Data is nature

Data is nature

Music is a hidden exercise in mathematics by minds unconscious of dealing with numbers

Recently I was lucky enough to attend the Data Is Nature closing event at Brighton Digital Festival. It comprised of an evening of digital music from Warp label veteran Mira Calix and video artist Quayola as well as support from Paul Prudence who writes the excellent Data Is Nature blog.  Organiser Lighthouse described the event as “the organic behaviours of plants become(s) part of an audio-visual world where the natural and the artificial coexist harmoniously”. The result of the collaboration produced a sequence of live glitchy fractured beats wrapped around recorded classical cello sketches. Quayola’s response to this was a series of beautiful digital film loops of plants overlaid by camera tracking wireframes whose swaying branches and stems danced to the stark juddering rhythms generated by Mira Calix as she loomed over her array of control devices.

Data is nature

Data Is Nature, © Quayola, 2011.

I always wonder if this live electronic music has an aspect of emperor’s new clothes about it? There is a degree of faith placed upon the performing artist since their efforts are shrouded in subterfuge due to the machinations of silver laptops and mysterious black boxes. Irrespective of this veiled generation, the result was a sequence of frail beauty, detailing the interaction between flora and binary array as the organic growth is played against the hissing otherworldly elegance of startled digital noise. In many ways it echoes the work of legendary Icelander Bjork whose recent album Biophilia also investigates this strange land between the soft and hard, the science and the mysterious and the micro and macroscopic. She describes her attempt to narrate this flickering growth and slithering bifurcation as “…to have one song that’s teaching structure then the best way to do it is to have crystals that grow, because it’s so similar how it grows. And then to use the replication of DNA to show rhythm and generating music, and arrangement? Well that moves like viruses.”

The cyborg metaphor is appropriate here as well, biology and machine as one. Writer Sadie Plant in her best selling book Zeroes + Ones analyses the role of technology interfacing with humans, a role made possible by prosthetics and medical implants, frail mutable flesh emboldened by hard steel and electronics giving rise to entirely new systems of behaviour. Plant, building upon Donna Haraways’ post-human cyborg manifesto describes this evolving interface as a place that will “mutate as it learns, grows, and explores its own potentiality”, that is the resonance between the binary (machine) and analogue (plant) manufacturing unique artefacts and experiences. Mathematician Ada Lovelace, 19th century pioneer feminist and radical considered the frenetic potential relationship between the science and the body. She argued one could reconcile these poles, that the friction between the physical body and the raw purity of science could be unified to “a complete reduction to a system, of the principles and methods of discovery”.

Data Is Nature can then be regarded as an ambient soundtrack to this edge architecture, music which echoes the hinterland battles of cryptoforesty as trees encroach upon failed buildings, of guerilla gardeners’ militant insertion of bright foliage into brutal grey concrete. Brad Weiners, founder of the Burning Man festival describes this potent hinterland opportunity as “a guerilla operation, which liberates an area of land, time and imagination”. This border zone then is where data becomes nature, robots and plants intertwine and dance to create the music of the liminal city.



  1. I wonder if it would have been interesting to have the images maniputlate the music, as well as / instead of the other way round.
    I’m not sure Bjork is a legend. I saw her on the telly.

    1. I’ve seen various interactive art pieces where you draw to make sound and Bjork and others have done all sorts of tricks with active surfaces to compose and make live digital music. I guess the question is how you manage this new mechanism, could one turn a map into a sound system? Feed GIS data into a screen reader program and bathe in the resulting digital bliss or trauma?

      1. Hang on a minute. Shouldn’t that be data ARE nature?

        Anyway, I don’t know and to be honest it would probably be fairly dull. I think the attraction in going for that sort of approach is that you get a more truly ‘random’ [or something] sound.

        Incidentally, Bjork on growing crystals put me in mind of early nineties techno-hippies with their fractal pattern generator things.

      2. I didn’t decide the title ask the nice chap as the Data is Nature blog, but yes though data is a collective so maybe there is a degree of grammar flexibility there? I agree about the crystal matter, one has to be careful not to stray into the Aquarian realm of Ozric Tentacles etc, i’ve not had much of a listen to the new Bjork album, I think I need to walk to the music for a while first.

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