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Anna Ridler talks about blind spots in information and her data driven projects

London-based data artist Anna Ridler discusses her penchant for linguistics and how they have let her to artificial intelligence and art.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Dec 08, 2020

In a world where information is money, data artists like Anna Ridler are really creators of currency. Coming from a world of literature and linguistics, Ridler uses datasets to decipher the layers of our interactions with the various human and non-human elements we associate with. She says, “I have always been interested in making work with data and information, and through this interest using different types of technology but in quite a considered way - not because it is there. I think about what it can do and how it can add to what I am making, what are its associations and connotations of using it? How can all of these different things go in and help amplify or help construct the message or the thing I am interested in and make it conceptually stronger. For me, working with data and datasets can be a very profound way of understanding the world”. 

A viewer in front of the large format analog database of tulips Myriad (Tulips) (2018) | Myriad (Tulips) | Anna Ridler | STIRworld
A viewer in front of the large format analog database of tulips Myriad (Tulips) (2018) Image: Tristan Fewings

While many other artists seem to be giving their studios a break and taking a backseat while the global pandemic looms large, Ridler is developing large-scale projects and exhibiting at multiple locations. In an exclusive conversation with STIR, she discusses her Laws of Ordered Form, a data driven exploration that examines the paths we create between objects or symbols and their perceived meanings. The work places further emphasis on the flaws of classification and categorisation, using machine learning to exemplify these tendencies. Ridler discusses, “Laws of Ordered Form is an ongoing project that takes images, predominantly photographs, from a variety of encyclopedias, alongside the captions and fragments of the text about the images, showing how this tendency has always manifested itself. The project re-contextualises the images with the new categories that I have created. The specifics of the encyclopedic entries have changed to new and abstracted terms. Part of the dataset that I made is available to download in a zip folder from The Photographers’ Gallery website who commissioned the project for the duration of the exhibition, allowing people to explore and reclassify the images, taking them off the fixed page and allowing the definitions to be more fluid and changing. It plays into what people have always done with encyclopedias, particularly in the 19th century where there is a movement towards these systems of knowledge, cutting, rearranging, and pasting words and pictures to tell new and more relevant stories. If encyclopedias are designed to record and explain the world around us in some sort of totality, people have always used them to work against that narrative, literally cutting out individual entries and reconfiguring them to be what they want. But this option is not so readily available for datasets, because they are not material objects. They are specialist tools that require knowledge, technologies and some level of skill, locked inside different interlocking systems that might not be easily accessed. It is very hard to find the dataset which a commercial algorithm has been trained on, and without the dataset it is hard to understand the assumptions that it might be making”.

A portion of Myriad (Tulips) (2018), an examination of the human labour behind machine learning | Myriad (Tulips) | Anna Ridler | STIRworld
A portion of Myriad (Tulips) (2018), an examination of the human labour behind machine learning Image: Tabitha Jussa

Ridler is also currently developing Final Edition, which takes the viewer on a journey of discovery into the dynamic shift in the way we consume news and day to day information. She tells us more about this continuously growing work, “Final Edition is an ongoing artistic project that attempts to create a physical archive and installation of the final edition of every local newspaper across the USA that have closed since 2004. This date, which coincides with the launch of Facebook and the growing popularity of services like Craigslist, also starts the decline and closure of around a fifth of all local newspapers across the United States, whose business models, heavily reliant on advertising revenue, could not compete. These papers, once shuttered and gone, are now impossible to find. For this project so far, librarians and editors in 17 states were contacted about 695 newspapers. From this it has been possible to find less than ten copies of the final editions. Even finding the dates of when papers close is incredibly difficult. There is no legislation or statute to archive or preserve them; instead it has been left to libraries at a state and county level, most of whom do not have the resources to do so. Using the library of Congress’s Chronicling America project, meant to identify what titles exist for a specific place and time, and how to access them, becomes an endless loop of broken links and missing pages.

A look at Final Edition (2020) | Final Edition (2020) | Anna Ridler | STIRworld
A look at Final Edition (2020) Image: Anna Ridler

Missing datasets, a term coined by Mimi Onuoha to describe “blank spots that exist in spaces that are otherwise data-saturated” is a good phrase to use for the lack of these papers. Given how pervasive news is in everyday life, it feels axiomatic that the final editions should be kept somewhere in some form - and indeed there are traces but it seems just so surprising that although the internet seems to promise permanence, they are just not there”. 

Her work has been exhibited globally at various institutions including the Victoria and Albert Museum, Tate Modern, the Barbican Centre, Centre Pompidou, HeK Basel, the ZKM Karlsruhe, Ars Electronica and others. Ridler was also named one of nine pioneering artists working with the creative potential of artificial intelligence (AI) by Artnet. She will be showcasing a part of Myriad (2018) as well as Mosaic Virus (2019) at AI: More than Human, hosted by OCT Art & Design Gallery in Shenzhen, China, which opens in December 2020.

A portrait of the artist (2020) | Anna Ridler | STIRworld
A portrait of the artist (2020) Image: Bella Riza

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