Flagscape: Data-visualizing Global Economic Exchange in Virtual Reality

Overview

Scott Kildall is conducting research into data-navigation techniques in virtual reality with a project called Flagscape, which constructs a surreal world of economic exchange between nations, based on United Nations data.

The work deploys “data bodies,” which represent exports such as metal ores and fossil fuels that move through space and impart complexities of economic relations. Viewers move through the procedurally-generated datascape rather than acting upon the data elements, inverting the common paradigm of legible and controlled data access.

Economic exchange in VR

Details

The code constructs data from several databases at runtime including population, carbon emissions per capita, military personnel per capita and a United Nations database on resource extraction. All of these get combined to construct the Flagscape data bodies. Each one represents a single datum, linked to a specific country.

The only stationary data body is a population model for each country, which scales to the relative value for each country and resembles a 3D person using a revolve around a central axis. The code positions these forms at their appropriate 3D world location, such that China and India — the largest two population bodies — act as waypoints as their forms dwarf all others.

Population bodies of India and China

A moshed flag skins every data body, acting as a glitched representation that subverts its own national identity. Underneath the flag is a complex set of relations of exchange that exceeds nationhood. For example, resource-extraction machines are made in one country that then get purchased by another to extract the very resources that make those machines.

Brazil flag, moshed

Flagscape reminds us that our borders are imaginary and in this idealized 3D space, there are no delineations of territory, only lines that guide trade between countries, forms magically gliding along an invisible path. What the database cannot tell us is how exactly the complex power relations move resources from one nation to another. Meanwhile, carbon emissions, the only untethered data body in Flagscape, which affects the entire planet spin out of control into the distance only to get endlessly respawned.

Carbon emissions by Canada and Australia

The primary acoustic element triggers when you navigate close to a population body. That country’s national anthem plays, filling your ears with a wash of drums, horns and militaristic melodies that flow into a state of sameness.

Initial Inspiration

The project is inspired by early notions of cyberspace described by writers such as William Gibson, where virtual reality is a space of infinity and abstraction. In Neuromancer, published in 1984, he describes cyberspace as:

“Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”

Neuromancer

While this text entices, most VR content recreates physical spaces, such as the British Museum with the same artwork, floor tiles and walls as the real, or it builds militarized spaces in which “you” are a set of hands that trigger weapons as you walk through combat mazes. At some level, this is a consequence of linear-thinking embedded in our fast-paced capitalist economy, arcing towards functionality but ignoring artistic possibilities. This research project acts as an antidote to these constrained environments.

OverkillVR, a virtual reality game

It was with these initial conversations around virtual datascapes with Ruth Gibson and Bruno Martelli that I was invited to be part of the Reality Remix project and was included in the AHRC Reality Remix grant which is part of their Next Generation Immersive Experiences call. My role is a “collaborator” (aka artist) who is creating their own project under these auspices.

Spatialization and Materializing Data

Unlike the 2D screen, which has a flatness and everyday familiarity, VR offers full spatialization and a new form of non-materiality, which Flagscapes fully plays with. One concept that I have been working with is that since data has physical consequences, it should exist as a “real” object. This project will expand this idea but will also blur sensorial experiences, tricking the visitor into a boundary zone of the non-material.

At the same time, Flasgscapes is its own form of landscape, creating an entire universe of possibility. It refers to traditions of depicting landscapes as art objects as well as iconic Earthworks pieces such as Spiral Jetty, where the Earth itself acts as a canvas. However, this type of datascape will be entirely infinite, like the boundaries of the imagination.

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson

Finally, Flagscape continues the steam of instruction-based work by artists such as Sol LeWitt, where an algorithm rather than the artist creates the work. Here, it accomplishes a few things such as taking the artists hand away from creating the form itself but also recognizing the power of artificial intelligence to assist in creating new forms of artwork.

Alternate Conception of Space in Virtual Reality

VR offers many unique forms of interaction, perception and immersion, but one aspect that defines it is the alternate sense of space. Similar to the religious spaces before the dominance of science, as described by Margaret Wertheim in the Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, this “other” space has the potential to create a set of rules that transport us to a unique imagination space.

As technology progresses and culture responds, the linearity of engineering-thinking often confines creativity rather than enhances it. Capitalist spaces get replicated and modified to adapt to the technology, validating McLuhan’s predictions of instantaneous, group-like thinking. The swipe gestures we use on our phones get encoded in muscle memory. We slyly refer to Wikipedia as the “wonder-killer”. The flying car is often cited as the most desirable future invention.

Flying car from Blade Runner

At stake with technological progress is imagination itself. Will the content of the spaces that get opened up with new technologies be ones that enhance our creativity or dull it? Who has access to technology-inspired culture? How can we use, enhance and subvert online distribution channels? These are just some of the questions and conversations that this project will ask — in the context of virtual space.

I see VR in a similar place as Video Art was in the 1970s, which thrived with access to affordable camcorders. However, VR and this specific project has the ability to easily disseminate into homes and public spaces through various app stores. Ultimately, with this project I hope to direct conversations around access and imagination with art and technology.

Marshall McLuhan with many telephones

Work-in-progress Presentation

Our Reality Remix group will be presenting its research, proof-of-concepts and prototypes at two venues in London on July 27th and July 28th, 2018 at Ravensbourne and Siobhan Davies Studios. Both free events are open to the public.

Bibliography

Gibson, W. (1993). Neuromancer. London: Harper Collins Science Fiction & Fantasy.

McLuhan, M. (1967). The medium is the massage : an inventory of effects. Bantam Books.

Wertheim, M. (2010). The pearly gates of cyberspace. New York [u.a.]: Norton.