It’s almost impossible to imagine the amount of data flowing through our cities. The wifi networks, the electric cables, the cell phone bandwidth, the security camera footage, the radio waves, the television signals. The stream of our data networks travels invisibly past us and, sometimes literally, through us, but we only notice it when we tune in via an electronic device.
W3FI, which I recently saw at the Currents New Media Festival in Santa Fe, NM, creates a pathway to see these signals. Combining a stunning series of animations and data visualizations developed with Processing, a physical installation of vinyl and glowing cube seats, and an interactive collage of photos, it’s a deeply immersive experience of the data in our cities.
“It’s a global exhibition, but it’s also local,” noted Laleh Mehran, who developed the installation with
Christopher Coleman. The artists, who first exhibited the installation in Boulder, CO, did extensive research on Santa Fe’s architecture and pulled in silhouettes of major landmarks. While the space resembled much of the first installation, it was adapted significantly to remain local.
Mehran pointed at the three main walls of the space. The side walls represent the I and the We, with rotating wheels that pull actual tweets that begin with “I” and “we” respectively. All the tweets are geolocated in Santa Fe. The “we” wall features a series of visualizations of data like cell phone usage during the week and wifi signals. Those who know the city’s landscape can immediately understand the disparities represented by the dark spots.
“During the opening, visitors often sat and stayed in the space for 30 minutes or more,” Mehran explained. Indeed, the cubed seats glow in a mesmerizing flocking pattern, while the overwhelming amount of data encourages contemplation. Mehran was quick to note that people don’t always sit to watch—sometimes they sit and have a conversation with a friend, while passively absorbing the information around them.
At the center is a series of faces and circles joined to each other, like a loose social network. While the nodes and connections don’t represent real data, the faces do represent actual visitors. To have your picture taken, you simply approach a camera that recognizes your face and draws it along the social network. Throughout the duration of the festival, the faces and bubbles grew, each one floating in space and representing a visitor who stopped by.
The success of this piece is two-fold: its utter immersiveness combined with the precision details. Mehran and Coleman told me they worked 12-hour days for the entire week of installation, not packing up until just hours before the show opened. The glowing lines from the projector run perfectly within the grooves cut into the vinyl, while the sharp angles of the cutout buildings and trees reveal a careful hand.
Situated in three dimensional space, the visualization comes close to overtaking viewers but stops just short of alienating them. It’s impossible to see the entire exhibition in one glance, so visitors are constantly looking around, trying to catch each detail. Ultimately, though, the installation is about connection, and the data that both facilitate and reveal those connections.
“We want visitors to consider their place in the larger network,” Mehran told me. “We want to make it local so that they can see themselves in the community.”