Somerset House is home to the Courtauld Institute and galleries, a world renowned institution famous for producing world class art historians, curators and writers, and a collection that is key to understanding the turn from Impressionism to Post-Impressionism and thus the modern heart of modern painting. In recent years the huge courtyard and various other spaces that make up Somerset House (once a Royal Palace, a government archive and a Royal Academy) have been increasingly exploited as venues for other arts and entertainment events, including the ice rink which appears there every winter and now several new gallery spaces. ‘Big Bang Data’ is gaudily advertised on the windows of the 17th century building as you enter from the South or river side, and the show is staged in a labyrinth of new spaces within the basement area of the same South side buildings.
To set out your stall, initially your response to this show is pretty negative, even though you try to avoid judgment as the primary purpose of art writing, and even though ‘technology’ (in a very broad sense) is close to the centre of your current teaching, writing, reading, thinking and research. The problem is that, this show – which clearly costs tens and probably hundreds of thousands of pounds to produce and install (some of the individual works may cost that much in themselves) its scale tends to exhaust you, but only because it also bombards you with what might be called ‘spectacular information’ (why does Datas always have to be ‘Big’ and just how ‘Big’ is it anyway, relative to other phenomena?) which, it could be argued, could also be supplied and accessed by clicking through a series of links on your iMac at home (if someone just gave you the necessary URLs. (N.B. fortunately you have free entry via your Press card but other punters would have to pay a fair whack to see this show.)
Of course the show is more than that, but it’s interesting that, apart from this spectacular information all you are left to engage with is the spectacular installation and presentation of information, some of which claims or aspires to be art or operating at some interface between art and information.
The curators use huge colourful titles for each section, mounted on slightly retro Dexion stands replete with huge yellow boards full of typed clues about what you are about to see next. It’s ultimately quite didactic and not dissimilar in many places to a trip to the Science museum, but focused on ‘Data’ including facebook phenomena, the history of submarine trans-continental cables, the well rehearsed ethical debates about freedom, privacy and surveillance, the ‘amazing’ machinations of the world of digitized high finance (interestingly, for all its Wham Bam Wow-newness you almost find yourself saying “you know the kind of thing”), imagery and interviews that prov ‘cloud’ computing actually relies on huge, very real and concrete server farms and ‘data’ factories, possibilities for a ‘Smart’ city and occasional images of such digital scale and complexity that they do indeed make you feel giddy, making you momentarily believe in the technoromantic vision of a new digital sublime.
A few contemporary artists, including Erica Scourti contribute the most considered critical angles, and it has to be said that, in truth, the most reassuring events involve some reassertion of humanity and traditional crafts, like the perverse documentation of one man’s lifestyle in the form of a corporate style annual report, and exchanges of post cards between artists who regularly conjure up new kids of ‘Data’ from every day life, new ways of representing it (usually with felt tip pens) and new ways of organizing the ‘Data’ into pretty patterns.
And this brings you back to a problem you’ve raised before (and which was featured here 7 months ago in your post for week 28. titled ‘IN THE REALM OF PHOTOGRAPHY’) i.e. that the interface between art, artists and ‘Data’ too often resolves itself in the dead-end of spectacle and pattern. It’s very difficult to find the kind of effectively transgressive détournement found, for example in DADA, though artists like Hannah Höch and John Heartfield were also confronted with a barrage of ‘new media’ and an accompanying, extremely worrying shift in political attitudes and potentials.
Emerging feeling slightly bombarded, depressed and exhausted you make your way across the courtyard, skirting the ice rink and its skaters, to enter the Courtauld Galleries half an hour before they close.
You make your way straight to the Peter Lanyon exhibition and immediately feel revived by the experience of this earlier form of ‘technoromanticism’ in which a painter of the late 1950s contributed to the history of landscape painting by connecting his practice to his love of gliding over Cornwall. Fortuitously Lanyon also explicitly referred to his own idiosyncratic activities as a kind of scientific as well as artistic enterprise, often referring to the air, the (yes real, actual) clouds, the sky and the crucial behavior of ‘thermals’ as a kind of ‘Data’ that needs to be understood and appreciated in order to enjoy the delights of this slightly dare devil sport.
” … a thermal is a huge bubble of rising warm air generated by temperature differences on the earth’s surface – a colossal and largely invisible force that carries an estimated 1.4 trillion tons of moisture into the sky every day. On the ground, if one can see it at all, it appears as no more than a thin and fragile haze.” (Toby Treves, writing in TATE etc. magazine, on Peter Lanyon.)
Most importantly it’s the joyously painted results that seem to rejuvenate your heart (yes, you still have one) and to reassure your eyes after a couple of hours of ‘Big Bang Data’. Lanyon isn’t really a ‘Big’ name in 20th century painting, though his reputation and popularity seems to be growing. His life and career were short of course [b.1918 d.1964] and his focus tight or ‘niche’ you might say, and yet he clearly excelled in a certain very direct way of taking up both the freedoms and the esoteric disciplines of modern abstract and expressive painting and deploying them in the service of representing a real experience, extraordinary as this was. Looking at his swirling, soaring configurations of blue, occasionally chopped by a scarlet line or eased into white or pale green, you begin to feel lighter, elevated and privileged to share in this artist’s unique perspective. You too are allowed to see the landscape anew, from above, having set yourself free of our all-too-human earthbound, horizons and gravitational limits.
As you make your way home you feel reassured by Lanyon, and by 1-2 of the more mischievous artists featured in ‘Big Bang Data’, that art has always been a form of data gathering but it necessarily keeps all options open and all technological traditions in play, partly as a defense against the world’s profanities and irksome impositions – among which so called ‘new technology’ can certainly be included. Of course, as artists, we have a responsibility to ‘humanise’ and otherwise explore and exploit whatever tools are presented to us, but we do this best when we approach those possibilities form an empowered and empowering position, maintaining a position of strength and confidence.
Something about the way in which so-called ‘Big Data’ continues to be presented makes this approach an exception rather than a rule, and it is tiresome and diminishing to repeatedly see presentations, even by some artists, that focus on the ‘amazing’, ‘spectacular’ and even dimply ‘Big’ aspects of Data. Lanyon’s show, and the best things in ‘Big Bang Data’, involve humanity always showing that it is ‘bigger’ than the data it collects and works with, as we each share our very own new discoveries with a thus revived and enlightened audience.