Data Is Not Art

Sat 01 October 2011 by Jim Purbrick

This week I experienced two remarkable combinations of music and the moving image.

Natures 3B from Quayola on Vimeo.

This evening I watched Nature — Mira Calix and Quayola’s audio visual piece which took video footage of flowers blowing in the wind and used motion tracking technology to generate music from the footage. As a concept it was interesting, unfortunately as music it was terrible. The beauty of the footage betrayed the folly of the concept: if a human were to compose music based on the beauty of flowers the way they moved in the breeze might feature, but wouldn’t be the basis of the entirety of the piece. The colour, form and memories triggered by the flowers would surely feature. Turning the flowers to a network of points modulating parameters reduced them to an interesting if psuedo-random system and the resultant synthesised music was predictably cold and pseudo random.

By contrast, a few days ago I had the pleasure to watch Manhatta, a black and white movie about Manhatten made in 1920 by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand and accompanied by a new soundtrack by the Cinematic Orchestra. Where Nature used machines to generate it’s soundtrack based on an algorithmic interpretation of the movement of flowers, Manhatta uses humans to generate it’s soundtrack based on the emotional impact of the moving image on the musicians. The result is infinitely more moving. The music adds emotion to the moving image, combining feelings of wonder, awe, fragility and insignificance — a uniquely human reaction to the images of the worlds most amazing city that cannot possibly be understood or rendered by an algorithm, no matter how clever.

Art is a human reaction to our world, not something that can be captured in an algorithm.