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Big, Beautiful Data: Northwestern-School of the Art Institute of Chicago Collaboration Inspires Art Exhibition

Students transform school choice, self-image, marriage data into works of art

Science and art often seem to operate in separate spheres, but at McCormick they are intersecting more than ever.

This summer, a partnership between Northwestern and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) explores new — and beautiful — applications for big data, collections of data so large and complex that analyzing it can prove challenging. 

The new, interdisciplinary course Data as Art combined big data with collaborative research, studio arts, and visual communication design, enabling engineering and art students to translate mountains of information into visual art.

Faculty from both institutions taught the course, which covered topics like computer programming and the history of graphic visualization. Working over six weeks, the students analyzed data sets and created visual representations on three subjects.

  • School choice, or the ability for students to opt into a school outside their immediate neighborhood, is sometimes championed as a solution to problems faced by Chicago’s struggling schools. But is traveling to better schools a viable option for all students? Using census data, school test schools, and transit data from the Chicago Transit Authority, “Chicagos” illustrates the commutes students would face traveling from their neighborhoods to more privileged ones. 
  • For centuries, Korean families have tracked their families’ marriages in historical printed records called Jokbos. By analyzing digitized records of more than 500 years of marriages, “Paper Trails” provides a digital animation of the geographic distance traveled by 100,000 brides to their new husbands’ homes. The journey is also represented by a collection of 1,000 pink folded airplanes.
  • Social scientists use eye-tracking technology to understand subjects’ gaze and attention. “Me, My#selfie, and Eye” uses the same techniques to reveal how people view themselves. An interactive photo booth allows gallery viewers to take informal self-portraits known as “selfies” while an eye-tracker records their movements. The results are tweeted @MeMyselfieEye.

The projects are currently on display at SAIC’s Neiman Center, 37 South Wabash Avenue, and Gallery X, 280 South Columbus Drive in Chicago.

Data as Art is one of several collaborations that connect Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science to the art community. Earlier this year, Northwestern established the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts (NU-ACCESS), expanding an innovative partnership with the Art Institute that has led to unlocking secrets about many of the museum’s masterpieces and developing new methods and technologies to investigate art.