Data Driven Art: Twitterscapes

What do you do if you are a web developer with the soul of artist? Do you go home in the evenings, take care of feeding the family and do your household chores, then paint with any remaining time? Caroline C. Blaker does that. But she does something else, too. She takes all that info about PHP and JQuery floating around in her brain from her day job and uses it to generate a new form of conceptual art she calls Twitterscapes.

Caroline C. Blaker's twitterscape titled February 20, 2010 2:14PM

Twitterscape February 20, 2010 2:14PM by Caroline C. Blaker

The images are of pixels created from Twitter information. Characters and symbols are translated into pixels of color. I asked her if the pixels of color could be translated back into language and she told me they could not. She did tell me the red pixels represent @ signs. If you watch the Twitterscape visualizations on a computer, the image changes every few seconds.

Blaker began “painting with pixels” using paints she applied using a rubber spatula to create blocks of color about an inch wide. You can see some of her work with paint on canvas in Diptych and The Kinetics of Connection. You can also see some of her work behind her in this video. I caught her explaining a bit about Twitterscapes to someone on the first night of her showing in the Chroma Studios gallery in Albuquerque.

Caroline C. Blaker describes Twitterscapes from Virginia DeBolt on Vimeo.

I hope you caught that last statement, where Blaker said that the Twitterscapes you see now are just the baseline for what she can expand this concept to include in future art projects.

Some Q & A with Caroline C. Blaker

I asked Caroline a few questions about herself and her work.

Q: Tell me about your background.

A: I am a web developer and an artist. I have been an a painter since the age of 9 and have had general interest in many forms of art since before I can remember. I grew up in Connecticut. I studied ceramics in college (Washington University in St. Louis) where the conceptual implications of temperature, fire and use of earth materials turned me onto installation. I came to web development after graduation knowing that I would need the skills to promote myself. I have been a web developer professionally since 2005. At this point in time, I have spent 2 years working for a local web development company in a lead programmer capacity with project management responsibility.

Q: How do you reach this point in your artistic journey?

A: It began as my extra-curricular study of web design (you know, apart from waiting tables and going out as a college grad too many nights a week) took on more and more of my creative time and began to halt my painting practice in the studio. Even when I did set aside time for painting, I realized I was thinking about web development and my latest roadblock to solve, as I would run into them frequently and very much enjoy the problem solving aspect of development that painting without authority could not provide. My paintings lacked vitality, development, and resolve, which I determined to be going to web development. Of course, I soon started working as a web developer and the skills I had been developing on my own took my career to its first real step.

I decided that I needed to bring my use of creativity full-circle back to the painting studio by doing something. That something, I decided, would be to paint actual pixels (in representative square strokes) on the canvas, so that at the very least all residual creativity that might have been discarded from the web process would get a chance of being reused. I began to experiment with the composition of pixels and began to paint them as little individual entities on the canvas.

I knew that ultimately what I would be striving for would be a completely data-driven art form that I could paint like a painting using my expertise of web browsers and the various technologies available to display data on a screen, but for that I would need at the very least a data set and a conceptual framework to position my efforts for some concept. These became rules-in-waiting until I found the Twitter timeline.

My web development career hit a boost in 2008 when I joined MIS in Albuquerque in a position that demanded I learn Javascript libraries, PHP content management development and MySQL. I began to push the limits of my pixels, and realized that those pixels were coming from me: each pixel was being placed in relationship to all pre-existing pixels in a calculated way that was meant to express something inside me. At one point, I created a series that effectively dealt with my experience of healing from a serious-yet-caught-in-time illness and its associated memories. After this series, the pixels began to flow freely and cleanly from all kinds of memories and began to reflect my more true self.

Q: How do you create the Twitterscapes?

A: Twitterscapes use a PHP script that pulls the Twitter public XML feed and then is processed through a Javascript using the Jquery library for inline SVG graphics and positioning to land on a web page in a way that is completely dynamic. Every minute, the public timeline is refreshed, and a new Twitterscape is made. Similarly, the Twitterscape from the last minute disappears forever.

I created the script within nine days to pull the data from Twitter and make the images. I am still tickled that my conceptual goal to take web development to the painting studio has come completely full circle in my original intent – how many life events work out exactly as we expect?

Caroline C. Blaker's twitterscape titled Saturday, Feb 20 2010 - 2:11PM

Twitterscapes are pictographs of data, determined by the Twitter users’ colors and language, displayed on a web browser. Prints of Twitterscapes are artifacts of those images, but not the true images themselves, which are browser behavior-scripted shapes. The 10px by 20px rectangles that make up a Twitterscape are archetypes of single pixels but yet are made of 200 actual screen pixels each, from a single character from a tweet that … well, is composed of a number of bytes I’m not even aware of!

I’m finally painting with data! and while I may still use the pixel stroke in my future paintings, the pixels have made their full journey from the screen, to my painting studio, back to the screen where they will continue to change and embellish new versions of Twitterscapes as long as they shall last.

Q: How would you describe yourself as an artist?

A: What I feel that I really do is conceptual investigation. I’m enjoying Twittterscapes as a reflection on the broad idea of social media—a snapshot of the rhythm and colors of Twitter in a Twitter minute (ha…) and watching it change, like looking out a window or reflecting on an old photograph. I’m lucky that my desire to merge web and painting converged on Twitter and produced Twitterscapes – but I certainly don’t mean to be limited to Twitter in my investigations into data art or picture making. For example, I’m already collecting spam email data to produce whatever different kind of pictures my investigations take me to using that data. Also, the more I look at them, the more I realize my paintings have been there to free me as an artist to look at things more conceptually outside myself and now that the pixels have truly finished their journey to data art through my creativity, my hope is that I will take my oil and latex paintings much further. One thing I’m looking forward to trying are plaster gauze/latex castings of shapes to overlay onto paintings or plaster gauze 3-D paintings in a sense of deconstructing the painting in a sculptural meme.

Q: What else would you like to tell me?

A: For the beginning creative types – its not always clear on how to make your own sparks fly- in fact, by default, your sparks don’t fly and its up to you to get them going. Completely your personal responsibility. Since you don’t have anyone to tell how exactly to do that, you need to go with your gut feelings. Explore things you are not good at and enjoy what you do (or try to do!). Responsibility for your own well being ultimately results in action for your own well being which ultimately results in the consideration of improvement of one single life (yours).

All things are positive. All of them. Even the horrible things. There are things to learn from every event and idea. Notice them. Keep track of them. Investigate them. If you want to improve the world, you might be able to do it by something you hate. There is no sweeter victory.

Other Art Projects Using Twitter

  • What if Twitter came to life? by sween is people bringing other people’s tweets to life and filming the results.
  • Portwiture is a Twitter/Flickr mashup. It matches up content from your tweets with content from Flickr.
  • Twitter Mosaic creates a mosaic of your Twitter followers which you can put on your blog or print on something like a t-shirt.
  • Twitter Fountain is another Twitter/Flickr mashup. You get the app, insert your chosen keywords from Twitter and Flickr, and watch what happens.
  • Twistori displays a constantly changing display of tweets using the words love, hate, think, believe, feel, or wish.
  • Twyric takes a tweet with a hashtag like #haiku, #lyric, #poetry, #poetic or, of course, #twyric, and matches it by keyword to an image from Flickr. These poetic pairings of tweets and images turn out to be really wonderful sometimes.
  • Social Collider reveals cross-connections between conversations on Twitter. This one is quite fascinating. I spent a long time studying it.

Have you seen any other artists using Twitter to generate new art forms?

Cross-posted at BlogHer.

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