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ASU performance showcases human side of ‘big data’

ASU faculty members visualize bigdata through theater.
September 30, 2015

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.

Ask people to picture what data looks like and they might envision something like the opening title sequence of “The Matrix,” where boxy green code rains down a static black background. Ask them to imagine what it sounds like and they might recall the scene in the movie where Neo is traced and his scream devolves into a chaotic jumble of metallic sounds.

Thankfully, a few Arizona State University faculty have come up with a decidedly less terrifying way to experience data somatically.

This Friday, Jacqueline Wernimont, Jessica Rajko and Eileen Standley will present “Vibrant Lives and Data Archives,” an atypical performance installation that aims to inform people about the concept of personal “data shed” by providing an experience in which their data can be seen, felt and heard.

Data shed refers to the nearly 3.5 million bytes of data produced per person, per day. That data is unique to each person because it comes from things like smartphone apps or wearable fitness devices that record a person’s behavior and actions.

But it doesn’t stop at "Bejeweled Blitz" and Fitbits. Everything from the Facebook ads you click on to pacifiers that tell a baby’s temperature produce data.

“There’s all this data that’s flying off of us all the time, but you can’t see it,” said Wernimont, assistant professor in the Department of English whose research focuses on alternative ways of understanding data.

And all of that data, that personal information, is being captured.

Captured by whom and for what purpose, you might ask?

Mostly by mobile-app developers, who often sell it to third-party users, who in turn use the data to develop a profile of an individual in order to create customized consumer experiences.

Wernimont calls them “the guys in the closet.”

“[They] are watching everything that you’re doing and gathering data about that,” she said.

Though that might sound creepy, don’t break out the torches and pitchforks just yet.

Even though there are instances like the one where a father whose daughter had been killed in an auto accident received junk mail from a company that forgot to delete the data they had used to target him — resulting in the phrase “daughter killed in car crash” printed below his address — there are also ways that sharing personal information can benefit us.

“There are lots of instances where (sharing information is) useful. Devices like Fitbits. Those kinds of things are advertised as self-empowering technologies, and for lots and lots of people they really are,” Wernimont said. “So it’s not that they’re good or bad. It’s that they are. And understanding how they work allows us to understand how they shape the world that we see.”

Translating data

One of the things Wernimont, Rajko and Standley hope to accomplish with “Vibrant Lives” is to give people a sense of the sheer amount of personal data they shed every day in a way that more effectively resonates with them.

“A lot of times data is represented in static form through visual presentations of graphs or charts, which is interesting, but doesn’t necessarily give an embodied experience of what that really means,” said Rajko, assistant professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Watch a video below of the performance in action Friday night.

Rajko met Wernimont after the latter had given a Nexus Lab presentation on her research. Intrigued, Rajko approached Wernimont and they got to talking. Later on, Standley — a clinical professor in the School of Film, Dance and Theatre — joined the mix.

The trio applied for and were awarded funding from a Herberger Institute seed grant as well as an Institute for Humanities Research seed grant to pursue the project that eventually became “Vibrant Lives,” and immediately got to work brainstorming how to illustrate their ideas.

With input from Jamie Winterton, director of strategy with ASU’s Global Security Initiative, they developed a mobile phone application to be used in conjunction with the performance installation.

Upon entering the performance space, attendees can download the app and, as they move through the space, their phones will vibrate or make sounds in direct relation to the amount of data they are producing, or “shedding.”

“How that works is we’re setting up an external server, or an external device, that’s basically capturing all the data in the space. It can identify whose data is being captured and then send that data amount back to the phone.

“So it’s almost sort of like this third-party system, which is sort of a redundant metaphor, I think, for some of the things we’ve been talking about,” Rajko said with a laugh.

Attendees will also have the opportunity to hook their phone up to a device called a woojer, which translates data into vibrations that can be felt.

Humanizing data

“Vibrant Lives” will also feature a group of 20-plus performers made up of ASU students and alumni who will, in a sense, be acting out data.

To describe what that might look like, Wernimont references Wendy Chun, a media theorist at Brown University who says that “devices are promiscuous,” because, Wernimont said, “essentially what they’re doing is saying, ‘Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!’ to the Internet. And the Internet is like, ‘Are you there? Are you there? Are you there? Are you there?’ ”

So attendees can expect a certain amount of interaction with the "Vibrant Lives" performers. They will be clad in costumes coated in colored cornstarch, which will shed particles as they move, reiterating the idea of data shed.

“There’ll be dancers talking to you, or offering you a kinesthetic experience, depending on the level of engagement that the audience wants to (engage in),” Standley said.

person looking at app on phone

She added that “the process becomes a teaching setting in many ways. As well as providing a bridge to the Arizona community and local professional arts setting, students learn from working with us and are also informed in deep ways about the concepts we are researching together.”

The fact that humans play a role in demonstrating what data might look is no accident.

“By having bodies in the room that are interacting with people, we’re making an active argument that this is about people,” Wernimont said. “What you’re feeling vibrate is a person.”

Rajko expounded on that, “Everybody has a body, and human-based data is not possible without humans. So ultimately, if we’re looking at a graph or a chart with data points … that’s not possible without people.

“And so how do we take the distraction of something that separates those two out and bring it back to this?” she asked, reaching out to Wernimont sitting next to her and placing her hands on Wernimont’s arm. “Because ultimately, this is what it’s about.”

