The Constant Murmur of Data

Pau Waelder


Our daily environment is surrounded by a paradoxically silent and invisible flow: the coming and going of data through our network cables, routers and wireless devices. This data is not just 1s and 0s, but bits of the conversations, images, sounds, thoughts and other forms of information that result from our interaction with the world around us. If we can speak of a global ambience, it is certainly derived from this constant flow of data. It is an endless murmur that speaks to our machines and gives us a sense of awareness of a certain form of surrounding that is independent from our actual, physical location.

The constant “presence” of data around us is something that we have become largely aware of. Already in 1994, Phil Agre stated in an article in WIRED Magazine: “We're so accustomed to data that hardly anyone questions it” (1). Agre indicated that this data is in fact a representation of the world, the discrete bits of information that form the reality we are immersed in. He also proposed that it should be “brought to life” by exploring its relationships with other data and the world itself. A decade later, these relationships had become the core of the new paradigm of the World Wide Web and our interaction with cyberspace. As Mitchell Whitelaw puts it: “The web is increasingly a set of interfaces to datasets ... . On the contemporary web the data pour has become the rule, rather than the exception. The so-called ‘web 2.0’ paradigm further abstracts web content into feeds, real-time flows of XML data” ("Art against Information").

These feeds and flows have been used by artists and researchers in the creation of different forms of dynamic visualisations, in which data is mapped according to a set of parameters in order to summarise it in a single image or structure. Lev Manovich distinguishes in these visualisations those made by artists, to which he refers as “data art”. Unlike other forms of mapping, according to Manovich data art has a precise goal: “The more interesting and at the end maybe more important challenge is how to represent the personal subjective experience of a person living in a data society” (15). Therefore, data artists extract from the bits of information available in cyberspace a dynamic representation of our contemporary environment, the ambience of our digital culture, our shared, intimate and at the same time anonymous, subjectivity.

In this article I intend to present some of the ways in which artists have dealt with the murmur of data creatively, exploring the immense amounts of user generated content in forms that interrogate our relationship with the virtual environment and the global community. I will discuss several artistic projects that have shaped the data flow on the Internet in order to take the user back to a state of contemplation, as a listener, an observer, and finally encountering the virtual in a physical form.


The concept of ambience particularly evokes an auditory experience related to a given location: in filmmaking, it refers to the sounds of the surrounding space and is the opposite of silence; as a musical genre, ambient music contributes to create a certain atmosphere. In relation to flows of data, it can be said that the applications that analyze Internet traffic and information are “listening” to it, as if someone stands in a public place, overhearing other people's conversations. The act of listening also implies a reception, not an emission, which is a substantial distinction given the fact that data art projects work with given data instead of generating it. As Mitchell Whitelaw states: “Data here is first of all indexical of reality. Yet it is also found, or to put it another way, given. ... Data's creation — in the sense of making a measurement, framing and abstracting something from the flux of the real — is left out” (3).

One of the most interesting artistic projects to initially address this sort of “listening” is Carnivore (2001) by the Radical Software Group. Inspired by DCS1000, an e-mail surveillance software developed by the FBI, Carnivore (which was actually the original name of the FBI's program) listens to Internet traffic and serves this data to interfaces (clients) designed by artists, which interpret the provided information in several ways. The data packets can be transformed into an animated graphic, as in amalgamatmosphere (2001) by Joshua Davis, or drive a fleet of radio controlled cars, as in Police State (2003) by Jonah Brucker-Cohen. Yet most of these clients treat data as a more or less abstract value (expressed in numbers) that serves to trigger the reactions in each client. Carnivore clients provide an initial sense of the concept of ambience as reflected in the data circulating the Internet, yet other projects will address this subject more eloquently.

Fig. 1: Ben Rubin, Mark Hansen, Listening Post (2001-03). Multimedia installation. Photo: David Allison.

Listening Post (2001-04) by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin is an installation consisting of 231 small electronic screens distributed in a semicircular grid [fig.1: Listening Post]. The screens display texts culled from thousands of Internet chat rooms, which are read by a voice synthesiser and arranged synchronically across the grid. The installation thus becomes a sort of large panel, somewhere between a videowall and an altarpiece, which invites the viewer to engage in a meditative contemplation, seduced by the visual arrangement of the flickering texts scrolling on each screen, appearing and disappearing, whilst sedated by the soft, monotonous voice of the machine and an atmospheric musical soundtrack. The viewer is immersed in a particular ambience generated by the fragmented narratives of the anonymous conversations extracted from the Internet. The setting of the piece, isolated in a dark room, invites contemplation and silence, as the viewer concentrates on seeing and listening.

