Data as Culture: interrogating data with art

Wed Oct 7, 2020
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Discover how we developed our world-class art programme, the impact it has had, and the lessons we are taking forward

What is Data as Culture? 

Data as Culture is the Open Data Institute’s world-class contemporary art programme that exhibits and commissions artworks that use data as an art material. It aims to expand the public understanding of data, and how it may affect and reflect our lives.

When the Open Data Institute (ODI) launched in 2012, the team recognised that data could be seen as dry and difficult to engage with. Data as Culture was born with the aim to help the ODI and its immediate and more expanded audiences consider the broader impacts of data, and to consider the surrounding social and cultural contexts. It asked how we can experience data in a multisensory way, and not just be informed by it. 

Importantly, Data as Culture prompts people to explore how we work with and think about data, how we can use data to investigate the critical issues of our time, and to examine the real impact – both benefits and harms – that data can cause.

Data as Culture is partly funded from the core ODI budget, and is supplemented with funding from the R&D programme, via Innovate UK, and through partnerships such as Data Stories.

Why an art programme?

In 2012, the ODI’s then chief executive Gavin Starks decided that art would be his first commission. He went on to explain why: ‘For me, artists help to shape questions before we’ve worked out that questions are needed.’ 

Gavin acknowledged that this was an unusual launch project for a new data organisation: “Not that this didn’t raise the eyebrows of some of the new team, and indeed the board, and Number 10, at first. But the outcomes exceeded everyone’s expectations. We captured people’s imaginations. We transformed an invisible ‘geeky’ thing (data) into living, kinetic, organic, relevant, challenging and provocative conversations.”

Data as Culture continues to address that challenge. In particular it aims to:

  • encourage people who work with data to form and ask new questions about its role
  • engage new, unexpected and diverse audiences
  • be a platform for potential client collaboration
  • develop and promote the ODI’s brand. 

Beyond that, the programme is intended to create a surprising, conceptually and visually rich environment that inspires critical thinking. Not only should it challenge the established order of the ODI and its ideas, but also external perceptions of both data and art. In short, the goal of Data as Culture is to expand and challenge the public understanding of data and the role it plays in our lives. 

As stated by programme founder, inaugural Data as Culture director and ongoing Art Associate Julie Freeman: “The art programme is about more than art or data, it’s about how we engage with the issues around data, how they affect our lives, and what it means to live in a society that is defined in many ways by this pervasive material.”  

Programme implementation

Hannah Redler Hawes is the Director of Data as Culture Art Programme and Associate Curator. She commissions and curates artworks, events and exhibitions from a range of leading and emerging artists, all of which use data as an art material – whether as the subject of the artwork, or the method of creation. 

This might be a vending machine that releases free crisps when search terms relating to the recession hit the headlines, a poem exploring the future of data, a hot-pink ‘puppet-robot-hybrid’, or a bespoke pinball machine that playfully reimagines how city-wide data might be used by any individual to find their emotional comfort zones.

These works are then displayed for a broad range of audiences in various locations: online, at the ODI’s office (‘Ceiling Cat’ is watching you…), at galleries, and at public venues both in the UK and internationally.

Data as Culture launched its first exhibition in 2012. The ODI issued an open call, and within two weeks, over 80 submissions from across 20 countries were received in response. The groundbreaking exhibition featured nine internationally recognised artists, and was acknowledged as one of the first curated data art programmes. 

In 2015, Data as Culture began exploring the use of artists residencies. Selected artists were integrated into life at the ODI for six months – from having desk space, to joining regular staff meetings. The hope was that this time would serve as ‘artistic research’, allowing the artists to get to grips with the subject matter at a granular level. This practice proved successful –  the artists received funding from Arts Council England to produce new works based on their research, and these works were premiered as part of The New Observatory – a project co-curated by the ODI and FACT Liverpool. 

In 2017, Data as Culture saw its first corporate curational collaboration. Hybrid Landscapes, an exhibition curated in partnership with digital technology innovation agency Digital Catapult, displayed the works of 11 artists who use, respond to and subvert digital technologies.

In total, the Data as Culture programme has displayed over 100 works – including 27 commissions – in 11 exhibitions onsite and with partners. It’s latest research and development theme Copy That? centres around raising questions about the data ‘you’, and how far it is a true reflection of you. It has included workshops with artists and ODI experts, talks, lectures, a physical exhibition and a soon-to-be online exhibition. 

External impact

Data as Culture has received overwhelmingly positive feedback, and has had an extensive reach. Over 200 million people have been ‘media reached’ by the programme, and it has been featured in publications that include Wall Street Journal, WIRED UK, The Guardian and more. The programme has seen thousands of visitors attending events onsite and with partners, and many more attending shows that Data as Culture is in. 

The New Observatory is a rich and varied exhibition that calls on its visitors to reflect on, and interact more creatively with, the data that increasingly underpins and permeates our lives

Furtherfield (2017)

a truly multi-sensory experience, allowing the viewer to see, hear, feel and sense themes

The State of the Arts (2017)


Social media 

The programme has also generated interest on social media. 

Influence and return on investment

Beyond an expanded reach, Data as Culture has had a major influence on other organisations and curators.

