Robyn Gee on Tuesday, May. 1st
At first glance, you might simply recognize David Wicks’ artwork as maps, but on further inspection, a data set embedded in the art becomes visible. Wicks writes software to generate art.
David Wicks first learned about interactive software art in college. Over time, he learned to write programs to start collecting and transforming environmental data. We spoke with Wicks about Drawing Water.
Check out some examples of Wicks’ work below this interview.
Turnstyle: Could you give us a little background information — how you became interested in the kind of art you do, and what you’re currently working on.
Wicks: I think a lot of art is about observation, and the way I approach it is to write software to record observations and transform them into visuals and experiental systems.
I’m currently working on an installation for the Northern Spark festival with Lauren McCarthy, who I met during my graduate studies at UCLA, and my brother Christopher. We are constructing a realtime portrait of the festival night in Minneapolis. To do that, we are visualizing and sonifying a handful of data streams relevant to the city. Lauren has coordinated with different groups in Minneapolis to help us get interesting data and we are all working on the software to try to get things looking and sounding great.
Turnstyle: Explain what each line represents, and the process of creating the actual images.
Wicks: The final placement and color of each line are determined by the influence of urban water consumers. The more water a city uses, the stronger its pull on the rainfall. As rainfall is pulled farther from where it fell, it becomes desaturated, turning from blue to black in print and to white in the projected installation.
The process is iterative, and I spent a lot of time making things to find out whether they were interesting. Explorations include a folding-map version and an animation where each state looked like a puddle with raindrops rippling their surfaces. I also tried some very science-visualization approaches with the color. Ultimately, I chose the form of the software that you see.
I used Cinder to speed the process of writing software. It is one of many code frameworks now available that help artists and designers focus on writing the unique parts of their application without worrying as much about how the computer puts pixels on the screen. The Processing community keeps a good list of frameworks.
Turnstyle: We’re really interested in the Drawing Water project. What was the inspiration for this?
Wicks: When I moved to Los Angeles for graduate school, I became really interested in the ecology of the place. It has such a bad reputation environmentally that I needed to find out more about what things are really like. I read a lot of books like Salt Dreams, Cadillac Desert, and Land of Little Rain to try to understand more of the area’s history. I wanted to continue to explore water politics in my work, so I spent time thinking through ideas of resource manipulation and distribution by making visuals about it.
Turnstyle: Did you envision the final product beforehand, or did the images morph into something unexpected after you played around with the data?
Wicks: I knew that I wanted to play with some of the ideas around water politics, but where it has gone differs pretty dramatically from my initial explorations. I started with much more literal studies, and also maps where there wasn’t interaction between the data sets. There was rainfall that was actually consumption and a terrain with height based on consumption, but eventually I found the forms you’re seeing.
Turnstyle: Why water as opposed to another resource?
Wicks: Water is so fundamental, and it has been manipulated so dramatically in the last century. We depend on water for so much that I felt I needed to understand something about it better. That’s true for other resources, too, but water is simultaneously an abstraction and the concrete thing we use in a way that other resources are not. We pipe gas to homes for cooking and heating and wire electricity to power our computers and lights, but we pipe water to our homes for water.
Turnstyle: I like the idea of looking at a piece of art — but actually seeing data trends without knowing it. What do you hope for in terms of the viewer’s experience?
Wicks: Foremost, I hope people enjoy looking at the structures that emerge. There is much to marvel at in the way our world is constructed and what we construct within it. I hope that it might encourage people to take joy in looking at the world, to try to understand how different things are related to each other. Of course I have serious concerns about how we use resources, and that discourse is embedded in the work. The images exist only when there is rain. The final structure is shaped by people, but without rain, there is nothing to shape.
Turnstyle: Explain the interactive part of the show and how that works.
Wicks: The interactive component of Drawing Water is a map for navigation. The touchscreen allows a viewer to define a window onto the part of the United Stated they care about. Viewers could look at the past few days of rainfall or a handful of preselected time periods that I found interesting.
Turnstyle: Where is the series installed currently?
Wicks: Drawing Water was installed at UCLA in the New Wight Gallery in May 2011. It currently lies dormant on my computer (and backed up in a few places).
Turnstyle: Do you have plans to do more series along the same lines?
Wicks: I very much intend to keep working with data as a source medium and our relationship to our environment as a subject. I’m excited about making more partially-subjective maps in the future. Anyone interested in those should check out Dennis Wood’s Maps for a Narrative Atlas and Rebeca Solnit’s Infinite City.