From Talks

Data Crystals at EVA

I just finished attending the EVA London conference this week and did a demonstration of my Data Crystals project. This is the formal abstract for the demonstration and writing it helped clear up some of my ideas about the Data Crystals project and digital fabrication of physical sculptures and installations.


Embodied Data and Digital Fabrication: Demonstration with Code and Materials
by Scott Kildall


Data has tangible consequences in the real world. Accordingly, physical data-visualizations have the potential to engage with the actual effects of the data itself. A data-generated sculpture or art installation is something that people can move around, though or inside of. They experience the dimensionality of data with their own natural perceptual mechanisms. However, creating physical data visualizations presents unique material challenges since these objects exist in stasis, rather than in a virtual space with a guided UX design. In this demonstration, I will present my recent research into producing sculptures from data using my custom software code that creates files for digital fabrication machines.


The overarching question that guides my work is: what does data look like? Referencing architecture, my artwork such as Data Crystals (figure 2) executes codes that maps, stacks and assembles data “bricks” to form unique digital artifacts. The form of these objects are impossible to predict from the original data-mapping, and the clustering code will produce different variations each time it runs.

Other sculptures remove material through intense kinetic energy. Bad Data (figure 3) and Strewn Fields (figure 1) both use the waterjet machine to gouge data into physical material using a high- pressure stream of water. The material in this case — aluminum honeycomb panels and stone slabs — reacts in adverse ways as it splinters and deforms due to the violence of the machine.

2.1 Material Expression

Physical data-visualizations act on materials instead of pixels and so there is a dialogue between the data and its material expression. Data Crystals depict municipal data of San Francisco and have a otherworldly ghostly quality of stacked and intersecting cubes. The data gets served from a web portal and is situated in the urban architecture and so the 3D-printed bricks are an appropriate form of expression.

Bad Data captures data that is “bad” in the shallow sense of the word, rendering datasets such as Internet Data Breaches, Worldwide UFO Sightings or Mass Shootings in the United States. The water from the machine gouges and ruptures aluminum honeycomb material in unpredictable ways, similar to the way data tears apart our social fabric. This material is emblematic of the modern era, as aluminum began to be mass-refined at the end of the 19th century. These datasets exemplify conflicts of our times such as science/heresy and digital security/infiltration.

2.2 Frozen in Time

Once created, these sculptures cannot be endlessly altered like screen-based data visualizations. This challenges the artwork to work with fixed data or to consider the effect of capturing a specific moment.

For example, Strewn Fields is a data-visualization of meteorite impact data. When a large asteroid enters the earths atmosphere, it does so at high velocity of approximately 30,000km/hour. Before impact, it breaks up into thousands of small fragments, which are meteorites. Usually they hit our planet in the ocean or at remote locations. The intense energy of the waterjet machine gouges the surface of each stone, mirroring the raw kinetic energy of a planetoid colliding with the surface of the Earth. The static etching captures the act of impact, and survives as an antithetical gesture to the event itself. The actual remnants and debris (the meteorites) have been collected, sold and scattered and what remains is just a dataset, which I have translated into a physical form.

2.3 Formal Challenges to Sculpture

This sort of “data art” challenges the formal aspects of sculpture. Firstly, machine-generated artwork removes the artist’s hand from the work, building upon the legacy of algorithmic artwork by Sol Lewitt and others. Execution of this work is conducted by the stepper motor rather than by gestures of the artist.

Secondly, the input source of data are unknowable forms until they are actually rendered. The patterns are neither mathematic nor random, giving a certain quality of perceptual coherence to the work. Data Crystals: Crime Incidents has 30,000 data points. Using code-based clustering algorithms, it creates forms only recently possible with the combination of digital fabrication and large amounts of data.


My sculpture-generation tools are custom- developed in C++ using Open Frameworks, an open source toolkit. My code repositories are on GitHub: My own software bypasses any conventional modeling package. It can handle very complex geometry, and more importantly doesn’t have the “look” that a program such as Rhino/Grasshopper generates.

3.1 Direct-to-Machine

My process of data-translation is optimized for specific machines. Data Crystals generate STL files which most 3D printers can read. My code generates PostScript (.ps) files for the waterjet machine. The conversation with the machine itself is direct. During the production and iteration process, once I define the workflow, the refinements proceed quickly. It is optimized, like the machine that creates the artwork.

3.2 London Layering

In my demonstration, I will use various open data from London. I focus not on data that I want to to acquire, but rather, data that I can acquire. I will demonstrate a custom build of Data Crystals which shows multiple layers of municipal data, and I will run clustering algorithms to create several Data Crystals for the City of London.


Figure 1: Strewn Fields (2016)
by Scott Kildall
Waterjet-etched stone

Figure 2:
Data Crystals: Crime Incidents (2014)
by Scott Kildall
3D-print mounted on wood

Figure 3:
Bad Data: U.S. Mass Shootings (2015)
by Scott Kildall
Waterjet-etched aluminum honeycomb panel

PARISOMA art panel reportback

Sometimes I’m an art ambassador to the tech community in San Francisco.

Last week, I was on a panel of artists and non-profit educators called “How Technology is Revolutionizing the World of Art” as part of PARISOMA — a co-working space in San Francisco. This included colleagues: Matt Ganucheau, Danille Siembieda and Barry Threw.

