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On June 21, 1999, Stephen Cartwright began tracking his life, actively collecting data on everything he does, writing down things like his latitude and longitude, the local precipitation, and how much he’s exercised each day. He initially tried out this discipline as a year-long experiment from 1996 to 1997, and for the past 20 years, he has been logging continuously — first in a notebook, and then in a spreadsheet that contains thousands of daily entries. “I like to have a physical record of things,” he explains. “Tracking information and location somehow solidifies into existence the ephemeral things in life.”
This life-tracking has become the central focus of Cartwright’s art, currently on view in various shows around the country. Most of his abstract plexiglass and resin projects are detailed cartographies or graphs of some aspect of his data, with names like “Comparative Meshes (Human powered outdoor activity / Precipitation 2013).” Unlike other self-tracking artists like Laurie Frick, much of his work is unlabeled data visualization, made up of starbursts of lines and graphs with no definite scale. He has also created programmable kinetic sculptures, which can change based on different data sets or remain in constant motion to represent a variety of data.
Assessing Cartwright’s art is a constant oscillation between evaluating the data and appreciating its aesthetics. I tried to imagine what prompted some of the quick lines running back and forth between places in his Life Location sculptures. In “Frequency,” in which 3D acrylic columns represent where he’s been, and grow logarithmically taller in places he’s visited more, the contrast between the many short columns and the few ceiling-high data points made me think about the select locations that have an outsized importance in my own life.
Cartwright started out his career with a traditional arts education, receiving an MFA from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. But he expanded his technical capacities when he took on work at an exhibition company. “We made interactive children’s museum exhibits and architectural models; it changed my relationship with materials and fabrication, and I became enamored with digital fabrication technology,” he explains.
His artistic process these days involves creative collaboration with machines. He designs graphic representations of his collected data in 3D drawing software and uses them as the guide for a CNC (computer numeric control) router. This router will carve the design in great detail out of blocks of ultra-clear plexiglass, creating two pieces that fit nearly perfectly together. He then pours brightly colored resin into the space between them, before polishing them to the point where the entire piece appears to be a single block.
“I’m trying to do some pieces now about breaking away from self-tracking and seeing how other people and their data can be part of my work,” Cartwright says. “I’m working on a project called Timeline Atlas, which will allow people to put simple information in a website and look at a three-dimensional rendering of their life locations, and they can add locations for loved ones and friends.” People will also be able to compare their own data against others’, and even create physical manifestations of their data.
Cartwright’s many years of what he calls “active tracking” feel, to him, like a different thing than either the growing self-tracking trends among individuals or corporate data collection. “In the age of the smartphone, people have caught up to where I am. They have Map My Run or the Apple Watch. But because I’m doing it actively, I feel like I’m more aware of it, and it adds to a mindfulness practice,” he says.
This work is not overtly about recent privacy breaches among various corporations or their management of customer data, but he does see it as concerning. “We don’t actually know the depth of the things that companies are doing with our data. It’s not what we think it is … I do hope people considering my work are also considering their data streams, like the patterns of their movements and the histories of their relationships.”
Cartwright acknowledges that long before this project began, records, maps, and technology have drawn him in. As a young artist, he made fake fossils, hints about his overarching concern with saving data in long-term forms. “This tracking project is like having an external memory … We can’t remember what we did yesterday, or a week ago, or a year ago, but because I track, I can piece it back together with time.”
Stephen Cartwright’s work can be seen in a variety of current and upcoming exhibitions. Light is on view at the Pizzuti Collection at the Columbus Museum of Art (632 North Park Street, Columbus, OH) through May 12. DATA: BIG/-driven/Visualized is on view at the NIU Art Museum (Northern Illinois University, Altgeld Hall, 116, DeKalb, IL) through May 17. Peripheral Technology will be on view at the Ann Arbor Art Center (117 West Liberty St., Ann Arbor) June 7 through July 6.
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