Data art: weather bracelets and the like


I’d heard about the Weather Bracelet via @louisedenoon on Instagram before seeing it for real recently. Immediately I was intrigued. Mitchell Whitelaw’s 3D printed work is constructed using climate data collected in Canberra between July 2008-2009. He explains, ‘the outer rim of the bracelet shows daily maximum and minimum temperatures; the holes show weekly rainfall.’ To view beautiful clear images of the bracelet check out his blog where you’ll find lots of intriguing detail about process.

I was able to see the bracelet recently as part of Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital, a new exhibition showing at the Powerhouse Museum, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney. 

As I encountered the Bracelet for the first time I was aware of an emotional pull. I felt drawn to it and connected. I was struck by its aesthetics and the way the artist has worked to manifest data into a physical, wearable form. A beautiful one at that.

Later as I left the gallery I wondered why I was so drawn to the work. Was it the connection between ‘weather’ and ‘climate’? Initially I had mistakenly thought it was a ‘climate change data bracelet’. So immediately my subconscious latched onto something important. Something I care about. This is the power of art. And this is what art can do.

The Weather Bracelet certainly taps into a sense of fragility; the idea of our place in relation to weather (atmospheric conditions observed over a short period of time) and climate (behaviour of the atmosphere over longer periods of time). And the idea that we as humans are paradoxically at the mercy of powerful atmospheric elements but also responsible for significant changes in climate patterns. The Bracelet materialises these ideas using data visualisation and goes beyond the screen to create an object. A wearable data object. In this form, data is both subject and material.

Why would we want to wear weather data? What’s the connection? Is it just about data as fashion? Or is there something more meaningful happening here? By wearing weather data in the form of a bracelet are we in some way trying to connect our bodies more closely with the environment in which we live? Is it a desire to express and make a symbolic gesture about our values (like much adornment and fashion)?

For the artist, data is an ‘interesting, troublesome and productive material.’ Data ‘touches every aspect of society and culture, and yet representing that material is so elusive. We’re all aware that we’re engaged with data all the time, on our phones, but what is data and what does it look like, what does it feel like, and how do we understand what it is?’

Data art offers a way for us to grasp ideas in a seemingly endless pool of data availability. It’s a pathway to create meaning in the face of ‘data excess’ as Mitchell refers to it.

Data art involves a creative grappling with the nature of our now ubiquitous data systems. It draws data out, makes it explicit, literally provides it with an image. It also probes data’s constitution, potential, and significance. In the process of working pragmatically with data — using it as a generative resource, a way of making — data art is involved in the culturally crucial figuration of data and its contemporary domain.’ In this way data moves from being ‘ungraspable’ into something that makes sense to us.

In the exhibition, the Bracelet sits alongside Mitchell’s three Measuring Cups. The Cups use temperature data for Sydney (1859-2009), Melbourne (1856-2014) and Brisbane (1856-2014) to show how this coalesces in a physical form. You can observe the lip at the top of the cups. This is not a design decision as Mitchell points out (all good cups have a slight lip and expand outwards towards the rim mostly for functional reasons) – it’s the product of climate change and warming in recent decades.

For those of us who respond better to data in a physical, tangible form, Mitchell Whitelaw’s art eloquently and authoritatively works to bring data to life. It also provides function. You can wear the Bracelet and drink from the Measuring Cups. When I was chatting with Mitchell about these pieces last week he made a point of saying that the cups are meant to be held. With art like this you can hold the data. And in doing so you can contemplate its meaning.

Out of Hand: Materialising the Digital is showing at MAAS Powerhouse Museum from now until June 2017. The exhibition is impressive with works by more than 60 artists, designers and architects from around the world including Barry X Ball, Zaha Hadid, Iris van Herpen and Ron Arad, as well as works from Australia and the Asia-Pacific, and objects from the MAAS collection.