It's data. But is it art?

The word "data" has varied connotations. Cookies, privacy policies and GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) may conjure caution. CID (Client Identifying Data) might elicit an urge to double-check everything you've just entered into a form. But we don't usually associate the word "data" with "art." Nexus – a specially commissioned installation that translates big data on air quality into a visual performance – is about to change all that.

Inspired by the network of forest trees and their roots, Nexus is a modular sculpture made up of bespoke handwoven textiles built over a 3D-printed frame to complement a lighting display. The end result is a seamless fusion of the technological and the tactile. And apparently not for the first time.

"People think of textiles as quite a low-tech medium, but the Jacquard machine [a device fitted to a loom to simplify the textile-manufacturing process] was invented in 1804, [long before the ENIAC machine of the 1940s], making it the first computer," says Elaine Yan Ling Ng, British-Chinese designer and mastermind behind Nexus. "The evolution from that to 3D printing today is fascinating to me – data and tech working together with textiles."

I know it's not a solution to the air quality crisis, but it creates a dialogue, and that's an integral part of coming up with a solution. 
Elaine Yan Ling Ng

The art and data meet cute

Nexus is fed by air quality data analyzed by UBS Evidence Lab from more than 8,000 monitoring stations around the world. Evidence Lab teams and Elaine worked in collaboration to showcase Evidence Lab's capabilities in the space of big data using the theme of sustainability.

"We decided on air quality because it's applicable to everyone who may come into contact with the installation," Elaine explains. "This data is interesting because air quality is sensory. You can see it, smell it and taste it." The issue of global air quality has been identified as a public health emergency by the World Health Organization, and Elaine and her team are addressing it in an innovative, human and visually engaging format. "We created this piece to show people that the issue of air quality is a serious one," she continues. "And I think the interactivity of it creates a sense of ownership because each experience is unique to that participant. I know it's not a solution to the air quality crisis, but it creates a dialogue, and that's an integral part of coming up with a solution."

Creating a unique experience

Since its launch, Nexus has traveled to UBS Greater China Conference in Shanghai, the Taipei Dangdai and Art Basel Hong Kong art fairs, becoming a talking point for both our clients and local media. A new iteration of Nexus presented by Evidence Lab was featured at the ESG and Sustainability Symposium in London, placing UBS and Evidence Lab at the forefront of clients' minds when it comes to environmental sustainability and big data. And offering new insights around global health issues and its investment implications.

"We update the dataset depending on the location that the installation is being exhibited in," says Elaine. "So we have uploaded a new dataset for the London exhibition. The participant can select their preferred location and it will create a pattern unique to that location using pixels of varying colors to represent AQI [air quality index] using kinetic design. Then the participant can refer to the kiosk for further information to better understand the data."

Art imitating life

The idea for Nexus came from the sheer depth of data, the different ways of looking at it and how humans apply it. But the execution of the artwork was inspired by nature. "It was influenced by biomimicry studies, which is a fundamental design philosophy," Elaine explains. "The way data can mimic natural life, such as mycelium turning nutrients from dying vegetation into new life. In fact, the biomimicry has a dual function in this project. It shows that, just like data and tech can work with textiles, different people with different disciplines can also work together as a team. This mirrors ecology in nature. And just like in ecology, the supply chain can be easily broken."

More articles on the subject Global Trends