Developing 'Data'

“Vibrant Lives and Data Archives” will premier at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 2, in ASU’s Galvin Playhouse. The installation is a “pre-show” that will begin 30 minutes before each performance of Fall Forward!, the kick-off event of Herberger’s dance season, featuring new works created by ASU faculty and guests.

Though this particular iteration of the performance installation focuses on animating a person’s individual data, plans are in the works for future performances that will look at aggregate data — data taken from a group of people.

“This is like a tiny little segment of the bigger project,” Wernimont said.

“Vibrant Lives” will travel this summer to the Digital Humanities Summer Institute in Victoria, British Columbia, and later will showcase at Spark! Mesa’s Festival of Creativity in March 2016, where it will feature an added sculptural element composed of what are basically giant woojers, called ButtKickers.

Each performance will build on and make changes to the previous one.

“It’s really important that this is a demonstration of the ways in which art performance is research. Creative and performative is the same as research. This is our lab,” said Wernimont.

Artist collective Postcommodity presents ambitious installation on U.S.-Mexico Border this October

October 1, 2015

This October, three artists — members of an indigenous artist collective called Postcommodity — will install the largest-ever bi-national land art piece on the U.S.-Mexico border.

It’s the “continuation of an exploration of contested spaces,” says the group. “Repellent Fence” is the product of over three years of work by Postcommodity members Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez and Kade L. Twist, who have been in residence at the ASU Art Museum’s International Artist Residency Program several times as they worked to realize their vision for the installation. Image courtesy of Postcommodity. Photo courtesy of Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts Download Full Image

“The residency program has been amazing — it’s comfortable, well-appointed, right in the middle of Phoenix, and surrounded by a generative and talented art community. It’s an ideal home base to realize a project,” says Twist. “All of the resources that the museum and its staff leverage on behalf of the artists have brought so much to the table. I can’t even begin to explain how important this residency has been in terms of realizing the ‘Repellent Fence.’”

The “fence” itself, which will be installed through community action from Oct. 9–12, 2015 near Douglas, Ariz. and Agua Prieta, Mexico, is comprised of over two dozen massive balloons — each 10 feet in diameter — that will float 50 feet above the desert landscape. Together, they will create a temporary two-mile-long sculpture that intersects the U.S./Mexico border.

The balloons are scaled-up replicas of “scare eye” balloons, a consumer product designed to repel birds. Postcommodity notes that the “scare eye,” which looks similar to a yellow and red bull’s-eye target, actually “utilizes iconography and traditional medicinal colors used for thousands of years by indigenous peoples from South America to Canada.” Through appropriating that iconography in their project, the collective hopes to open a dialogue about indigenous cultural relationships to land, and to “demonstrate the interconnectedness of the Western Hemisphere by recognizing indigenous peoples and long-view histories that encapsulate migration, trade, relationships, communication and cultural exchange.”

Twist and Martinez are both ASU alums — Twist received a Master of Fine Arts from the ASU School of Art, and Martinez received a doctorate in rhetoric, composition and linguistics from the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 2015, after completing a master’s in media arts and science and bachelor’s degrees in studio art and painting, in the Herberger Institute’s School of Arts, Media + Engineering and School of Art, respectively. They’re also not strangers to international art fame. In 2012, they, along with the rest of Postcommodity, exhibited at the 18th Sydney Biennale. The project they presented, “Do You Remember When,” was commissioned by the ASU Art Museum and originally unveiled at the museum’s Ceramics Research Center in 2009.

To make “Repellent Fence” a reality, Postcommodity conducted dozens of meetings with individuals, communities and local organizations to acquire permission to stage the installation and to ensure safe public access for audiences viewing the project, which will be installed on public and private land in Mexico and Arizona. They chose to work outside the framework of arts institutions and galleries to emphasize the power of international collaboration and the desire of border cities to “redefine dialogue.”

The monumental installation is just one part of a larger public engagement campaign that will include public programming, performances and the first-ever cross-border art walk in Douglas and Agua Prieta. Over the course of the weekend, the Arizona Commission on the Arts will present a series of artist workshops and artist-led community conversations featuring several artists local to Douglas, including ASU School of Art alumna M. Jenea Sanchez, as part of their new AZ ArtWorker Initiative. Visual and performance artist Ana Teresa Fernández will also visit Douglas as part of her residency with ASU’s Performance in the Borderlands, an initiative of the ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre.

With just a few weeks remaining before “Repellent Fence” is installed at the border, the group is excited. “The installation itself is significant, because it is a large-scale manifestation of intense bi-national dialogue, collaboration and diplomacy,” says Martinez. “This represents the self-determination of Douglas and Agua Prieta to collaborate with one another and unify their communities despite the border wall.”

“This act of re-inhabiting historically shared terrain and marking it with contemporary versions of ancient icons reveals the U.S./Mexico border to be what it is: the arbitrary and artificial overlay of power derived through coercion,” says Gordon Knox, ASU Art Museum director. “I am delighted that the museum’s residency program can serve as a springboard for artists of Postcommodity’s caliber and enable cross-disciplinary projects like ‘Repellent Fence.’”

“Repellent Fence” is presented in collaboration with the ASU Art Museum and is supported by Creative Capital, Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, Joan Mitchell Foundation and Art Matters.

The public is invited to attend “Repellent Fence” and the surrounding programming, Oct. 9–12, 2015 in Douglas and Agua Prieta. A full schedule of events and more details on the project are available at

Media Contact:
Juno Schaser
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