The artists clearly state that their goal in creating this installation was to recreate a sense of ambience that is usually absent in electronic communications: “A participant in a chat room has limited sensory access to the collective 'buzz' of that room or of others nearby – the murmur of human contact that we hear naturally in a park, a plaza or a coffee shop is absent from the online experience. The goal of Listening Post is to collect this buzz and render it at a human scale” (Hansen 114-15). The "buzz", as Hansen and Rubin describe it, is in fact nonexistent in the sense that it does not take place in any physical environment, but is rather the imagined output of the circulation of a myriad blocks of data through the Net. This flow of data is translated into audible and visible signals, thus creating a "murmur" that the viewer can relate to her experience in interacting with other humans. The ambience of a room full of people engaged in conversation is artificially recreated and expanded beyond the boundaries of a real space. By extracting chats from the Internet, the murmur becomes global, reflecting the topics that are being shared by users around the world, in an improvised, ever-changing embodiment of the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time, or even a certain stream of consciousness on a planetary scale.

Fig. 2: Gregory Chatonsky, L'Attente - The Waiting (2007). Net artwork. Photo: Gregory Chatonsky.

The idea of contemplation and receptiveness is also present in another artwork that elaborates on the concept of the Zeitgeist. L'Attente [The Waiting] (2007) by Gregory Chatonsky is a net art piece that feeds from the data on the Internet to create an open, never-ending fiction in real time [Fig.2: The Waiting]. In this case, the viewer experiences the artwork on her personal computer, as a sort of film in which words, images and sounds are displayed in a continuous sequence, driven by a slow paced soundtrack that confers a sense of unity to the fragmented nature of the work. The data is extracted in real time from several popular sites (photos from Flickr, posts from Twitter, sound effects from Odeo), the connection between image and text being generated by the network itself: the program extracts text from the posts that users write in Twitter, then selects some words to perform a search on the Flickr database and retrieve photos with matching keywords.

The viewer is induced to make sense of this concatenation of visual and audible content and thus creates a story by mentally linking all the elements into what Chatonsky defines as "a fiction without narration" (Chatonsky, Flußgeist). The murmur here becomes a story, but without the guiding voice of a narrator. As with Listening Post, the viewer is placed in the role of a witness or a voyeur, subject to an endless flow of information which is not made of the usual contents distributed by mainstream media, but the personal and intimate statements of her peers, along with the images they have collected and the portraits that identify them in the social networks.

In contrast to the overdetermination of History suggested by the term Zeitgeist, Chatonsky proposes a different concept, the spirit of the flow or Flußgeist, which derives not from a single idea expressed by multiple voices but from a "voice" that is generated by listening to all the different voices on the Net (Chatonsky, Zeitgeist). Again, the ambience is conceived as the combination of a myriad of fragments, which requires attentive contemplation. The artist describes this form of interacting with the contents of the piece by making a reference to the character of the angel Damiel in Wim Wenders’s film Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin, 1987): “to listen as an angel distant and proximate the inner voice of people, to place the hand on their insensible shoulder, to hold without being able to hold back” (Chatonsky, Flußgeist).

The act of listening as described in Wenders's character illustrates several key aspects of the above mentioned artworks: there is, on the one hand, a receptiveness, carried out by the applications that extract data from the Internet, which cannot be “hold back” by the user, unable to control the flow that is evolving in front of her. On the other hand, the information she receives is always fragmentary, made up of disconnected parts which are, in the words of the artist Lisa Jevbratt, “rubbings ... indexical traces of reality” (1).


The observation of our environment takes us to consider the concept of landscape. Landscape, in its turn, acquires a double nature when we compare our relationship with the physical environment and the digital realm. In this sense, Mitchell Whitelaw stresses that while data moves at superhuman speed, the real world seems slow and persistent (Landscape). The overlapping of dynamic, fast-paced, virtual information on a physical reality that seems static in comparison is one of the distinctive traits of the following projects, in which the ambience is influenced by realtime data in a visual form that is particularly subtle, or even invisible to the naked eye.

Fig. 3: Carlo Zanni, The Fifth Day (2009). Net artwork. Screenshot retrieved on 4/4/2009. Photo: Carlo Zanni.

The Fifth Day (2009) by Carlo Zanni is a net art piece in which the artist has created a narration by displaying a sequence of ten pictures showing a taxi ride in the city of Alexandria [Fig.3: The Fifth Day]. Although still, the images are dynamic in the sense that they are transformed according to data retrieved from the Internet describing the political and cultural status of Egypt, along with data extracted from the user's own identity on the Net, such as her IP or city of residence. Every time a user accesses the website where the artwork is hosted, this data is collected and its values are applied to the photos by cloning or modifying particular elements in them. For instance, a photograph of a street will show as many passersby as the proportion of seats held by women in national parliament, while the reflection in the taxi driver's mirror in another photo will be replaced by a picture taken from Al-Jazeera's website. Zanni addresses the viewer's perception of the Middle East by inserting small bits of additional information and also elements from the viewer's location and culture into the images of the Egyptian city. The sequence is rendered as the trailer of a political thriller, enhanced by a dramatic soundtrack and concluded with the artwork's credits.

