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Aaron Koblin's Data Art

Google's Creative Director of Data Arts and one of Dazed Live's keynote speakers talks us through his projects, how he mixes art with technology, and why music is sacred to him

Perhaps best known for his work on Radiohead’s 'House of Cards' video, his mesmerising 'Flight Paths' data visualisation and entirely crowd-sourced “Sheep Market”, Aaron Koblin has been an inspiration to anyone who believes in the beauty lurking within numbers. His work is included within the permanent collections of both MoMA and the Centre Pompidou, and has appeared at TED, OFFF and Ars Electonica – which alone reaffirm how fully he crosses the bridge between accessible art and bleeding-edge science. His role as Creative Director of Data Arts at the Google Creative Lab doesn’t hurt either.

Dazed Live welcomed Koblin took take the lectern at St. Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch to kick of the inspirational series of headline speakers (alongside Alejandro Jodorowsky and Daniel Pinchbeck). It was a mind-melting presentation of collective data arts and the future of global collaboration.

Dazed Digital: How did you get into your particular field?
Aaron Koblin:
I’ve always been a bit of a mix between art and technology. I used to paint a lot but I’m not very good with my hands. It has always been a fusion between my computer gaming interests and being exposed to the rich data of society that we live in. It’s been a path of moving back and forth and mixing it all together.

DD: But there wasn’t a deciding moment where you realised you’d found it?
Aaron Koblin:
If I had to pick a defining moment it was probably during grad school. I studied at UCLA in a programme called Design Media Arts and two of my professors in particular fused it together – Casey Reas who made and Mark Hansen from the Statistics Department. Mark is interested in art and design even though he’s in statistics, and Casey is an artist but he’s working with procedural code and making generative graphics and really beautiful algorithms. So the combination of their influences helped to point me on.

DD: Can you give a brief synopsis of a project you’ve been working on?
Aaron Koblin:
I think my favourite project that I worked on recently is “The Johnny Cash Project” – a collaborative music video where every frame is drawn by a different person. It tells this cohesive story line but through tonnes of different perspectives.

DD: There seems to be a musical thread running through your work. Does this spring from a personal interest?
Aaron Koblin:
I’ve always loved music and held it as a sacred thing that I can’t touch as I don’t really want to deconstruct it or be a musician. I think that music and visual arts can complement themselves nicely. They do different things – the music forces you into a different mood and perspective whilst the visual stuff can engage you in a more direct cognitive manner.

DD: In terms of the data you use for projects, what is the selection process?
Aaron Koblin:
If it seems like it’s a data set that’s going to tell an amazing story, or have a relationship to something that I think is intriguing and relates to our lives, then I’ll probably be interested by it. There’s definitely also an issue of the data itself – whether it’s granular and rich and going to lead to something beautiful.  

DD: There’s a huge amount of data being created. Do you see it getting to a point where it starts becoming a problem in terms of sheer volume?
Aaron Koblin:
It’s kind of about getting a balance. It doesn’t take a lot of data for it to go beyond the grasp of the human mind. At that point it becomes the relationship of how good your algorithms and techniques are versus how big the data set is. I think you can have a ridiculously enormous and complex data set, but if you have the right tools and methodology then it’s not a problem.

Text by William Rowe, Photos by Erika Wall