I: Why Consider Data?
Interview: Part 1 of 6
DE: I wanted to ask you, first, about the role of data in your work. There's been so much attention paid, in recent years, to the scarier aspects of data collection, from government surveillance to privacy concerns raised by new forms of big data. And so much of the conversation, it seems to me, is about — on the one hand — trying to avoid being ensnared in data collection altogether, which becomes harder and harder each year. And on the other hand, there is this impulse to give up and embrace data collection as the new normal, or to assume that little can be done about it. What I think is really interesting about your work is that you seem to imply a third option. There is this idea of working with data. I was wondering, what draws you to working with data rather than fighting against data collection or accepting current norms of data collection that are emerging?
BH: Right. With data—We use "data" as this shorthand, in a way—that word, that buzzword—for a whole set of practices that have all kinds of different built-in contingencies—that have technologies, that have material realities that they're based on, programming conventions that have entire histories that have social norms as part of them—this whole ecosystem of practices and techniques that come together in something that we call data. I'm really interested in the excess, the things that surround the idea of data that we don't always acknowledge with that term. For instance, you have a number or something that's in a database. And that's supposed to have an indexical relationship with some aspect of reality. But it's haunted by who collected it, what tools they used to collect it, what the database—you know—the schema was, that they put together, the terms they chose, the categories that they slotted that into. All this other stuff kind of haunts that number. And at the same time, that number leaves out a lot of things. It leaves out the more emergent, durational, experiential qualities of whatever phenomenon—it's a reduction—some kind of representation of a real world phenomenon that's larger. So that's what I'm interested in with data—the thing that's added and the thing that's removed. You know, what gets across and what doesn't. And I think a lot of my pieces have a little bit of the structure where it's starting with a performance. Maybe Forty-Eight to Sixteen is a good example. The performance is me biking from my home in Brooklyn, at the time, to Times Square. I'm on my bike, and I'm experiencing the city in a particular way. And it's a very, kind of, visceral, physical relationship to the patterns of the city. I'm recording my heart rate and my breathing and my pedaling as data streams as I'm doing that. It starts with a performance that's translated into data. And then the data is re-performed, initially by Topu Lyo, who is a great cellist. He plays the heart rate, you know, pizzicato on the cello, like pu-pum-pu-pum. He plays the pedaling, you know, bowing, and he plays my breathing by kind of scraping the strings. So it's performance of the body—like body, data, and then body again. It's re-performed. And something makes it through that. There's some kind of visceral relationship between the performance that results on the cello and the performance that I had in the city. And then there's a lot, of course, that doesn't make it through that transition, that's left out. And being a piece of music, it's interpretive. Topu is bringing his artistic license, as instrumentalist, to that piece. And me, as a composer, in choosing how those translations happen. I am a composer in that. I have a subjective interpretation I'm imposing there. That piece and a lot of my other ones are attempting to highlight interpretation and contingency and subjectivity in that translation from body to data to body that we don't normally think about. That it's not an objective practice. The emphasis in those pieces is put on those softer, weirder elements that could have been something else.