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What Artists Can Teach Us About Technology, Data, and Surveillance

By Rob Mitchum // January 5, 2015

Since last fall, CI faculty and fellow Jason Salavon has occupied a unique position: artist-in-residence at Microsoft Research. As a computational artist, Salavon explores new ways of creating art with software and data, such as aggregating hundreds of Playboy centerfolds or Renaissance portraits into a single image, turning census data into a massive, dynamic visualization, or creating information-dense collages of search engine image results. An article at The Stranger by Jen Graves dives deep into Salavon’s background and his current work at Microsoft Research, where he is exploring the intersection of art, technology, and surveillance by, in part, spying on the Microsoft Research office itself.

The idea is that he’ll hide microphones all over, then take the “bag of words” he collects and send it through a filtering program that will sift and play back the material according to whatever the most sophisticated technology in the world thinks it can tell you about what you—you individually or you collectively—have just said.

“There’s a burgeoning area of research called ‘sentiment analysis,'” Salavon says, explaining that programs detecting word “mood” and frequency are learning to assign sets of words attributes like “positive” and “negative.” Sentiment analysis “has creepy edges,” says Salavon. “I tend to get really interested in things I have ambivalent feelings about.”

The article also discusses other projects Salavon is pursuing on the Redwood campus, including software that looks for images of Jesus and other figures in photographs of nonhuman objects, and the upbringing and education that led to his career as computational artist and teacher.

He got a New York gallery, won a prestigious grant, and quit another video-game job, finally becoming, officially, an artist at the turn of the millennium, just before digital art seemed to be blowing up at major museums across the country. Now Salavon is both a successful studio artist (he oversees a studio and employs assistants) and a teacher at the University of Chicago, where he has a double appointment in the Department of Visual Arts and the Computational Institute, an important place in the broader world of cloud- and supercomputing.

“Back in the day, I used to have professors talk about the tech-art ghetto,” he says. “Now I’m seeing so many art-physics, art–computer science, art-economics majors. Is there still a hipster bias against technology in the fine-art world? I equate that with video art in the ’70s. I go, just give it time, because obviously our civilization is not rejecting this stuff, so the art world won’t eventually.”

The profile of Salavon is just one part of the wide-ranging story, which covers emotion-sensing couches and vests, an innovative art and technology school at the University of Washington, art installations made from Bing searches, and the broader issues surrounding art created by machines. It’s worth a read.

[Header image: Jason Salavon’s <Color> Wheel, with detail]