Here’s a few facts to get things started: by 2002 more information was stored in digital forms rather than analogue, by 2007 ninety-four percent of global information was digitally coded information, and we continue to produce 2.5 trillion bytes of data each day. I almost feel guilty posting this blog and adding yet more to this ever increasing phenomenon… but this is exactly the subject matter Somerset House’s current exhibition ‘Big Bang Data’ is exploring. Data is discussed in all forms; from the sheer volume of selfies, tweets, Instagram posts and GPS information produced each day, to how it can be harnessed for the common good, its surveillance, what it fails to tell us, and finally examples of abstract creations by artists and designers using this data. One installation entitled ‘data.tron’ by Ryoji Ikeda highlights the infinite scale of the worlds’ data through a hypnotic and constantly changing screen of mathematic formulae and data sets. Another innovative interpretation of data came from Ingo Gunther’s ongoing ‘World Processor’ project started in 1988, featuring a series of acrylic globes representing mapped data on political, economic, social, historical, environmental and technological world issues. Data-centrism is also addressed as there is a growing belief that data contains all the answers, failing to acknowledge that numbers can be manipulated and skewed. This is succinctly summarised in Jonathan Harris’ printed monologue ‘Data Will Help Us’ which questions everything from advertising to dating and whether society has now reached a point where we are ignoring context and common sense, to blindly trust data. The exhibition does a compelling job of making a complex (and indeed dry) subject matter not only accessible but interesting and even beautiful. My only criticism is that the curators played it a little safe and could have probed a little deeper and been more controversial.
This years’ annual Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize elicited 4,292 submissions from 2,201 photographers and provided a refreshing mix of famous faces (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Obamas and Peter Capaldi) as well as informal portraits of photographers’ friends and families, and spur of the moment images captured by street photographers across a wide range of global locations. I didn’t personally agree with the 2015 winners and found David Stewarts’ ‘Five Girls’ first prize portrait of his teenage daughter and four friends sitting at a table unduly posed, unnatural and a little stiff. Similarly, the runner up prize ‘Hector’ – a portrait of a naked baby inspired by Caravaggio’s 17th century ‘Sleeping Cupid’ by Anoush Abrar, simply left me cold. The exhibition did nonetheless include some wonderful portraits, and a personal favourite was an inkjet print of the Japanese artist Yayoi Kasuma by Noriko Takasugi which much like its subject was full of character and bursting with colour. Similarly ‘Happy Pupil’ by Mark Chivers captured a genuine and heart-warming moment when a Ugandan boy called Owen smiled infectiously across his classroom (as his education is funded through the charity Lessons for Life). At the other end of the spectrum, hard hitting issues were addressed by Lithuanian photographer Viktorija Vaisvilate Skirutiene in a portrait of her four year old neighbour naked in the window holding up his toy gun, shot in solemn black and white, producing a powerfully disturbing image. Closer to home ‘Constable Robling and Fintab’ a portrait of Britain’s first female UK policewomen to become a dog handler by Adrian Peacock captured an aggressive Fintab (the Alsatian) with gnarled teeth and visible tension on his lead, all humorously explained by the dogs’ hostility towards photographers! As always, I left feeling excited about next years’ prize and what 2016 will have to offer.
A narrow Georgian townhouse at the back of Charing Cross train station has been standing since 1730, provided lodgings for Benjamin Franklin (face on the $100 bill, Founding Father of the United States, scientist, diplomat, inventor of unusual musical instruments and more!) for sixteen years between 1757 and 1775, and has been a museum since 2006. To enter, visitors ring the doorbell much like you are paying a visit to someone’s home, are led along a corridor of original wooden floorboards and panelling, and down the stairs to the basement where the ‘Historical Experience’ begins… a small orientation room comprising information boards, an artefact display cabinet, and even human remains from the anatomy school which also operated from the building help introduce you to the House. After a short video, Polly (the landlady’s daughter and close friend of Franklin whilst he was lodging at the House) leads visitors to the Kitchen where flagstone flooring, a Victorian cooking stove, and views of the sunken basements are cleverly integrated with projections and voices that Polly continues to interact with throughout the House to help tell its’ stories. Visitors are then led upstairs to the Landlady’s Parlour, Card Room and finally Franklin’s Parlour – all complete with authentic features from the floorboards, to the shutters on the windows, marble fireplaces, and even the green paint on the walls specially mixed to match flecks of the original paint revealed through spectro-analysis. Typically I find costumed interpretation horribly uncomfortable, however it is immediately obvious that this House employs a professional actress and provides a theatrical ‘experience’ executed to a high standard. Likewise, the fact that it is largely unfurnished lends itself to this type of visitor offering, and it was refreshing to focus on the original features rather than trying to navigate your way through a cluttered house full of replica furnishings.