Permanent installation on the “Cube”, Science and Engineering Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia; since May 2015.

An Ars Electronica Futurelab Project. Role: Artist & Lead Developer.

data art & representation

Data is the numerical trace of action - whatever the origin (from human to environmental) and whoever the actor (from a person to an astronomical process). Weather stations gather data of environmental change while online platforms gather data of human association, preference and transaction.

The Soul of the Cube is a work of Data Art: It visualizes campus activity data of Queensland University of Technology in an abstract, poetic way; it translates the traces of human action at the university (research, education, presence, facility use) and that of environmental state and automated action (weather, solar energy generation, building automation) into a visual entity. This entity communicates its data through aesthetic form; it elevates the mere representation of measurements and statistics into a performance of appearance, behaviour and moods. It relies on sophisticated algorithms to form an incredibly simple simulation of how a thinking being might process data (as trace of action) into state of mind, and thence into its own action.

the generative principle

At its core, the Soul is driven by two data transformations:

  • The transformation of research activity into a visual network
  • The two-stage transformation of aggregate data into moods and that of these moods into visual expressions

The first transformation is complex in its implementation, but simple in its idea: Each research publication is associated with a number of faculties or departments; the number of publications per department and the collaborations between departments can be clearly visually expressed as a graph of nodes and edges.

The second transformation operates on the premise that every conscious being has moods - states of mind that are a particular, more enduring type of emotion which can (more or less gradually) morph into one another. As humans, we instinctively search for moods in beings we interact with, in order to understand and relate. In this virtual being that represents a collective state of mind (or at least of activity), mood is simulated. It is broken down to a number of variables that are calculated at any given moment, and the behaviour and appearance exhibited by the Soul. This computation is not an attempt at a sophisticated artifical intelligence; its goal is to engender curiosity and engagement in visitors, to be enough for the human instinct to complete the sketch of a conscious being with our own experience and fantasy, to make the Soul, each of us in our own way, into what it is.

visual techniques

Visually, the Soul has two parts: A skeleton and a skin. The former is a Force Directed Graph produced from the research network data, with node bodies exhibiting fractal noise displacement patterns and edges displaying publication text extracts, while the latter is a GPU-based simulation of a cloth-like membrane enveloping the skeleton.

data as substance

Data is a difficult material to use in sculpting digital art: It is often inhomogeneous, unpredictable or broken; it is cheaply copied, but sometimes owned by a party with an interest in limiting its free circulation. It is commonly difficult to understand without visualizing it, and difficult to visualize without understanding it.

For the Soul, many data streams are provided by QUT, and those which are not come from reliable web services. They are processed in realtime by a backend written in Clojure, a component which was grown from a dynamic rapid-feedback prototyping environment to a robust data pipeline. It offers runtime reprogramming of data extraction and transformation functions - a way to provide capability for live experimentation. From this backend, the data flows into the visualization, a Unity application spanning up to 20 Full-HD touchscreens and high-resolution projectors, building on a distribution toolkit developed by The Cube Studio. Ultimately, the Soul acts as a host and “permanent resident” of the Cube infrastructure, also taking on the role of providing transitions between other forms of content.