By Mark Faverman
This BarabásiLab exhibition is inspiring because it illustrates such a powerful integration of art and technology.
Data Draws Data by BarabásiLab, presented by Boston CyberArts at 141 Green St, Boston, through May 22.
The 80s and 90s were decades of digital technical experimentation. Essentially, tech geeks wrestled with and then applied various software approaches to what they saw as examples of graphic communication and “artworks.” Previously, the intertwining of works of art and technology had been created by trained artists or at least reflected a focus on aesthetics. But about four decades ago, that arrangement changed seismically. In many areas of visual expression – including graphic design, printing (magazines, newspapers, etc.) – technology has taken precedence over visual quality. And, because the digital formatting for print was so poor – to the point of being unreadable – the visuals for this work were often ragged and unprofessional. This situation has also strongly permeated academic and professional charts and tables. The media tried to be the message but often failed miserably
Things got so messed up that graphic designers were often replaced by hip techies who had no interest in aesthetics. There was an eccentric democratic spirit in this trend: anyone with a computer and Adobe software could call themselves an artist. In terms of artistic achievement, it was a rather murky and visually unsatisfying period. Fortunately, digital technology and those who have used it to create art have moved in an exciting direction. Today, digital art, at its best, is a marriage of technique and aesthetics, much like traditional visual and plastic media.
One of the major challenges of this century is how we are going to deal with a technological explosion that is radically affecting us at almost every level – political, social, financial and even interpersonal. We have become networked, through social media, for the good, the bad and, sadly, the ugly. The BarabásiLab at Northeastern University was created in 2007 to help us understand this reality. Specifically, the organization is dedicated to a deeper understanding of networks of all kinds. Founded by Albert-László Barabási (born in Romania), the BarabásiLab explores how networks emerge, progress and evolve. The intention is to express what networks look like best in a way that facilitates our understanding of complex systems.
Since 1995, when Barabási presented a conference paper that included an exciting set of illustrations of an invasive network, the scholar has focused on making his research on a wide range of networks visual and available through highly defined and compelling images. Areas of interest have included metabolic and genetic networks, including visualization of how proteins, substrates and genes interact in a cell. Social media images quantify interactions between people. Interactions are often thought of as networks: the Internet is a complex network of computers; Ecological systems can best be described as a network of species. The lab examines network science used in medicine, pharmacy, and physics, but it also studies infrastructure, social systems, and developmental processes.
The Lab’s work has challenged the notion of random graph theory. By studying the structure of the World Wide Web, the Internet, cellular and social networks, the lab discovered that networks in nature follow a common pattern that displays scale-free characteristics. This discovery represents an important paradigm shift, encouraging a shift towards dynamic network modeling that has had a strong impact on research on the nature of networks. The laboratory also studies the different tolerances of complex networks.
Composed of more than 30 people, the laboratory includes postdoctoral researchers and students preparing their doctorate. The group includes physicists, computer scientists, neuroscientists, designers/artists and even art historians. In addition to providing theoretical breakthroughs, the lab is also recognized for producing highly creative and accessible visualizations, 2D and 3D representations of complex contemporary research findings. These images are both informative and elegant. The Lab provides masterful examples of what can be accomplished when artistic skill and digital sophistication work together.
The current exhilarating exhibition at the Boston Cyberarts Gallery, curated by George Fifield, is part of an international series of BarabásiLab exhibitions. This work has appeared in other institutions, including the Serpentine Gallery in London, the Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York, the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, and the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany. This exhibition shows how BarabásiLab has developed a visual vocabulary for complex systems, and how this vocabulary often draws on the tropes of visual art. Of course, there are also innovations. More data is being produced every day now than at any time in history, and the lab suggests that visualizations – of characteristic nodes and networks – could be the best way to track metrics and patterns constantly. evolution.
The objective of the exhibition is to provide a comprehensive overview of the types of visualization developed by BarabásiLab. The strength of the show is easy to locate: the sheer beauty of its individual moving images, reflections of a team that involved scientists, artists and designers. Several of the artworks are superb both in terms of appearance and content. A trio of highlights: that of Alice Grishchenko 150 years of nature presents the story of science, evolution and decimation in the form of a colorful cosmic image; The artistic network (Alice Grishchenko, Samuel P. Fraiberger, Roberta Sinatra, Magnus Resch, Christoph Riedl and Albert-László Barabási) draws inspiration from the location of art institutions with precise color and shape to emphasize their interconnectedness; and mouse brain (Brum Jose, Alice Grishchenko, Nima Dehmami, Albert-László Barabási, and Mauro Martino use a blue 3D image to show the title animal’s synapse, neuron clusters (nuclei and colliculi), and neural pathways.
This BarabásiLab exhibition is inspiring because it illustrates a powerful integration of art and technology. Science and art elevate each other in a search for hidden patterns in complex systems that determine our biological and social existence.
Urban planner and public artist, Marc Faverman has been deeply involved in branding, improving and creating more accessible parts of cities, sports venues and key institutions. Also an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. Designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theatre, he is a design consultant for the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and, since 2002, he has been a design consultant for the Red Sox. Writing on urban planning, architecture, design and the fine arts, Mark is associate editor of artistic fuse.