the piece changes so dramatically, and yet it usually feels like a unified work, but the changes in sounds felt much more invasive.
RR: And sound always threatens to narrativize moving image work, perhaps more than you’d like here. When you’re trying to figure out what’s happening here technically, I imagine it can get in the way.
RS: For sure. While it can be more immersive, it disengages you from thinking through.
LG: That’s always the scary thing about sound. We’re still pussyfooting around the sound thing because it so easily becomes diegetic, or it starts to be a music video. There has to be a good reason for sound. We really want to add that dimension, as another way of demonstrating what’s happening on a technical level, the way the parameters interpolate, but we’ll have to find the right place for it.