Our days are soaked in data, and the virtual poses an ongoing challenge to the real. Imagery rushes at us incessantly from our screens, alongside the actual things we see when we look up. At many moments it’s unclear which should most command our attention.
It’s a fruitful context for art, if someone can grasp such slippery new realities. So discover the work of R. Luke DuBois—musician, visual artist, and data scientist. He reminds us, with alarm but also humor, that data is a blunt instrument, capable of telling lies as much as truths.
His one-person show in 2014 at The Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida put him on our radar. It was a profusion of screens, singly and in multiples, along with prints and giant projected videos. Throughout it all was music. His work, in a dizzying profusion of forms, is comfortably immersed in our too-familiar digital world, yet frequently transcends it with visual grace and charm. (He exhibits his visual art at bitforms gallery on New York’s Lower East Side.)
For DuBois, data is like paint, something to be applied roughly or smoothly, deftly or clumsily, with exactitude or abandon. He aims not so much to tell essential truths as to point in the direction of subtle uncertainties that enrich us to ponder.
DuBois mapped the United States, labelling each town with the words most frequently used by people there to describe themselves on online dating services. He created a set of what looks like eye charts, based on the State of the Union addresses of American presidents. Each one’s most frequently-used words are in large type across the top, with their other words getting smaller down the page—a visual summary of each president and era. Another piece, about gun violence, puts an actual gun that was used in a New Orleans murder on a pedestal, connected to the network and programmed to loudly shoot a blank every time a murder is reported in whatever city it is being exhibited in.
DuBois’s videos and music undermine familiar notions of time. He worked with a performance artist and shot a high-definition video piece in Manhattan’s Union Square in 2007. The performer spent 72 hours in a set like a boudoir, beneath a canopy on a traffic island. She spent the entire performance going through the motions of getting ready to go out, but her movements were extremely slow. Then, in editing the resulting video, DuBois speeded it up so her movements were compressed down to 72 minutes—about how long the actual process might take. The outcome has an ethereal unreality. Another piece shows us all the movies that won the first 75 years of Academy Awards for Best Picture, but speeds them up to only around one minute each.
How many artists can be found in engineering schools? Not enough. And yet that’s where I visited DuBois not long ago. He teaches at NYU’s Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn. It is unusual for its faculty of not just engineers, but artists, historians and sociologists. On the wide windowsill of DuBois’s office sits a NeXT computer—the kind Steve Jobs created during his exile from the company he founded between his stints at Apple. The artist used it during his music composition Ph.D. at Columbia. He obligingly turns it on and plays some ambient music based on an old algorithm. The office also has a shelf filled with several hundred diverse and well used LP records, and an old-fashioned turntable. DuBois is conversant in the languages of the present, but does not spurn what came before.
“I didn’t study visual art or engineering, yet here I am,” he says. “I’m a musician, but I’ve had a computer since I was nine. I asked my father for a bike and he was in an anti-bike mood. It was an IBM PC jr.” He learned to program by sending away for magazines and holding them open on his lap while typing in code. His brother Doug, 15 years older and a successful art photographer since the 1980s, inspired him to go into art. “A lot of my understanding of visual language—the idea that something is always more complex than it phenomenologically is—comes from my brother. A photo of two people sitting on a couch is never just two people sitting on a couch.”
That notion, combined with his easy familiarity with programming, enables DuBois to make art of unusual sophistication and nuance. He created a complex dual video portrait of Google cofounders Sergey Brin and Larry Page as the result of a prestigious commission from the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. Each year, the museum it asks a major American artist to memorialize an important citizen (or in this case, citizens). DuBois approached the two and said he wanted to video them while they read aloud a long poem about all the things a woman can lose—from keys, to her mind, to her virginity. Then he wanted them to answer questions about what it means to search for something. Finally, his software would conduct a live Google search based on their answers every time the resulting video was played.
The two executives balked. They said they had to have approval of the final cut, not something an artist would likely accept. “They freaked out,” says DuBois. “The National Portrait Gallery told me it was the first time this has ever happened. Even Bill Gates sat for an oil portrait.”
As an alternative, he made a portrait using the subjects’ own tools. He downloaded videos of them from YouTube, owned by Google. He transcribed it using Google’s speech recognition technology, on an Android phone, its software made by Google. The final piece consists of two screens (see pages 50-51). One shows the two men speaking. Superimposed are images brought up by Googling the words they speak. On the other screen, a more abstract data visualization appears, created in part again from Googling their words.
“It is a critique of them, a little bit,” DuBois concedes. “But I did it that way in part because I think in the U.S. we value wealth over invention. If the person on the street knows who Page and Brin are, they know that they founded Google and that they’re rich. But they don’t know they wrote a seminal research paper on how to categorize information on the web. We valorize the success, not the invention that led to it.”
“We live in a big data, machine learning society, which is really a problem,” DuBois expounds. “Large quantities of data and media assault us from all sides. We’re swimming in it, so you might as well use it in your cultural stuff…I’m making art with the materials I’m commenting on.”
Referring to his presidential eye charts, DuBois continues: “Imagine a social studies class in 2025 where all they learn about a president is the top 20 words in their speeches, because that’s all we have time for. You may say ‘That’s nuts, we’ll never do that.’ But that’s where we’re headed.” Then, in a manner not unlike in his own art, he softens himself a tad: “And on the positive side it’s an interesting way to look at the history of America through the rhetoric of its leadership.”
He may be adept with digital tools, but he won’t be defined by them. “I’m not really interested in working with the computer,” he says. “I’m interested in a 30,000-foot view of things that people might not have noticed.”
“I wish people would stop using the word technology incorrectly and ghettoizing it,” he continues. “Everything is technology. Music is technology, unless you’re improvising a cappella in a fucking desert. My point is, you should be precise. Otherwise, it puts tech into a ghetto. It causes the community that does computer art to think of themselves as specialized vis-á-vis other fine artists. The code bros start thinking they’re smarter. They’re not. They just know how to type.” It’s the kind of thing we need artists to remind us about, amidst our sometimes oppressively connected world: tech is a critical tool, but hardly a virtue in itself.
David Kirkpatrick is Techonomy’s Editor-in-Chief.