Review of the Big Bang Data Exhibition

BIg Bang advertising

I had the opportunity recently to attend the Big Bang data exhibition at Somerset house in London.
One of the catchphrases by which this exhibition advertises itself is ‘Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. Explore how the datafied world affects us all through the work of artists, designers, innovators and thinkers.’ This slogan brings this exhibition into the realm of using creative means to articulate ones data and research findings, a theme I have been exploring with this blog.

One strong theme that was evident throughout the exhibition was the adage ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ and in cases where there is a lot of data, this exhibition celebrates creative ways to present that. A second perceived theme, perhaps not for the whole exhibition but for one or two installations, seemed to address the provenance of data collection to show how the ways in which data is collected and stored have changed over time. For those not aware of the provenance of Somerset House, it had a previous life as the Births Deaths and Marriages register so in a way the very building is an important part of the provenance of data collection.

The exhibition, like its web site, seemed to be a collection of installations related to the overall theme rather than presenting a thesis by using the various installations. This exhibition approach resonated with what I have often seen as a problem in doctoral dissertations that I have examined. It begs the question as to whether the viewer/reader of the exhibition makes of it what they want or whether an exhibition benefits from having an overall connectivity. For me the connectivity is important so this exhibition did not in my opinion hold together as an exhibition, but several installations had a strong impact on me.

One installation had a very clear didactic [ the written tablet alongside the art work] that explained the process of working with data. The installation ‘Unaffordable Country’ is an interactive data visualisation which exposes the UK’s dire housing crisis. What is most useful in this installation is the explanation of how the data sourced from the Land Registry was organised and cleaned and how it subsequently informed a ‘light bulb’ moment which resulted in the data being used in a way to enable the readers to really consider the impact of this data on their day to day lives of obtaining housing. In my opinion a clear addressing of the impact factor of research!

using photos as data display

A second installation spoke to me of the humanity that often gets overlooked in collection and representation of quantitative data. The data for this study was presented in spread sheets that in microcosm looked like straight lines, but in close up were a line of photographs. The message that I got by viewing this was that while certain research projects require working with huge collections of data, this data presentation device reinforced that the study still involved people with their stories.


The best example of a picture telling a thousand words was the installation by Ingrid Burrington and Dan Williams. It involved a pin board covered in artefacts with connections in string between the different pieces of data. It made me think about the ways in which researchers connect various pieces of literature in an effort to either frame an issue for investigation. Making these connections explicit using the string made me wonder or trouble over the level of detail we may need to go to to make the connections between literature explicit.

[Ingrid Burrington and Dan Williams ]

The provision of the opportunity to attend this exhibition draws attention to provisioning the creative environment, a theme I have previously addressed in this blog.

The idea of provisioning a creative environment for research students to stimulate them into adopting creative approaches to undertaking and publishing their research involves more than giving them a budget to attend conferences. Two significant features of my trip to this exhibition emerge for me.

My attendance at this exhibition was funded by the faculty through a dedicated ‘creativity in research’ cluster. The fact that the faculty has a ‘creativity in research’ cluster is one way of provisioning such research agendas for others in that there is a group of researchers who meet to advance that particular research theme. The second obvious way of provisioning creative ideas for researchers is through funding and this project was separately funded. Whether the investment pays off in terms of informing research practice it is hard to tell at this state. In any financial provisioning of the environment, particularly a research culture, it is hard to tell whether the investment produces dividends because the outputs derived from such investments may take a long time in fruition.

Nevertheless both strategies are relevant for provisioning a creative environment in which research practices are undertaken. Having dedicated ‘creative’ research groups to provide communities of practice for students to explore and discuss their ideas is important as is backing up the creative rhetoric with funding to enable researchers such as the group with whom I attended this exhibition to do just that: Go out and see how other researchers are being creative.


About the (research) supervisor's friend

I work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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One Response to Review of the Big Bang Data Exhibition

  1. Cathryn says:

    Great article Geof and I love the connections you have made between the artworks and research. I also think it highlights the importance of showing research in a range of ways that are useful to people and not just papers in a journal that sit on bookshelves never to be read. This is what we are trying to achieve in our stream at the Art of Management and Organisation Conference.

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