Noise and Signals

One of the research avenues I’m undertaking at the moment is developing embodied and experiential methodology based on mapping, walking, performance for social scientific research. Daksha Patel’s work on mapping, classifying, categorising, visualising messy data is relevant in this sense.

I participated in a series of workshops she led last week at the UCA Farnham during her residency. In her lecture on the third day of her residency, she gave a lecture on mapping, noise and signals.

Some scholars have argued that mapping is a socio-political practice. D. Haraway, for example tackles the “cultural fetishization of maps as seen in computer games like the Maxis Corporation’s SimLife, SimEarth, SimCity, etc. as well as in the Human Genome Project itself as they show that “spatialization is a social practice” (138) which motivated more often than not by an urge to “make things seem clear and under control.” (136) The map-making impulse frequently “transmutes material, contingent, human and nonhuman liveliness into maps of life itself and then mistakes the map and its reified entities for the bumptious, nonliteral world” (emphasis added 135).” And it is in this sense that I consider mapping or performance-based methodology a way forward to deepen and (re-)new social scientific methodology.

Daksha also talked about noise in data. Daksha and I shared an insight into the big data trend. Normally technologists use computational algorithms to filter out ‘noise’ in the big data to make use of the vast volume of data being collected and generated these days, but the noise considered by the algorithms may have alternative values (personal, emotional). Drawing on big data therefore can preserve or express the alternative dimensions of big data (“seeing the unseen”).

That yearning for a noise-free environment (and constant search for ‘perfection’ and ‘eternality’) has been largely criticised by many artists engaging with bodies and arts. The critique of the cosmetic surgery is a common theme. Daksha showed us some iconic work by Jo Spence (e.g., Monster), Margi Geerlinks (for example the famous Mirror and the Gepetto series. Gepetto 2),

Rineke Dijkstra (e.g., Julie), and the performance ‘Imponderabilia‘ by Marina Abramović and Ulay.

All these art works approach the awkwardness and tension of bodies, particularly skins.

Daksha’s work has been echoing this trend. For example, the route map represents her re-imagination of the transport and communication systems of Manchester as an angiograms (X Rays of blood vessels), ‘diffusion‘ that shows her (re-)interpretation of the environmental data of Manchester, and the memory drawings of brain cells (neurons and glial cells).

Diffusion by Daksha Patel

In the original plan of Daksha’s residency, a creative coder would accompany her to do an interactive workshop allowing Daksha to respond to live data from biosensors including skin galvanometers, pulse monitors and electroencephalography (EEG) (as seen at the Noise+Signal event at Cornerhouse in 2013). Participants would be invited to wear sensors while they wander around the campus, and the data would be sent via wifi to Daksha as she works in the room. The signals would be projected onto a large easel which Daksha would then draw upon. The drawings ‘map’ people’s responses to the spaces around them, visualising the data as a combination of noise and signals. Unfortunately the creative coder whom Daksha collaborates with was not available during her residency, UCA staff and students will have to wait for another opportunity to encounter such an innovative and interactive data art.


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