Can big data make for great art?
BRUNSWICK, Maine — A few years back, R. Luke DuBois signed on to 21 dating sites and downloaded 19 million profiles.
No, he wasn’t that desperate. DuBois is an artist, and his material is information. Like Nate Silver, the statistical analyst who makes informed projections about elections and sports matchups, DuBois mines data, but he’s more intrigued with American identity than he is with competitions.
For “A More Perfect Union,” his work based on the dating-site research, he sorted profiles geographically and determined predominant words for every ZIP code. For Seattle, it was “heartthrob”; the District of Columbia was “interesting,” which couldn’t be more boring. Perhaps even worse, Boston is “nice.” Not all the words are upbeat: Baltimore is “afraid.”
The piece, a sprawling map of the United States covered with such key words, fills one wall of “R. Luke DuBois — Now,” on view at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.
“I was born somewhere between ‘annoying’ and ‘cynical’ in New Jersey,” the artist pointed out in an interview at the museum last week. “A More Perfect Union,” he added, “is less about specific places and more about celebrating the rhetoric of American identity.”
DuBois, 40, spent a good part of his youth in London. “I came back to the US and I had culture shock,” he said. “Part of [my work] is me trying to make sense of all this.”
Like Silver, he has a keen interest in politics. His “Hindsight Is Always 20/20,” commissioned for the 2008 Democratic National Convention, comprises more than 40 eye charts, each representing a US president. Each chart lists the words most used in that president’s State of the Union addresses, with the most frequent word in the biggest type at the top. George W. Bush: Terror. Richard Nixon: Truly.
DuBois was wrapping up installation of the show, which was organized by the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Nearly everything was up and running — video screens flickered, music moaned.
The artist was still tweaking code on “32 Questions for DeRay McKesson,” a new work commissioned by the Bowdoin College Museum. McKesson, a Bowdoin alum, has risen to prominence in the last two years as a Black Lives Matter activist, a candidate for mayor in Baltimore, and, as DuBois put it, “a hardcore Twitter user.”
For the portrait, DuBois crowd-sourced Bowdoin students for questions to ask McKesson. The activist answers them in a 45-minute video interview. Themes such as race and education arise, and are listed on one side of the screen. As McKesson addresses them, recent tweets from his Twitter feed touching on those topics scroll down the other side.
Culling through the stuff of our shared media — tweets, Google searches, YouTube videos, and more — DuBois captures in-the-moment, constantly evolving snapshots of American culture.
“It’s a form of contemporary psychoanalysis,” said Anne Collins Goodyear, the museum’s co-director. “Luke finds ways to distill what is present but often invisible to us because we’re moving too fast.”
Time plays a crucial role in DuBois’s work. He’s a composer, with a doctorate in music composition from Columbia University, and his passion for music underlines everything.
His piece “SSB” plays in the museum’s rotunda. It features soprano Lesley Flanigan singing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” and DuBois has slowed it down so that the anthem stretches out over four years: the length of a presidential election cycle. DuBois called it “an electoral clock.”
“The vibrato becomes microtonal, and creates this crazy shimmer,” he said. “It sounds like an adhan, the call to prayer at a mosque.
“It will die in November 2016,” he added. “She’s not quite at ‘Land of the free and home of the brave.’ ”
Music brought him to visual art by way of live projections during concerts — “VJ stuff,” as DuBois put it. Then he realized the imagery could more closely reflect the content of the music, and vice versa.
In time, that led to DuBois’s “Hard Data,” a website (archive.turbulence.org/Works/harddata) that sifts through information about the Iraq War, and charts it on a timeline. It’s an open source for artists to use as the basis for their own compositions. He wrote a string quartet using casualty statistics, sorting the data stream into six movements: one for each year of the war.
“There’s a difference between data and knowledge,” DuBois said. “More of us knew numbers about the war, a news crawl on CNN or how many dead and how many billions spent. But a volunteer military skews to a particular socio-economic group. A lot of us had no skin in the game, and the data visualization is anesthetizing.”
His music for “Hard Data” follows in the tradition of composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Iannis Xenakis, who wrote music influenced by war.
“As a musician, Luke is sensitive to time and pattern,” said Goodyear. “You can have what he calls a 30,000-foot view that allows you to slow down and speed up the way we process information.”
DuBois looked around the gallery at the maps, charts, and videos, including one, “Academy,” speeding chronologically through Oscar-winning films for best picture, one per minute. A viewer can spot developments and trends in filmmaking, such as tracking shots.
“People tell me all the time that nobody used to do this stuff,” he said. “I think of it like music. Notes and chords and keys in a pattern. It’s data. We’ve been doing music for 40,000 years.
“And music,” he added, “is working with data to make you feel something.”
R. Luke DuBois – Now
At Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 245 Maine St., Brunswick, Maine, through Sept. 4.207-725-3275, www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum/