Data as Art, as Science, as a Reason for Being (The New York Times)

~ THE NEW YORK TIMES ARTS & DESIGN ~

I.B.M.’s “Think” exhibition features interactive panels about information collection and analysis.

By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN

Anyone walking past Lincoln Center during the last few days, and glancing downward at its new access road, Jaffe Drive, would have seen what seemed to be a slightly eccentric art installation. A long band of animated colored lights would snake across a 123-foot-long wall of LEDs as a digital clock counted backward. Then that band might suddenly twist and wind around itself, erupt into curves, contort into waves, and, just as unexpectedly, subside again into temporary linear calm.

Or else, if you watched long enough, the wall might go blank, and when lighted again, would resemble a kind of elongated container. Bluish lights would pour inside it, mounting and sloshing about like some kind of luminous liquid, until the entire wall’s array would be filled to overflowing. And then the “liquid” would seem to spill from the sides, dripping down in cascades as the container emptied.

Now, with the opening of I.B.M.’s “Think” exhibition to the public, visitors can walk down the drive, consult text panels with explanations of these patterns and others, and obtain free timed tickets to a subterranean space where 40 seven-foot-high media panels stand like miniature pillars, showing a 12-minute film about “making the world work better.” The screens then turn interactive, offering additional information and sensation, before visitors exit along an illuminated wall that offers a chronicle of 100 milestones in I.B.M.’s history, for this show is being mounted in honor of that corporation’s centennial. The exhibition is visually striking, and its information is often compelling. But it also requires some deciphering and examination.

It turns out that the initial “data wall,” as it is called, offers a series of displays culled from “live data streaming,” some from sensors around Lincoln Center. The snaking line of light that streams across the wall, for example, is a representation of the movement of traffic along Broadway and Columbus Avenue as it is tracked by a specially mounted camera. When the flow is thwarted by red lights or traffic, the line leaps out of its straightforward progress and curves and twists into visual knots.

The other display showing seepage and spillage is the result of robotic monitoring, not near Lincoln Center, but along the Delaware Aqueduct that carries water into New York City from upstate reservoirs; sensors have revealed continual leaks that lose a substantial amount of water every day.

So we are watching representations of complex phenomena: the flow of traffic and of water. And there are other displays that follow: a grid of accumulating vectors represents credit card transactions, the fraudulent ones exploding in red; a vast map of Manhattan with varying colors shows how many rooftops are capable of harnessing solar energy.

Inside the exhibition the interactive screens also show a wide range of images and information. You read about the invention of a fluid microchip in 2009 and see a 19th-century London map charting a cholera epidemic. A jar ornamented with dragons is described as a second-century Chinese seismograph. (Stones drop from the dragons’ mouths in response to vibrations.) Brief interviews can be sampled with such disparate subjects as Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the Museum of Modern Art, and William J. Bratton, the former New York City police commissioner.

But what is this show meant to be? Partly, it is corporate public relations. We learn about I.B.M.’s astonishing accomplishments over a century, its researchers creating what is now commonplace: UPC bar codes, magnetic strips holding data on cards, computer hard drives. I.B.M. scientists have received Nobel Prizes, performed molecular prestidigitation and won chess and “Jeopardy!” games with pioneering examples of artificial intelligence.

The exhibition is also meant to demonstrate I.B.M.’s vision of the world while defining its mission to the public, for it is no longer an office machine company or the maker of the world’s best electric typewriter (the Selectric), or the designer of mainframe computers, or even the manufacturer of the once-ubiquitous IBM PC.

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