Data Loam project

Sometimes Hard, Usually Soft
The Future of Knowledge Systems

An exhibition in cooperation with the University of Applied Arts Vienna,
the Royal College of Art in London, RIAT Vienna, as well as the Master’s
programme Arts & Science. Data Loam is a PEEK project for the
development and disclosure/interpretation/comprehension of the arts,
funded by the FWF, the Fund for the advancement/promotion of scientific
research. Thanks to the generous support of the AIL – Angewandte
Innovation Lab, the exhibition was also made possible.

Project director: Virgil Widrich

Responsible for the content and the exhibition: Martin Reinhart and
Johnny Golding in collaboration with the students of the Arts & Science
Master’s course and the Entenglement Group at the Royal College of Art
in London.

DATA LOAM and the future of knowledge systems

Although it is spread over almost 500 square meters/metres, the central
exhibit of the current show at the AIL in Vienna is not visible for the
time being. “Data Loam” is the name of the project sponsored by the
Austrian Science Fund (FWF), that is summarized and presented here. The
very title that gives it its name is one of the idiosyncratic figures of
thought that characterize characterize/characterise this project and the
accompanying exhibition. It can be deduced from the subtitle of the show
that the future of knowledge systems is at stake; the English word
Loam“, on the other hand, means clay or clay – how does that work
together?

Martin Reinhart, initiator of the project and co-curator of the
exhibition, puts it this way: “Loam is a soft material and one of
mankind’s oldest building materials. Fired clay, as a shard of clay /
pottery, is one of the earliest cultural artefacts and almost
indestructible. We were fascinated by this transformation of a
deformable / plastic sediment into a concrete, tangible object because
to us it seems a suitable / the perfect symbol for the transition from
data to knowledge. For several decades now, enormous quantities of
digital data have been produced, piling up into a gigantic parallel
world of pure information. But is that already knowledge? No, it is the
raw material from which knowledge can be condensed. And we as artists
are used both to playing with matter and to giving it content and form –
so why shouldn’t we keep our hands off this data loam?

Of the almost thirty international artistic positions shown at the AIL,
some refer specifically to the material of the exhibition title. Two
short films from the turn of the century are shown with a twinkle in
their eye, in which the clay forms itself without the intervention of
the artist and as though by a magical power, giving the resulting
sculptures a life of their own. In “Ten Types of Torture”, on the other
hand, an installation by the young artist Laura Stoll, four unfired clay
casts of her own face slowly dissolve under the constant effect of
dripping water. By the end of the exhibition, that which composes
identity will have transformed itself back into its amorphous source
material. Whether this is – from a Western point of view – a torture or
– from an Eastern point of view – a cyclical passing, and recurrence
remains unanswered. Just like speculations about what trace each of us
will leave behind in the ocean of data.

The question of the future of knowledge systems, that was posed at the
beginning, proves to be multi-faceted in the other works as well. What
is also surprising in view of the rather technical subject is the strong
presence of comparatively traditional forms of expression such as
painting, object art and graphics. In addition, there is a series of
archival and everyday findings that appear alongside the artistic works.
Along these works and work cycles, aspects are addressed that all have
to do with the struggle for an order and allocation to the theme: What
can be described, how can it be described and how does description
change the essence of what is described?

In this context, the sphere of art appears both as a laboratory of ideas
and as a litmus test for a dreamed-of future knowledge system that is
supposed to function without the rigid structural order of libraries and
databases. For what art produces is often contradictory, ambiguous or
context-dependent and thus eludes predetermined categorizations. In
which way must a collection of knowledge be structured so that it can
absorb artistic expressions and also preserve and present the implicit
contents that have not yet become visible? After all, knowledge systems
should not only be silent archives, but also put their content into
living relation to one another. It is precisely these correlations which
are rarely simple to determine in the field of art.

Two very different work cycles deal with the theme of variation,
permutation and the change of the similar, which also form the spatial
bracket of the exhibition on the upper floor. On the one hand, there is
Florian Unterberg’s subtle lexical universe, in which letters become
pictorial symbols, which in turn are transformed into objects. The
result is an enchantingly beautiful variety of self-referential
topographies and aphoristic portraits. Quite in contrast to Jimmy
Zurek’s large-format panel paintings, which could perhaps best be
described as visual rap music. Here, too, the boundary between language
and image is dissolved, though not with subtle variations, but with fast
rhythmic rhymes that tantalize the brain: coarse word jokes, pictograms
and song lyrics mix in them into ever new, artistically arranged and
pulsating clouds of meaning.

These examples may make it a little clearer what the researchers and
artists of the “Data Loam” project mean when they postulate that the
world cannot simply be broken down into tag clouds and ontologies. The
human mind has no problem solving a rebus puzzle or understanding a
pictorial joke. But a search engine like Google or the much-conjured
“artificial intelligence” would be in dire need of it. So how can our
ability to recognize similarities, associate and create meaning be
transferred to machines?

Although other interesting positions can be found in the exhibition, it
does not exhaust itself in philosophical questions, but equally
illuminates and discusses political and technical aspects of the
subject. For today it is no longer clear who administers / governs
knowledge and where the increasingly blurred boundaries between
certainty and deception lie. Following one of its own premises, however,
the “Data Loam” project does not draw the dystopian image of a future in
which truth and manipulation have become indistinguishable, but explores
concrete proposals for positive solutions. For one thing, it deals with
questions of secure authorship and the traceability of information. The
project partners of “RIAT – Institute for Future Cryptoeconomics” have
researched on this topic for years. In connection with the “Data Loam
project, they examined whether and in what way blockchain technology
could be used as a possible solution for the knowledge sphere. In the
exhibition an entire room is dedicated to this topic.

Another part of the project dealt with the possibilities of developing
non-hierarchical structuring systems with the help of algorithms. The
novel approach here is, that data is not divided into existing
categories, but that these categories search for their optimal location
in a multidimensional knowledge matrix and knowledge organizes itself in
this way. This process of automatic correlation is conceived as dynamic
– that is, each new piece of information changes the order of the
previous system and the distances between the individual data are
recalculated. In this way it is possible to map complex meanings and to
free oneself from the constraints of existing hierarchies. The
interesting thing about this is, that the mathematical basis for this
self-organization/self-organisation is partly based on the physical
behavior/behaviour of matter. As a prototype this already works, and one
can watch how the particles of such a knowledge system form in numerous
iterations in optimum order.

With regard to the central exhibit mentioned at the beginning: it
requires some capacity for abstraction to recognize it, since it is the
exhibition itself. It is only slowly that visitors begin to understand
that the small displays that are attached instead of the usual object
labels and hall texts are constantly changing their content. They
describe the connections between the works of art in one way or another,
they provide additional information and explanations, but one can never
be sure which reality they correspond to. It is a subtle insecurity with
a great effect, because it is through them that the exhibition makers
renounce their curatorial sovereignty, letting both artworks and
visitors reclaim their own space. There is simply not the one path
through the stories and ideas, but instead many equal configurations.
Each work appears like a prism in which meanings can break differently –
depending on the angle you look at it. And ultimately, this spectral
approach is the hope for the future knowledge system of the future to
which the research of the “Data Loam” project is dedicated. It should
lead, but not patronize and order, without creating hierarchies.