Physical Data Art by Willem Besselink
By Maria Popova
Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen a number of artists experimenting with data visualization at the intersection of digital and analog — you may recall Nadeem Haidary and his In-Formed series of physical data art. But Dutch artist Willem Besselink plays on a whole different level.
In his latest project, RE:ID, he tracked the movement of the 12,500 visitors to Rotterdam’s Museumnight, then visualized the data in real-time both online and as a large-scale public installation. The physical visualization was built out of bricks and cement on a public square, with full-blown construction equipment including a churning concrete mixer, red and white tape, and a crew of 10 construction workers working in near-real-time. Cement piles reflected the changing amount of visitors, “updated” every 15 minutes, and brick walls indicated the most popular Museumnight routes throughout the city.
Besselink has a long hisotry of physical data installations. In 2004, he exhibited 16 Days in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina — a cubic grid of 16×16 nylon wires, with one axis visualizing his pulse recorded in 30-minute intervals over the course of 16 days, intersected with temperature variations in the city over that period of time on the other axis. (This pulse visualization is somewhat reminiscent of Jonathan Harris’ 2007 project, The Whale Hunt.) The resulting 3-dimensional installation was suspended in mid-air in the gallery space.
Timelines offers an ambitious visualization juxtaposing how one specific house was used in the 1950’s, and how it is going to be used in the future, after a large-scale neighborhood renovation project.
Berlin Rotterdam is an abstract comparison of the scale of the two cities. During his 125-day stay in Berlin, Besselink recorded his position in the city in fixed intervals, then visualized these time and location data with glass beads, hanging from a map of Berlin suspended on the ceiling, down towards a map of Rotterdam laid out on the floor, moving closer to Rotterdam as the days progressed.
Explore the rest of Besselink’s data sculptures — while it may be tempting to dismiss this as cool-for-coolness’-sake postmodernist experimentation, it bespeaks a deeper cultural concern: Our restless need to make sense of all the abstract data that surrounds us, to make it more digestible and graspable by making it more tangible, more physical, more real. And art has always been a potent vehicle for exorcising our collective restlessness over the cultural concerns of the day.
Published November 11, 2009