Making art from the Web

Posted by a.hay on 27 January 2014 - 10:32am

By Dr Martyn Dade-Robertson, Director of Masters in Design and Emergence, School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape, University of Newcastle.

This article is part of our series, a day in the software life, in which we ask researchers from all disciplines to discuss the tools that make their research possible.

If Google were an artist, what would it paint? Perhaps it would be a vast landscape of connections, a world of “lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding” as William Gibson put it.

Yet this can only be seen in fleeting glimpses through our screens. Data portraits, which map the Web’s many twists and turns and converts them into both art and visualisation, is one way we can at last see this hidden world. This was at first a failed experiment. During my PhD, I realised that the way we relate to physical spaces was being used online. This meant that terms and ideas used to describe buildings and their design were being applied to the Web. Even the notion of the architect was now used to describe the relationship between people, designers and data.

I wanted to see this data, and how it linked up, in its entirety. To do this I wrote a piece of software which uses a web crawler to gather the hyperlinks between URLs. The results are mapped using a force-directed graph. This shows the data as a network of nodes and edges. The software then uses a physics simulation where related nodes are drawn together while unrelated ones are spread apart.

As those who have used force-directed graphs will know, the output can fast become unreadable. This meant I could not use the images in any meaningful way. As a result, my 2011 book The Architecture of Information only used a small part of the analysis. They did however give me a new idea. The images were in fact beautiful and so I began to wonder if they might work as art. Aside from their intended uses, they meet a need we have to envisage our new online culture. Even the links that make up small websites can show vast complexity and let us have a view of the Web beyond that we have through a browser.

Next, I added a visual editing tool and a process of post-production which would show the images in their best light. I then printed a series of examples. The first of these was a triptych made up from Google, Apple and Microsoft data. After this, I made a map of tourist sites in the North East of England which was based on the visualisation of their websites. I showed my work in a local art gallery who, to my surprise, featured it in their spring show.

Since then, I have had commissions from a wide range of clients. One recent example was the estate agents Savills, who now have a two metre wide data portrait on their boardroom wall.

Needless to say, these sales mean I make a good profit. With my work now part of the University of Newcastle’s suite of services, I am also sure of future clients. This means I can use the money for more data visualisation research and, of course, keep on making visually striking art.

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