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Are We Data (AWED) at Tate Exchange
Video Installation, endless loop, 2018

Are We Data? is an immersive installation produced by AWED, a research team led by Liz McFall and Darren Umney at the Open University, and David Moats (Linkoping University) working collectively with Sapphire Goss and London based software programmer, AV systems designer and musician, Thomas Blackburn. ‘Are We Data?’ questions the relationship between place and place-less ‘big data’ to explore whether digital data can really reveal ‘who we are’.

Are We Data? explores questions about whether digital data can reveal ‘who we are’. We present an encounter between two screens. One screen shows a collage of archival and contemporary footage of Netherfield, a housing estate in Milton Keynes. The second screen is a live ‘dashboard’ of data visualisations or representations of ‘you’, the Tate Modern Exchange audience. At stake are questions about how we can know, represent or ‘draw’ people. By staging the encounter between a film representation of Netherfield and multiple big data visualisations, we consider the possibilities, purposes and limits of all forms of representation.

Tate Exchange

Who Are We? 

Are We Data? 

Art museums and galleries are increasingly called on to demonstrate audience engagement and participation. This has been done primarily through ticket sales, visitor counts, audience surveys and market research but more recently interest in measuring participation through big data analytics (including social media and web data) has grown. But can this new digital data really know the audience better? 

In May 2018, we staged an experiment to test this during the Who Are We? exhibition at Tate Modern Exchange in London. Our experiment took the form of an installation showcasing different sorts of answer to questions about ‘who we are’ in an interactive encounter between two projected screens. The first screen presented a filmic collage of archival and contemporary scenes and plans of a housing estate in Milton Keynes and the second screen presented a live ‘dashboard’ of visualisations of different types of audience data (website visits, devices, surveys). The screens staged discordant visions about how people are known, imagined or represented. Our aim was to show how different sorts of data and representations present different versions of the audience and demonstrate the difficulty of resolving or harmonising these representations into a whole 360 degree view of ‘us’. The guiding conceit was that what we see – of the person or the audience – is a function of where we stand. 

Artistic Representations 

Projected onto the first screen was a video produced by filmmaker Sapphire Goss. The video portrays a representation of a housing estate called Netherfield through a blend of original and archival footage, architectural drawings, plans and contemporary views. Netherfield was a place drawn up for an imagined people. The traces of these imagined Netherfield people can be found in contemporaneous documents – reports, plans, drawings, images and publicity materials – of what kinds of people would become Netherfield people - how would they live, mix, work, travel, spend or play? These projected inhabitants never materialised because the political and economic context made the costs too high to recoup on the private property market. What was to be a diverse but integrated community of private owners and public renters became inadequately funded and poorly maintained social housing. Netherfield was quickly identified as a ‘sink estate’ and despite its lively community it is currently designated by the Office of National Statistics as one of the most deprived areas in the UK. 

The work depicts an abstract journey through Netherfield with dreamlike sequences to portray the lived environment. The video layers, loops and respond to a data feed taken direct from the data dashboard. The shifting perspectives form a constantly evolving portrait of the location, demonstrating the conflicts between how places and people are planned and mapped out: both by architects and by data profiling, and how people often contradict those plans as their lives unfold in the real world. 

Data Representations

The second screen displayed a ‘dashboard’ developed with artist and programmer Thomas Blackburn, which was based on data collected from gallery attendees in various ways. This included: 

- The MAC addresses and brand of all devices with WIFI 

enabled in the building. - Tweets with the hashtags #tateexchange, #tatex, #whoarewe, 

#arewedata, #AWED. - Various measures from Google Analytics about visitors to 

the Tate Website. - Info about UK arts audiences from the UK Government’s 

Taking Part Survey - Live results of an iPad survey of postcodes, age and reasons 

for visiting. 

This data was represented through simple visualizations like pie charts and bar charts, maps and live updated lists. The aggregate scores from the survey and other sources of data in the room were also represented as sound (sonification) as a drone rising and falling as new data entries shifted the average scores. 

As in the first screen, we wanted to draw attention to the partiality of different data sources and types of representation, how different data sources and different methods of visualization represent objects - people, the audience, participation and culture – differently. We also wanted to invite the audience to reflect on how much passive ‘ambient’ data is being collected from them all the time. 

So, are we data?

The audience was drawn to our projected screens and many filled out the iPad surveys but few stuck around long enough to see themselves register in the data. Some of those that did stay and chat reacted to the ‘creepiness’ of the data collection but did not seem to care much about how they were (mis)represented. They could understand the conventional graphs but were not captivated by them. People seemed more drawn to the evocative film of Netherfield but did not interrogate very closely the various representations it contained. The only way that people seemed grabbed by the data was through the sonifications “what’s that sound?” and through the data-linked flickering of Sapphire’s film. When analysing the data after the fact we found that we could only make sense of it by disaggregating the data and thinking about more granular patterns – but doing so raised privacy concerns as we could quickly deduce individuals from the data based on time of day etc. 

While the installation did not elicit the reactions we expected, it does raise questions about what would happen if arts audiences were given the opportunity to see and react to the various representations of them. However, in order to do this we need think about more artistic or unconventional strategies of provocation: to make people think more actively about how they are represented. We need there to be more experimentation in this area which considers cultural measurement and cultural representations as in and of the world not separate from it.