By Markus Favermann
This BarabásiLab exhibition is inspiring because it illustrates such a strong integration of art and technology.
Data Draws Data by BarabásiLab presented by Boston CyberArts at 141 Green St, Boston through May 22nd.
The 80s and 90s were decades of digital technical experimentation. Essentially, techies wrestled with different software approaches and then applied them to what they saw as examples of graphic communication and “works of art”. Previously, the interweaving 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 seismically shifted. In many areas of visual expression – including graphic design, print (magazines, newspapers, etc.) – technology dominated visual quality. And because the digital formatting for print was so poor – to the point of being illegible – the visual presentation of this work was often tattered and unprofessional. This situation has also greatly permeated academic and professional graphs and charts. The media tried to get the message across, but often failed miserably
Things got so upended that graphic designers were often replaced by trendy technicians who didn’t care about aesthetics. This trend had an eccentric democratic spirit: anyone with a computer and Adobe software could call themselves an artist. Artistically, it was a rather dull, optically unsatisfactory time. Thankfully, both digital technology and those who used it to create art have moved in exciting directions. Today, digital art is, at best, a marriage of technology and aesthetics, much like traditional visual and sculptural media.
One of the greatest challenges of this century is how to deal with a technological explosion that is radically affecting us on almost every level – political, social, financial and even interpersonal. We’ve connected via social media for the good, the bad, and unfortunately, the ugly. Northeastern University’s BarabásiLab was founded in 2007 to help us understand this reality. In particular, the organization is dedicated to a deeper understanding of networks of all kinds. Founded by Albert-László Barabási (born in Romania), the BarabásiLab investigates how networks emerge, progress and evolve. The intent is to express how networks best look to help our understanding of complex systems.
Ever since Barabási presented a conference paper in 1995 that included a compelling series of illustrations of an invasive network, the scientist has made a point of making his research available across a wide range of networks visually and through highly defined, compelling images. Areas of interest included metabolic and genetic networks, including visualizing how proteins, substrates and genes interact in a cell. Images from social networks quantify the interactions between people. Interactions are often viewed as networks: the Internet is a complex network of computers; Ecosystems are best described as a network of species. The lab deals with network science in medicine, pharmacy and physics, but also researches infrastructures, social systems and development processes.
The lab’s work has challenged the notion of random graph theory. By examining the structure of the World Wide Web, the Internet, cellular and social networks, the lab has discovered that networks in nature follow a common blueprint that exhibits scale-free properties. This discovery represents a significant paradigm shift and fosters a move toward dynamic network modeling that has had a major impact on the study of the nature of networks. The lab also addresses the different tolerances of complex networks.
The lab consists of over 30 people and includes postdocs and students working towards their PhD. The group includes physicists, computer scientists, neuroscientists, designers/artists and even art historians. In addition to theoretical breakthroughs, the lab has also made a name for itself for creating highly creative and accessible visualizations, 2D and 3D representations of complex contemporary research results. These images are both informative and elegantly beautiful. The Lab provides masterful examples of what can be achieved when artistic skill and digital sophistication work together.
The current exciting exhibition at Boston Cyberarts Gallery, curated by George Fifield, is part of an international series of BarabásiLab exhibitions. This work has been shown at 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 demonstrates how powerfully the 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. Today, more data is being produced per day than at any time in history, and the lab suggests that visualizations – of characteristic nodes and networks – may be the best way to keep up with ever-changing parameters and patterns.
The aim of the exhibition is to give a comprehensive overview of the types of visualization developed by the BarabásiLab. The show’s strength is easy to locate: the sheer beauty of its individual animated images, reflections of a team that includes scientists, artists and designers alike. Some of the artworks are stunning both visually and in content. A trio of highlights: Alice Grishchenkos 150 years of nature presents the history of science, evolution and decimation as a colorful cosmic image; The Art Network (Alice Grishchenko, Samuel P. Fraiberger, Roberta Sinatra, Magnus Resch, Christoph Riedl and Albert-László Barabási) refers to the location of art institutions with precise color and form to indicate their interconnectivity; and mouse brain (Brum Jose, Alice Grishchenko, Nima Dehmami, Albert-László Barabási, and Mauro Martino use a blue 3-D image to show the synapse, neuronal clusters (nuclei and colliculi), and neural pathways of the titular animal.
This BarabásiLab exhibition is inspiring because it exemplifies a strong integration of art and technology. Science and art elevate each other in the search for hidden patterns in complex systems that govern our biological and social existence.
urban designer and public artist, Markus Favermann has been heavily involved in branding, improvement and accessibility of parts of cities, sports venues and important institutions. As an award-winning public artist, he creates functional public art as civic design. As the designer of the renovated Coolidge Corner Theater, he is a design advisor to the Massachusetts Downtown Initiative Program and has been a design advisor to the Red Sox since 2002. Mark writes about urbanism, architecture, design, and the visual arts, and is Associate Editor of art fuse.