CLEMENS WEISSHAAR is a German designer, who, alongside partner REED KRAM, recently engineered an 11m high x 260m wide floor-to-ceiling terapixel graphic for this year’s CeBIT, the world’s largest and most international computer expo. This year’s theme, big data, is made manifest in the massive graphic membrane. With their installation, the designers imagine systems beyond human perception and use custom code to plot vast amounts of data on spectacular canvases, exploring concepts from oceanography to the human brain. 032c spoke to Weisshaar about the project, which is on display this week at the CODE_n space at CeBIT in Hannover.
What is innovation today?
The key ingredient is pressure – without pressure, there’s no innovation. That also leads to this horrible phenomenon that in war times there’s this boost of technological innovation, in the most horrible condition mankind can be in. But I think we don’t need war anymore, because the world is in an almost-constant mega-crisis anyway. So there’s an enormous space for innovation, also because the established systems have failed. We have 19th century institutions dealing with 21st century problems, and the only way through that is to brutally, radically rethink everything. The 21st century has become about structures and processes that connect people and machines. Innovation today must imagine and build systems that both live in the virtual world and impact the real world we live in.
Can you explain the installation you’ve created at CeBIT and the technology you’ve used to create this visualization?
We were chosen to design Hall 16 at CeBit, a 5,000 square metre space that houses CODE_n, the innovation sector of the world’s largest international expo. Our reply to the architectural massiveness and central theme of Big Data was undistilled largesse. We decided that a space dedicated to novelty, startups and unfiltered ideas needed to be liberated from the constraints of digital screens and as such designed a 3,000 square metre, floor-to-ceiling graphic membrane. The printed visualizations were realized at terapixel resolution, that is, 1012 or one trillion pixels. The end of the hall is embraced by a curved cacophony of information in the form of a Data Vortex – layers upon layers of geodata, gel electrophoresis tracks, overlapping sine waves, any information that moves perpetually and directionally. The whole installation speaks to the pervasiveness of complexity and endless possibilities of Big Data processing.
Has anything like this ever been designed before?
In the end, each distinct membrane totaled no less than 6.2 terapixels with an upper end resolution of 12.5 terapixels- a feat yet unmatched, but approximated by Microsoft’s work with the Fulldome projection system. The terapixel canvas creates a population of information that makes room for a range of inquiries. For the Human Connectome banner, for example, diffusion MRI’s were able to output hundreds of thousands of structural descriptions of the human mind in form of variously coloured fibres. This level of real data articulates physiological information, like tissue damage in an Alzheimer’s patient’s brain, for example, but also beckons more intangible assessments like the neural basis of morality. We are now in a position to ask ourselves, ‘What is the neural morphology of joy? rage? virtue?’
Whereas large-scale visualization systems have been traditionally limited to pastiches of information or composite images, the terapixel membranes channel the forgotten format of the panorama – a 19th century immersive art that predated the advent of cinema. In the culture of the giant panorama, no detail was spared, no descriptor was deemed insignificant. We are essentially reviving this idea with 21st century tools.
Is this kind of visualization capable of supplying real time information? Could we use it eventually for, say, weather or climate conditions?
The Big Data we collected does actually function in real time and often bends the concept of time itself. Weather and climate conditions can be projective in nature, but a visualisation such as ‘Retrospective Trending’ uses the archive of lexical history to uncover changes in human culture over time. Google Books has digitised 12% of the world’s known books, often dating back to 1500 and previously unavailable to analyse en masse. We used this unprecedented corpus of the human lexicon to stage a battle of relevance between ideas, philosophies, technology, self-perceptions and the gestalt of human emotion over all of written history. In this way these visualisations are collapsing time – with the benefit of the present.
Much of the project is about dissolving communication barriers. How many people did you work with on this project?
Contemporarily, design must bridge communication between an increasingly flattened world and the agents that operate within that world. Due to the nature and scale of the work, this project was not so cleanly a collaboration between people so much as it was a synchronisation of various forces. We have a host of collaborators that possess both great minds and a similar interest in the intersection of the digital and the physical. In this case we also had access to the most exciting startups in Big Data. We definitely could not have done this two, three years ago and we definitely would not be able to entertain these ideas without the rise of techno-cultural phenomena. We believe that technology is culture and culture is technology. Driven by a monumental increase in computing power, storage, and accessibility as well as the basic human compulsion to assess quantity, the installation is a product of erased boundaries and is concerned with defeating impossibility.
Can big data be art?
In and of itself, certainly not. Big Data is by definition unstructured and cacophonous and messy, while art, even at its most abstract, is structured communication through the lens of the artist. There is the act of art-making, there is no act of data-making. It just is. It is a symptom of existence. That art can be culled from Big Data remains to be seen, but there is certainly the potential to assume the whims and wiles of human nature from quantitative information.