art
 and 
context
Effective Methods
September 2013

During the course of the summer the subject of Algorithms popped up in the media in several modes. It is long known that security agencies such as those of the USA use algorithmic methods in  analysing the ‘chatter’ they listen in to, and indeed emanating from this there were reports on heightened security at city hot spots. More novel than these now standard terrorism prevention measures was a story on how police forces are increasingly using the same techniques as part of their crime prevention strategy. Perhaps more mindful for each and all of us were stories on how hackers apply algorithms to crack our pin numbers; and their use in medical contexts. Briefly, the use of algorithms for medical purposes goes something like this. An emergency phone number is used in a medical emergency. The caller is put through to someone with basic training who asks the caller a series of set questions in which the answers are fed into a computer and the information is processed to identify the medical issue. The output is that a probable prognosis is arrived at and instructions on first aid are passed back to the site of the emergency. The public, it seems, is not entirely convinced by the practice. One imagines that the general feeling about this use of algorithms is along the lines that the individual who finds herself in such a situation had better hope, not only that the answers are correct, but that the questions are even more correct. Most likely anyone in such a situation would opt, if they could, for the hands-on response of the expert—a qualified doctor—rather than a distanced non-expert, a computer, and a piece of software.

For better or worse, algorithms are set to play an increasing role in our lives. But it is the user who remains the most fallible link. In this respect there was a notable absence in the aforementioned summer stories; that is, a specific focus on the original application of algorithms as predictive indicators in the service of the financial markets. Since 2007 their predictive capabilities, or rather those who are in control of the calculations, have tended to keep their heads below the parapet as much as possible. Self-interest is one of the unquantifiable number of subjective variables at work when prediction succeeds or fails. If the financial crisis has demonstrated anything, it is that vested interest and ideological baggage play major roles in the murkiness that interferes with the smooth operations of mathematics. In a perverse kind of way analogies can be made with the operations of the arts industry. The arts are one of the casualties of the financial crisis which has prompted the setting up of the National Campaign for the Arts, a loose association of arts organizations who had their second colloquy in Kilkenny in August. It was an occasion which brought to the fore the difficulties involved in reconciling data, subjective input, and data application.

In so far as the rationale for the NCFA is to advance the case for the funding of the arts, data and data application are held as central towards that end. Discussion at the Kilkenny Colloquy pivoted around this under the heading, ‘evidence and evidence-building in the arts and the function it serves.’ But where most will agree that data should be used against terrorism or crime, or for techniques in medical response, the problem is that most people are unclear as to what data applies to the arts and how it is to be used.  However, as stated at the colloquy, those ultimately responsible for the public purse are clear on their criteria. The Department of Finance keeps it simple: ‘footfall’ is what will attract funding. In this, by ignoring all shades of grey, decision-making is categorical. At the other end of the spectrum, arts production deals with the shades of grey and to that extend fails to register loudly and finally. In between are those mainly arts administrators who are increasingly pressured towards the sort of reductive logic used by the funders. The provision of data deemed appropriate by the funders is increasingly the sole measure of accountability. And, the appropriate data is the absurdly narrow measure of audience response. If the National Campaign for the Arts is to work with effect it seems it will have to identify a number of the variables involved in what kinds of data and what kinds of analyses for, not just the funders, but for the arts, the audience, and the public.

The NCFA might take a leaf from Liam Gillick’s example. He had an installation at the Kerlin Gallery in Dublin between July and September. While Gillick has acknowledged his privileged position as a prominent international art worker that allows him the space to work with ideas relatively unencumbered by more pragmatic concerns, he uses it to conduct investigations into the social fabric the most pertinent aspect of which is the struggle between speculation and planning. This isn’t seen simply as a manifestation of the modern economy but something which creates the forms of the society in a more fundamental way. Gillick sees speculation and planning as in conflict but also intertwined one in the other, with social management as something of a bystander. At the Kerlin, the installation entitled, ‘For the doors that are welded shut,’ combines wall text and six structures which are differentiated one from the other by slight variation. The third component is a two paragraph account an extract of which reads, ‘The work relates to the research into possible permutations available within car body production just prior to the introduction of completely automated production systems. At the same time the works are abstractions in their own right.’ The production line could produce variations or differentiations, while abstraction, also represented in the six structures, is never realized. Abstract art is to attempt the unobtainable. But so is art generally and it is at this here that the attempt to defend art with empirical data is simply too paradoxical to contemplate. What Gillick achieves in recent work is the working together of abstract forms and social analysis. While Gillick operates in the synthetic spaces of gallery and auditorium and his output is complex, he demonstrates that it is possible to work across the field of art and society while clearly differentiating the modes of research.