As with the abovementioned projects, the viewer must adopt a passive role, contemplating the images before her and eventually observing the minute modifications inserted by the data retrieved in real time. Yet, in this case, the ambience is not made manifest by a constant buzz to which one must listen, but quite more subtly it is suggested by the fact that not even a still image is always the same. As if observing a landscape, the overall impression is that nothing has changed while there are minor transformations that denote a constant evolution. Zanni has explored this idea in previous works such as eBayLandscape (2004), in which he creates a landscape image by combining data extracted from several websites, or My Temporary Visiting Position from the Sunset Terrace Bar (2007), in which a view of the city of Ahlen (Germany) is combined with a real time webcam image of the sky in Naples (Italy).

Although they may seem self-enclosed, these online, data-driven compositions also reflect the global ambience, the Zeitgeist, in different forms. As Carlo Giordano puts it: "Aesthetically, the work aims to a nearly seamless integration of mixed fragments. The contents of these parts, reflecting political and economical issues ... thematize actuality and centrality, amplifying the author's interest in what everybody is talking about, what happens hic et nunc, what is in the fore of the media and social discourse" (16-17). A landscape made of data, such as Zanni's eBayLandscape, is the most eloquent image of how an invisible layer of information is superimposed over our physical environment.

Fig. 4: Clara Boj and Diego Díaz, Red Libre, Red Visible (2004-06). Intervention in the urban space. Photo: Lalalab.

Artists Clara Boj and Diego Díaz, moreover, have developed a visualisation of the actual flows of data that permeate the spaces we inhabit. In Red Libre, Red Visible [Free Network, Visible Network] (2004-06), Boj and Díaz used Augmented Reality (AR) technology to display the flows of data in a local wireless network by creating AR marker tags that were placed on the street. A Carnivore client developed by the artists enabled anyone with a webcam pointing towards the marker tag and connected to the Wi-Fi network to see in real time the data packets flowing from their computer towards the tag [Fig.4: Red Libre]. The marker tags therefore served both as a tool for the visualisation of network activity as well as a visual sign of the existence of an open network in a particular urban area. Later on, they added the possibility of inserting custom made messages, 3D shapes and images that would appear when a particular AR marker tag was seen through the lens of the webcam. With this project, Boj and Díaz give the user the ability to observe and interact with a layer of her environment that was previously invisible and in some senses, out of reach. The artists developed this idea further in Observatorio [Observatory] (2008), a sightseeing telescope that reveals the existence of Wi-Fi networks in an urban area. In both projects, an important yet unnoticed aspect of our surroundings is brought into focus. As with Carlo Zanni's projects, we are invited to observe what usually escapes our perception.

The ambience in our urban environment has also been explored by Julian Oliver, Clara Boj, Diego Díaz and Damian Stewart in The Artvertiser (2009-10), a hand-held augmented reality (AR) device that allows to substitute advertising billboards with custom made images. As Naomi Klein states in her book No Logo, the public spaces in most cities have been dominated by corporate advertising, allowing little or no space for freedom of expression (Klein 399). Oliver's project faces this situation by enabling a form of virtual culture jamming which converts any billboard-crowded plaza into an unparalleled exhibition space. Using AR technology, the artists have developed a system that enables anyone with a camera phone, smartphone or the customised "artvertiser binoculars" to record and substitute any billboard advertisement with a modified image. The user can therefore interact with her environment, first by observing and being aware of the presence of these commercial spaces and later on by inserting her own creations or those of other artists. By establishing a connection to the Internet, the modified billboard can be posted on sites like Flickr or YouTube, generating a constant feedback between the real location and the Net.

Gregory Chatonsky's concept of the Flußgeist, which I mentioned earlier, is also present in these works, visually displaying the data on top of a real environment. Again, the user is placed in a passive situation, as a receptor of the information that is displayed in front of her, but in this case the connection with reality is made more evident. Furthermore, the perception of the environment minimises the awareness of the fragmentary nature of the information generated by the flow of data.


In her introduction to the data visualisation section of her book Digital Art, Christiane Paul stresses the fact that data is “intrinsically virtual” and therefore lacking a particular form of manifestation: “Information itself to a large extent seems to have lost its 'body', becoming an abstract 'quality' that can make a fluid transition between different states of materiality” (Paul 174). Although data has no “body”, we can consider, as Paul suggests, any object containing a particular set of information to be a dataspace in its own. In this sense, a tendency in working with the Internet dataflow is to create a connection between the data and a physical object, either as the end result of a process in which the data has been collected and then transferred to a physical form, or providing a means of physically reshaping the object through the variable input of data. The objectification of data thus establishes a link between the virtual and the real, but in the context of an artwork it also implies a particular meaning, as the following examples will show.

