City councils are getting smart to the idea that our relationship to the world is partly determined by how we construct the world in our imaginations. Progressive cities of the 21st century are alive to the cultural advantages that can spring from creative channeling of public funds into community engagement.
The challenge that the City Data Slam in Sydney presented to artists was to make flat and uninspiring data – drawn from a variety of council databases – meaningful. The council was looking for new ways to enthuse, amuse and inspire the public to keep them on a long journey. Eight projects were established at the data slam by different artist teams and facilitators.
While these projects demonstrate the capacity for collectivised artistic practice, they also clarify a number of issues that governments and councils could keep in mind when considering the question of system feedback. Ordinary infrastructure can become green infrastructure if it is designed for environmental intelligence reporting. Moreover, better community engagement can arise from consideration of the following ‘data slam’ findings: (i) vital data is often hidden, illegible, or insensible; data is often lost in labyrinthine websites; data needs to be released and expressed in the public domain; (ii) to make data more tangible and environmentally literate, the question of ‘place’ and ‘community’ can be understood as triggers to incentivise sustainable behaviour.
How we identify scales of positive cooperation by creatively interpreting data sources is key to understanding how we identify with communities, how we share space and share destiny. This is the touchstone for moving from data to intelligence, to move from numbers to narratives. It is also central to the move from local to global scales of perception as a means to engage communities and create contexts for environmental behaviour change, placemaking, and connections with governments and politics. The Carbon Arts ‘data slam’ offered guided narratives with freedom to explore the consolidated and freshly aggregated data sets. Such ethical treatment of publically owned and yet inaccessible information could be read as one aspect of ‘open data’.
Two philosophical points became apparent during conversations held at the slam: (i) data is not an end in itself, it is an artefact that performs a mediating role between stakeholders; (ii) data can be represented in two forms: explanatory and exploratory. The first creates a narrative to behaviours behind the resultant findings as understood within the parameters of the project. The second encourages the extensive use of data, for it to be passed on to other interpreters and to remain alive and of use with distinct modes of inquiry.
At the Vivid Festival of Light, Music and Ideas, Jonathon Harris suggested that ‘beautiful’ data is not measurement but illumination. To illuminate is to be sensitive to context, to history; Harris: ‘data is the memory of our evolving human super-organism.’ While proactive councils are working to improve their monitoring systems, modes of measurement, and forms of benchmarking, progressive councils are thinking more expansively on ways in which they can incorporate the micro and the macro. They are critically reflecting on the related processes of data collection and aesthetic representation of data. The next step is to identify limited emotional responses to absolute data, and to articulate the empowering capacity of open data sets charged by seasonal patterns.
The Carbon Arts data slam – a dynamic, innovative and engaging interpretation of static data – understood that there are many complexities to the idea that knowledge is created once the extraction of information from data becomes evident to the imagination and the senses.
- Thomas Bristow is a writer and lecturer at the University of New England, NSW. His research brings together literature, philosophy and geography. Tom is published in The Australian Journal of Ecocriticism and Cultural Ecology, Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism, ISLE and Symbiosis, and is a member of the editorial board of PAN (Philosophy, Activism, Nature); he is President of ASLEC-ANZ. He was writer in residence for the Carbon Arts Sensing Sydney project.