At MoMA, Artists Are Making Sense of the World’s Most Dangerous and Valuable Resource: Data

In the 19th century, as the age of coal reached its apex, artists began to explore the many dimensions of this new world, unfurling the vast potential and risks contained in this resource. Romantic painters like J.M.W Turner visualized its startling, grim poetry in pieces like Keelmen Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, while Impressionists like Monet closely studied the whirling beauty of steam and smoke that it created. Looking back, these artistic interrogations captured the anxieties and hopes of a rapidly industrializing culture on the precipice of modernity.

Today, we have entered a new epoch: the age of data. Like coal before it, data is the resource—mined, synthesized, and sometimes stolen— that fuels our industries and grounds economic and military might. For all its importance, however, it is a source of tremendous ambiguity. It is invisible, yet real; something that both represents the world, while shaping it in the very act of apprehension. While some see it as the height of human ingenuity, others see it as little more than a mechanism of surveillance and exploitation.

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It is precisely this equivocation that has made data such an enticing subject for contemporary artists making sense of our emergent cybernetic reality. Nowhere is this exploration more evident than at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where a series of exhibitions have showcased how artists are approaching data and understanding the ubiquity, complex dynamics, and tensions that define it.

For nearly a year, Refik Anadol’s Unsupervised, which was extended recently to October 29, has loomed imperiously over the museum’s Gund Lobby. Eminently “crowd-pleasing,” Anadol’s work has achieved a level of viral fame that few artworks ever attain— becoming what is now probably one of the best known pieces of AI art in the world. Trained on publicly available data from the museum’s vast collection and responding to site-specific variables like weather, light, and sound, Unsupervised attempts to actualize the “mind” of a machine intelligence in visual and sonic form. “What would a machine dream about after seeing the collection of The Museum of Modern Art,” the museum asks; Anadol responds with a dramatic field of color and sound that constantly writhes and undulates in the presence of the viewer— flowing from one image to the next in a seemingly never-ending stream of mechanic consciousness.

The piece’s popularity is, in many ways, unsurprising. Unsupervised seems almost tailor-made for our current technological milieu. Last year, programs like DALL-E, ChatGPT, and Midjourney ignited a host of anxieties and hopes around the possibilities of big data. As these machines perform feats that were once thought to be the sole purview of humankind, tech boosters have begun to crow about their near limitless possibilities. According to some technophiles, we are witnessing nothing short of the arrival of God—or the Devil.

Anadol plays precisely into this mix of wonder and fear by articulating a dramatic vision of a machine intelligence that exceeds our comprehension. Its grandiose scale and abstracted visual form positions this intelligence as nothing short of a technological sublime looming over us, a deistic mind defying our understanding. There is, as Ben Davis wrote in a January review for Artnet, a “generalized awe at the machine’s superhuman capacity of visual analysis” that drives the piece, a vision of AI as an unfathomable transcendent Other. 

Yet this fetishization of AI proves misguided in the long run. Unsupervised’sabstract aesthetic ends up divorcing this technology from the intelligible domain of human affairs— obscuring the complex and real ways in which these machines are shaped by, and in turn shape, the world around us. As R.H. Lossin critically observed in e-flux in March, the “spectacular” mode of Unsupervised turns a heavily militarized, “environmentally devastating” surveillance technology “into something pleasing and even soothing.” Even its most radical inputs (which involve art that reckons with concrete subjects like race, protest, and death) are flattened in the process of incorporation— reduced to streaks of color, pure form devoid of history or politics.

Ultimately, this “generalized awe” lets Anadol elide the real stakes of data—which is deployed in everything from our judicial system to medical care— in favor of a hyper-formalist abstraction that seems content to simply have us stare in open-mouthed admiration at the power of these tools. In doing so, he engenders a noxious kind of spectatorial passivity, precluding us from engaging in deeper dialogue with this wholly alien machine. Rather than equip us with a new way of relating to or understanding these technologies, Unsupervised reinforces the false separation between their world and ours, shrouding this technology in a veil of mystery.

Installation view of the exhibition "Refik Anadol: Unsupervised";Denis Doorly;November 19, 2022–March 5, 2023;Digital photograph
Installation view of the exhibition “Refik Anadol: Unsupervised”;Denis Doorly;November 19, 2022–March 5, 2023;Digital photograph
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Denis Doorly

The MoMA, however, has several overlooked pieces in its collections that, similar to Unsupervised, engage these modern technological abstractions, but do so by grounding themselves to a tangible reality. 

As part of the ongoing “Systems” exhibit, for example, Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler’s Anatomy of an AI System unpacks the expansive networks of information and capital that goes into a single Amazon Echo. Where Unsupervised presents machine intelligence as an impenetrable Other, Anatomy pierces through this veil to lay bare its concrete, material basis— covering everything from the elemental composition of this technology, to the smelters and assemblers that bring it into being, to its integration within the digital ecosystem. Rather than show AI as something that sits outside and above our reality, Anatomy reveals the complex web of economic, environmental, and social dependences upon which its existence is predicated.

These physical imbrications are expanded upon by Wangechi Mutu’s “Eve” series, featured in the museum’s “Search Engines” exhibit. The work, according to the museum, realizes the “surreal results of an internet search” for the name of this (in)famous figure. In addition to cold steel and cybernetic networks, Mutu’s pieces heavily feature organic elements and fleshy forms that defy the distinction between the technological and the natural. Her works reject the idea that data lives in a cold, sterile, transcendent domain; instead she reveals it to be fleshy, embodied, and warm-blooded—something that both emerges from our bodies and fundamentally shapes our understanding of them. To this extent, Mutu’s chimeric works echo the writings of feminist theorists like Donna Haraway, who have long argued that questions of technology are inextricably bound up with questions of “who and what are in the world”—of how we relate to others and how we think of which identities and existences get to be considered valid.

The relational potential of data becomes a central focus in the Dear Data series by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec, featured recently in “Search Engines.” Where most works on data tend to be grand in scale or scope, the Dear Data pieces are small and personal—taking the form of weekly postcards sent between the two artists over the course of a year. On each postcard is a handmade “data drawing” which aggregates and visualizes one aspect of their lives (ranging from the drinks that they had, to the times that they smiled at strangers) throughout a given week. In contrast to the impersonal mode of a piece like Unsupervised, these data portraits are deeply intimate, rich with history— each one carefully drawn by hand and mailed via postal service. Lupi and Posavec subvert our expectations for what data can be, transforming it from a mechanism of surveillance into a tool for nurturing a relationship.

Though they might not have received the same scale of attention as Unsupervised, these pieces (as well as many others in the museum) offer an alternative way of relating to data that steers us away from blind faith or passive awe. By revealing the heavy material basis of these seemingly airy technologies, showing the ways in which data can shape our understanding of our bodies, and articulating the intimate possibilities of “small” data, these contemporary artists remind us that data is not some abstract truth that floats above the messy realm of human affairs— it is something that is birthed from it, that shapes it, and is ultimately shaped by it.

It’s only by appreciating and recognizing its deep entanglements within the world that we will learn how to successfully leverage data to its greatest potential, while avoiding its most calamitous risks. As data continues to become increasingly central to our economic, social, and political lives, we’ll need to follow in these artists’ footsteps by transforming this technological apparition into something solid and real if we’re to have any hope of grappling with it— of finally taming the ghost in the machine.

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