I talk at these sorts of events fairly often, addressing a tech crowd who is art-curious. This forces me out of my comfort zone. I know the art world well, but the tech world of start-up lingo and social entrepreneurship is slightly unfamiliar. I do think art-technology discourse is essential, especially in SF in these times, so I do my part.

PARISOMA is faithfully trying to stir up conversation. This is so appreciated, especially since it would be easy to exclude artists from the “tech conversation”.

Oh, the naming problem: How Technology is Revolutionizing the World of Art. This presumes that technology is now changing the world of art. Let’s not forget our history. (New) technology has been turning the art world on its head for decades,  and for centuries, it has been influencing art-making in overt and subtle ways.

Projects such as E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) were talking about this very issue 35-40 years ago. I won’t get into the manyfold examples here, but the research is out there and easy to find.

…and the over-use of the word “revolution” is well-documented. It’s a disservice to actual revolution: the overturning of a political state. Language is important. Point being that art and technology have been intertwined for a very long time. It is not happening just now, nor is it a sudden turn of events that is redefining art.


However, the positive things from the dialogue were immense. A few key observations:

(1) The attendance for this panel in a tech venue was much higher than in an art venue (~100 people on a Wed night). Why is this? Why does the tech community garner more bodies? Is it because there is some flavor of “networking” involved? This happens at art events as well, so I don’t get it.

(2) Art jargon alienates the wider community. Tech folks get intimidated by art galleries and the language describing the works. At one point I brought this up and saw a sea of faces that were nodding. This is a thing that everyone seems to feel. I suppose the art dialogue is in my comfort zone, so I don’t think about the barriers it creates.

(3) Techies have a bad reputation for driving up prices, displacing old-time residents of San Francisco and hopping on corporate buses to work in the Peninsula. But, here was an audience of 80-100 people who wanted to integrate art somehow into their culture. Techies aren’t all bad!

The take-home message is that we should build bridges between the art folks and the technology folks…somehow. I don’t have the answers, but do feel like there are slow inroads being made by just having the conversations.

This video is a bit long (1 hour +), but for those of you who are curious, here it is. Thanks everyone.


Artist Talk @ Plug-in

Tonight, Victoria Scott and I gave a solid talk at Plug-In Gallery in Winnipeg, with support from Erika Lincoln and the Winnipeg Arts Council.

Here, I am with an old friend, Ken Gregory, artist, hardware hacker and kinetic sculpture of many decades. It was great to see him again after nearly 5 years.

I co-presented with Victoria, who showed some of her own work as well as some of our collaborative work. We also introduced our ReFILL workshop, which starts tomorrow (!).

Ken’s artwork is much better than his photography skills. Here, I am partially cut-off. Hey this happens, sometimes. I’ll publish it anyhow.

Otherwise, the talk went great. We got a “Winnipeg reception”, which meant that folks seemed very interested — no cell phone distractions — but at the same time, hardly any questions, either. The feedback was that folks were “reserved”. Ah, welcome to Canada where people are, well…perhaps more genuine.


I <3 Classroom Artist Talks

Here’s my dirty secret. If you pay me a small stipend, I will come to your class and talk about my artwork. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

Last week, it was Jenny Odell’s class at the San Francisco Art Institute: Probing Social Networks. Her work is smart and I’ve been a fan, so perhaps it’s the case of the mutual admiration society. The two of us finally met in person at an opening at Recology San Francisco, where I was once an artist-in-residence (2011) and where she will soon spend some time digging through trash.


My “playlist” covered more of the internet-art projects with some discussion of imaginary objects and virtual data:

No Matter (2008)
Second Front (2006-)
Wikipedia Art (2009)
Tweets in Space (2012)
Playing Duchamp (2009)
Data Crystals (2014)
Water Works (2014)
EquityBot (2014)

The classroon talks are relatively easy to do. Very little prep is required since I’ve spoken about all these project oodles of times. I do these talks mostly, because I remember so many of the artists that came through my MFA grad program and each and every one of them helped me develop my art practice. I want to return the favor.

With a high-level class like this, you always get some good questions. The one project that the students seemed most engaged by was EquityBot, which was both surprising — since it’s a stock-investment algorithm and inspiring since it’s my latest project.


Death and Language

This Thursday at 6pm at Root Division, I will be part of evening of conversation and performance.

The short talk I’ll be giving will be called Death and Language.

In 1972, my father, Gary Kildall, wrote the first high-level computer language for Intel’s microprocessors. This language, called PL/M was instrumental in the development of the personal computer and is now extinct. At around the same time, the last fluent speaker of the Tillamook language also died, thus extinguishing this natural language. What survives of the Tilamook language are audio recordings taken from 1965-1972. With digital preservation techniques as the backdrop, I will entertain questions regarding death of both natural and machine languages.


Talk at David Baker Architects

Yesterday, I gave a brief artist talk at David Baker Architects, which is a local San Francisco architecture firm with numerous sustainability and innovation design awards. Here I am with David Baker, himself, who is sporting a stylish scarf. I want.me_and_baker

It was a casual lunchtime talk with about 15 or 20 people in attendance. An important part of my art practice is talking to organizations that both work outside of the art world and are doing amazing work. I want to share ideas and discuss compelling art ideas with a larger audience.. lunch_audience Here I am, showing my Data Crystals work and explaining the clustering algorithms at work. I later talked about mapping the water infrastructure with my Water Works project.

From this architecture firm, I got positive responses about data and design with in-depth knowledge about urban infrastructure.I hope to continue the code-to-3d prints work with these project. More proposals are in the works.