The ODI was one of the first institutions in the world to create a curated data art programme, and has helped inspire others to do similar projects. Data as Culture has welcomed curators and key players from across the cultural sector to art tours and other peer-to-peer gatherings, including those from the V&A, the Institute of Physics, Wellcome, The Crick Institute, Tate, the British Library, the Science Museum and more. Curating, design and fine-art course leaders have regularly brought students on Data as Culture tours, and the University of Sunderland has even included Data as Culture as part of an annual tour of key London art venues. The programme was even recognised by the Arts and Business awards, in which it was shortlisted for the New Sponsorship award in 2014.

Data as Culture has also produced a keen return on investment. Between 2012 and 2019, around £260,000 was invested into the programme. And, as well as the non-measurable benefits, the programme has unlocked a measurable value of £1m+, through a mixture of funding through partnerships and ‘media reach value’ – an estimate based on size of audience exposed to a campaign through various media. 

Data as Culture at a glance

  • Formed in 2012 as a way to expand public perception of what data is and the role it plays in our lives
  • Displayed 100+ works and series of works, including 27 commissions
  • Featured 75 artists, and 6 artist residencies
  • Featured 25 data types, including geospatial, anonymised and environmental
  • Hosted 11 exhibitions onsite and with partners
  • Social media reach of 200m+ people, with thousands of visitors to onsite events
  • Unlocked a measurable value of £1m+, from investment of £260K between 2012–2019

What went well and lessons learned

Data as Culture more than achieved the goals it set out. Not only did it widen the ODI’s reach and cultivate collaboration, but it has encouraged a wide range of audiences to interrogate what they think they know about both data and art. For example, DoxBox trustbot – a ‘puppet-hybrid-robot’ that relies on audience interaction – has used direct interaction to encourage audiences to question how their data is used.

But beyond achieving its goals, Data as Culture has had other, unexpected benefits. For example, internal feedback has shown that employees of the ODI feel valued by the office environment created by the artworks. The artists involved in the programme have also found added benefit – for example, many of the Artists in Residence found that the time spent with the ODI allowed them to develop and expand their practice.

However, no project is without its challenges. One key lesson learned through the development of the Data as Culture programme is understanding how art can affect the audience outside of a gallery environment. Art can – intentionally or unintentionally – bring out intense or unexpected emotions that may not be conducive to a working environment. For example, in Art Hack Practice (Routledge, 2019), Freeman and Redler Hawes describe one piece that was displayed in the ODI’s office which broadcast commonly used search terms. However, as the internet is uncensored, these terms became misogynistic or otherwise offensive or obscene. Whilst the piece did stir up (important) conversation, the piece was not best situated in a working environment which staff are required to occupy, but rather in a gallery which allows free flow of movement around works.

Beyond the relationship between art and the workplace, conversations have been had with Black artists and artists of colour about Data as Culture’s need to improve diversity. To help address this issue, the team worked with Deborah Williams, Gary Stewart and Derek Richards to develop four key questions for both the programme and the wider community to consider: ‘How can we write multicultural histories of data?’, ‘Who controls the sources of our data?’, ‘What is the cultural impact when data fails?’ and, ‘How can data infrastructures define culture?’. It’s important that the programme doesn’t just tell one type of data story, and so these questions continue to help shape the programme as it evolves. 

Another challenge the Data as Culture programme has faced is that of audiences. The programme exists for two core audiences: external people who are new to data conversations, and those who work more closely with data (like staff, clients and partners). The gaps in data literacy between these two audiences can be difficult to navigate. For example, a piece aimed at a more general and wide-reaching audience may have less of an impact in a specialist setting. It can be difficult to take an active role in cutting edge data conversations (and therefore change behaviours and opinions at an industry level) whilst also addressing a more general audience. As such, it was agreed that the primary target audience for R&D commissions in 2020 would be people who already work with data. These works may not be appropriate for a general audience festival, but should instead provoke conversations in the important corporate spheres a lot of significant decisions and innovation take place in.

As can be expected, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent government measures also presented Data as Culture with unique challenges. Works from Copy That?, Data as Culture’s 2019–2020 research and development theme, were due to be displayed in events, installations and performances throughout the year – all of which were subsequently cancelled or moved online. As such, the Data as Culture team have had to work to translate these works into online experiences. For example, at a recent online event hosted by the ODI, the DoxBox trustbot directly interacted with participants using the virtual conference platform. The team also formed a relationship with researchers at King’s College London to include DoxBox in a pilot research project into the role arts might play in broadening public perception of cybersecurity. Had ‘performances’ not been cancelled, this opportunity may have never arisen. 

Similarly, there are plans to adapt Mr Gee’s transforming poem ‘Bring Me My Firetruck’ into an interactive online version, and to create a downloadable app for Neale, Chagger-Khan and Murray’s Mood Pinball. These pieces may not be exactly the same through a screen, and how works are adapted for online may require a learning curve. However, this challenge has illustrated that art doesn’t always need to be directly experienced in-person to be effective. In fact, online works can reach people that might not have ever been reached had the works been confined to a physical location, and may also give smaller galleries and festivals the chance to include the projects in their programmes.