Fig. 5: Gregory Chatonsky, Le Registre - The Register (2007). Book shelf and books. Photo: Pau Waelder.

In Le Registre [The Register] (2007), Gregory Chatonsky developed a software application that gathers sentences related to feelings found on blogs. These sentences are recorded and put together in the form a 500-page book every hour. Every day, the books are gathered in sets of 24 and incorporated to an infinite library. Chatonsky has created a series of bookshelves to collect the books for one day, therefore turning an abstract process into an object and providing a physical embodiment of the murmur of data that I have described earlier [Fig.5: Le Registre]. As with L'Attente, in this work Chatonsky elaborates on the concept of Flußgeist, by “listening” to a specific set of data (in a similar way as in Hansen and Rubin's Listening Post) and bringing it into salience. The end product of this process is not just a meaningless object but actually what makes this work profoundly ironic: printing the books is a futile effort, but also constitutes a borgesque attempt at creating an endless library of something as ephemeral as feelings.

In a similar way, but with different intentions, Jens Wunderling brings the online world to the physical world in Default to Public (2009). A series of objects are located in several public spaces in order to display information extracted from users of the Twitter network. Wunderling's installation projects the tweets on a window or prints them in adhesive labels, while informing the users that their messages have been taken for this purpose. The materialisation of information meant for a virtual environment implies a new approach to the concept of ambiance as described previously, and in this case also questions the intimacy of those participating in social networks. As the artist puts it: "In times of rapid change concerning communication behavior, media access and competence, the project Default to Public aims to raise awareness of the possible effects on our lives and our privacy" (Wunderling 155).

Fig. 6: Moisés Mañas, Stock (2009). Networked installation. Photo: Moisés Mañas.

Finally, in Stock (2009), Moisés Mañas embodies the flow of data from stock markets in an installation consisting of several trench coats hanging from automated coat hangers which oscillate when the stock values of a certain company rise. The resulting movement of the respective trench coat simulates a person laughing. In this work, Mañas translates the abstract flow of data into a clearly understandable gesture, providing at the same time a comment on the dynamics of stock markets [Fig.6: Stock]. Mañas´s project does not therefore simply create a physical output of a specific information (such as the stock value of a company at any given moment), but instead creates a dynamic sculpture which suggests a different perception of an otherwise abstract data. On the one hand, the trenchcoats have a ghostly presence and, as they move with unnatural spams, they remind us of the Freudian concept of the Uncanny (Das Umheimliche) so frequently associated with robots and artificial intelligence. On the other hand, the image of a person laughing, in the context of stock markets and the current economical crisis, becomes an ironic symbol of the morality of some stockbrokers.

In these projects, the ambience is brought into attention by generating a physical output of a particular set of data that is extracted from certain channels and piped into a system that creates an embodiment of this immaterial flow. Yet, as the example of Mañas's project clearly shows, objects have particular meanings that are incorporated into the artwork's concept and remind us that the visualisation of information in data art is always discretionary, shaped in a particular form in order to convey the artist's intentions.

Beyond the Buzz

The artworks presented in this article revealt that, beyond the murmur of sentences culled from chats and blogs, the flow of data on the Internet can be used to express our difficult relationship with the vast amount of information that surrounds us. As Mitchell Whitelaw puts it: “Data art reflects a contemporary worldview informed by data excess; ungraspable quantity, wide distribution, mobility, heterogeneity, flux. Orienting ourselves in this domain is a constant challenge; the network exceeds any overview or synopsis” (Information). This excess is compared by Lev Manovich with the Romantic concept of the Sublime, that which goes beyond the limits of human measure and perception, and suggests an interpretation of data art as the Anti-Sublime (Manovich 11). Yet, in the projects that I have presented, rather than making sense of the constant flow of data there is a sort of dialogue, a framing of the information under a particular interpretation. Data is channeled through the artworks's interfaces but remains as a raw material, unprocessed to some extent, retrieved from its original context. These works explore the possibility of presenting us with constantly renewed content that will develop and, if the artwork is preserved, reflect the thoughts and visions of the next generations. A work constantly evolving in the present continuous, yet also depending on the uncertain future of social network companies and the ever-changing nature of the Internet. The flow of data will nevertheless remain unstoppable, our ambience defined by the countless interactions that take place every day between our divided self and the growing number of machines that share information with us.


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net art; network; mashup; augmented reality; web 2.0

Copyright (c) 2010 Pau Waelder

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