Technology as a tangible and intangible data tool (re: James Bridle – Naked Lunch conference)

Reference material:

James Bridle – Naked Lunch 

Data, meet technology.

Just decades ago technology had only numbers or binary matrices to understand data. Fast forward to the current day’s digital scene, data manifests as pixels, variable not just in value but also in form and animation. We are living the contemporary wave of data visualisation, our human behaviour is now characteristic and characterising the function of advanced technological devices. Artificial intelligence is no longer the absurd caricature of a science fiction future, it is household and mobile. Artificial intelligence is not just part of our lifestyle, but an extension of our intelligence and an integral tool to learning. It is not too far a stretch to say that technology has far surpassed human capability.

James Bridle cites Hawk-Eye, a computer system developed for sports, as a visual recognition technology that is advanced but ‘not as perfect’ as the human cognitive ability.

Image result for hawkeye cricket

Hawk-Eye simulation in Cricket game

Hawk-eye is used commonly in many sports, especially tennis and cricket, to predict the trajectory of an object of play such as the ball. This trajectory is then used to determine whether the ball is in or out, which in the words of Bridle is not the ‘truth’ and just a ‘prediction’. This example is a strong testament for the extent to which intangible has infiltrated and effected on physical, human activities – the ‘algorithmic process’ that is intensely varied can determine the result of a game.

Let us take a step back and revisit the advent of computer recognition capabilities. Fei Fei Li’s TED talk appropriately titled “How we’re teaching computers to understand pictures” draws links between technological visualisation ability to that of a child. Just as a child can recognise visual objects to be ‘cars’ or ‘apples’, technology is able to parse slices of images and recognise them in the same means of finding patterns in data. There is an almost human ability in this algorithm to be ‘unsure’ and deduce a simpler, broader, insecure answer.

Broad-scoped answer when computer recognition system is ‘unsure’

How is this intangible data being translated or applied in our tangible world. I look to another example from Bridle’s conference, one involving surveillance, one of the biggest bane and boon of technological advancement.

People walk past a 'spy bin' in the City of London

Bins with screen displays installed in London

These manifest tangibly as bins with an elevated digital advertising feature, but the technology that lies beyond this is not just limited to display. Controversy surrounded these ‘spy-bins’ as they are revealed to have intangible surveillance capabilities installed in them, tracking and storing Mac addresses of devices on those who pass by.

Data is an abyss, our entire lives flow in and around our digital devices. I guess a more understanding description of our fear of data surveillance is our lack of knowledge and the fear of another person’s knowledge of us. There is a frightening volume of grey in our usage of technology, especially to us who are layman to code and are so distant from the servers who manage this cyber reservoir of data. Once upon a time data existed physically on paper or inscribed, archived on shelves and facilitated by human hand. It is hard to say that such a system operates with efficacy given our level of supply and demand today, but occasional glimpses of the humanity behind these digital productions are pleasantries.

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Photo of Foxconn factory worker discovered in distributed iPhone

This iconic photo of a foxconn worker was found in an iPhone after it was distributed. It is also an example in Bridle’s conference. He expresses his amicable feelings towards this photo and talks about how glimpses beyond the cold mechanics of technology, or in other words the presence of human hands, can comfort us.

Bridle himself is an artist and has dabbled in the topic of surveillance that is expressed through New Media narrative art. Dronestagram, a piece that is simple in theory yet complex in nature. The simple act of posting the drone view of a drone strike to an instagram page forms both a physical and mental bridge through a digital space. It appeals to me in its bonafide explorative nature and its ability to expand the potential of a digital art work.

Instagram is one of the biggest photo-sharing platforms of the century. There is a personification to an Instagram account, and that nature is leveraged by companies and figures to inject a more personal approach to their endeavours. I believe this sensation plays a major role in Bridle’s piece, the ability to characterise an issue larger than our scopes and our narrow grievances. These images are camouflaged by the myriads of casual updates that flood our feeds, yet at the same time create an uncanny sense of real-time danger.

I also find interesting the double entendre that exists between the platform aand surveillance. Social media is our biggest surveillance, it transform every mobile device with photo capabilities into a surveillance tool. Gone were the days that we reel back on cctv footage, it is not uncommon for parents to receive real-time feeds of their homes while they are at work. Applications are developed in every imaginable way to increase the ability to surveil at any mobile spot. Most intangibly, social media is the biggest indicator and live feed of our world. Geo tags allow us to visualise frequently updated feeds of places, and for those who update, geo tags are their personal geo indicators. There is a certain casualness to self-surveillance when put in contexts such as this.

It is hard to say the nature of our relationship with these technological advancements. However, we have to acknowledge and perhaps harness its ability to visualise data and therefore express ourselves. It is the new core of communication, art and narrativity.

Mono-ha & Wolfgang Laib’s Milkstone

Simplicity and nought are frequent talking points when it comes to Minimalism and its related movements, they are a longstanding preoccupation of radical art forms. Yet, on this particular guided visit to the Minimalism exhibition at National Gallery (my third one and pre-eminently with the head curator Silke Shmickl), what gripped me was the unrelenting means of an artist to contain great amount of effort and narrative in an unassuming item. They were not much of an image, but nevertheless striking and probed us to think. This notion is exemplified in the works representing Mono-ha and Wolfgang Laib’s Milkstone of a similar nature.


The Mono-ha movement originated from Japan as a response to technology and forces that take away from the nature of things. The works from this movement generally harness and manipulate the given properties of natural materials. Most significantly, Mono-ha was a brave rejection of Western ideas and notions towards art. I will be writing about two works from this movement.

Oneness of Concrete & Oneness of Wood,
Jiro Takamatsu (1971)

I am enthusiastic to write about this piece because it is my favourite in the Minimalism exhibition. Oneness, a series of rectangular blocks of material that is broken down and returned to its original piece to form a whole. The nature of the work is strangely captivating and plucks an unusual string in my sense of empathy towards inanimate objects. Wholeness, or more suitably oneness, is very fulfilling to see and can come off beautifully like in this piece, extremely sophisticated. There is an elegance to the difference in scale and form between the block of material and it’s smithereens. In smaller terms, the blocks are larger and rectilinear and the latter is a smaller and a more organic permutation of that. Takamatsu’s intention for this piece was to explore the the material’s transformative potential and singular identity (q. National Gallery).

Infinite Situation I (Window),
Kishio Suga (1970/2018)

During my first two visits to the Gallery, I had barely noticed this piece. Suga’s not so simple concept of placing a plank diagonally across the window is a piece that works not just with the object but the space around it. Once again, there is an immense transformational ability with an unassuming block of wood. It acts almost as a light sculpture, transforming the familiar mood of a space to have its own characteristic and flair. The scale of this piece is relatively large, though it may still come across as part of the space, rather than a standalone item.

Wolfgang Laib (1980)

Laib’s milkstone – an offset marble stone with a thin layer of fresh milk upon it – is elegant and minimal to the point that one could easily look past the amount effort that goes into creating the piece. There is a phenomenal fusing of the solid stone and liquid milk, the stone being a material of longevity and milk, a perishable. The basis of this work is the ability for both materials to identify as a singular object, and quite successfully so. Tension and harmony co-exist in this piece as the milk blends in seamlessly with the indent and edge of the stone. It is almost hard to believe that it is in fact a layer of milk on top of the stone, let alone discern where the milk ends and stone begins.