Glancing at Eric Corriel’s new show at Garis and Hahn, you might think the works are strange zoomed-in views of plant life. Or maybe they’re depictions of those tiny glowing jellyfish you once saw at the aquarium. Or are those mold spores? Maps?
If you answered D, none of the above, you’d be right. In fact, it’s data. Corriel, an interactive media artist and web developer, began Enter the Machine with the question, “If we could somehow meet our digital files face-to-face, what would they look like?” He developed and wrote a custom three-part software in C++ to render an artistic answer. The result translates the files and data of his hard drive into a colorful, glowing spread of formations that blur the line between natural and technological.
“Basically what I’ve done is I’ve created some software that will crawl through the hard drive and, for each and every single file, visualize it in a way that’s determined by this custom algorithm that I wrote,” Corriel tells me. “I wanted to give visual form to something that’s very abstract—the concept of data—and get at how the data of each file is actually very unique. It’s kind of like biodiversity, but digital diversity.”
The visually striking prints show the thousands of files making up Corriel’s desktop, Downloads folder, iTunes compilations and more. There’s even one made up of all of his passwords. One might think that there’s a blatant sense of exhibitionism and voyeurism to laying out the contents of one’s computer for all to see. However, instead of rendering the content of his files as the average computer user would see them (what songs they are, what images, et cetera) Corriel has elected to work in pure data. The result is, yes, a truly intimate and widespread display of personal information, but one that is abstract in appearance, prompting the viewer to appreciate its beauty rather than try and figure out what precisely had been downloaded lately.
However, there is a way to take a bit of a peek. To accompany these more abstract organic clusters, Corriel has printed out a mountainous stack of papers. Each paper contains an excerpted list of the file names he drew from, and on the back of that, an excerpt of the code he wrote to visualize those particular files. “I just hope no one walks away with the whole stack!” he says, with a laugh.
Though much of the shapes in Corriel’s prints were determined algorithmically (he tells me it would be nearly impossible to do this kind of work entirely manually), he had a significant creative hand in the aesthetic of the data formations. Much like a painter approaches an easel with an idea of how he or she wants a painting to look, Corriel approached Enter the Machine’s programming with a visual end goal in mind. Once the file “portraits” were created and colored by running the data through his programs, he could then arrange them in Photoshop to create a look he found pleasing.
Even specific shapes the files made, like circles, were no accident. A circular cluster means there’s a particularly large amount of files in one folder. Certain colors mean certain file types as well: movie files are pink, image files are orange, text files are green… The list goes on.
“There was a while where I was playing with trying to get a sense of file hierarchy. I was thinking about what an analogous way of thinking about files and folders is. Because if you look at it through Finder, it’s the same icon, just a different label. It’s kind of like a house. When you have a lot of houses on the street, they look pretty much the same from the outside, but the insides [are] totally different,” he explains. “So if files in a folder are like a block of houses, the folder encompassing that is like a neighborhood. You kind of start zooming out and you have Brooklyn or Queens, then you have New York City, the state, until you finally get the world, which is like the slash, the starting spot. I was thinking about how to represent not just the nature of the files, but the structure they’re in. How do you represent a group of files together?”
Corriel’s attention to detail extends even beyond the data portraits. In the center of the room, he has placed his physical hard drive encased in a glass orb. A custom 15-minute looped soundscape composed by sound artist Krista Dragomer plays, conjuring simultaneous tones of technology and growing life. “I told her I wanted something that was like you’re in some technical data environment. But I also wanted it to sound human-y, and womb-y, like you’re immersed in amniotic fluid or something,” he says. “I really tried to get in there, go into the machine, not just from a visual perspective but an aural and spatial perspective.”
Even the frames were custom-built for the exhibition. Corriel tells me they’re walnut. “It’s one of the more complex grains. So you have this juxtaposition of the organic complexity and the digital complexity, which is kind of the overall visual theme in a way.”
Though this project seems ambitious, it’s actually not the full scope Corriel imagined. “Initially I wanted to map the entire hard drive, but I would need a space the size of the Empire State Building to do it. And massive computing power,” he tells me. Due to this, he instead had to pick and choose sections of his hard drive to visually manifest, and often would find it logistically difficult to even show the full scope of folders like his iTunes Library. That’s why he’s only selected portions, like three months of email rather than his entire inbox, which he tells me is about 5,000 Photoshop layers in itself.
Ultimately, Corriel tells me that his project is just one way of visually rendering this data. With other algorithmic tactics, or with someone else’s data, it would look entirely different.
“I think that the ways we have of conceiving of data are very poor. We think of it as icons with labels, or 1s and 0s,” he says. “Obviously, the more we invest ourself in the digital lifestyle, the more we need different ways of seeing what that can be. [Enter the Machine] is also a project that’s about trying to provide new ways of seeing what’s becoming a fundamental part of our lives.”
‘Eric Corriel: Enter the Machine’ is on view until Feb. 25 at Garis and Hahn Gallery, 263 Bowery, East Village. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 11am-6pm, or Sunday, 12-6pm.