Essay authored by N. Elizabeth Schlatter, curator
We’re constantly collecting more data, and it’s starting to be very relevant to our lives. We have the capacity to collect global insights that we couldn’t have imagined in the past, and it’s extremely exciting. Yet I think it’s the tip of the iceberg. As we get more and more transparent with datasets about infrastructure and systems management I have a feeling we’ll see big changes in how we think about complexity and our relationship with our actions.
–Aaron Koblin 1
As soon as you learn what is being depicted in Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns — a visualization of more than 200,000 aircraft in flight over the U.S. monitored by the FAA on August 12, 2008 — the piece suddenly makes complete sense. The sequence begins around 5 p.m. EST and the country is ablaze with lines representing planes traversing the nation. As evening progresses, the lines become fewer, and the nighttime flights to Europe from the East Coast become one major group of activity. Around 2 and 3 a.m., the red-eye flights traveling East from the West Coast start their journey. By 6 a.m., the New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast regions wake up first, and the pattern of light moves slowly from right to left along with the sunrise.
Unlike some other data visualizations [in this exhibition see The Dumpster, We Feel Fine, and Wind] Koblin’s piece is not one in which the viewer can drill down, so to speak, into progressively more minute pieces of data. What you see is for the most part what there is, in the sense that the micro, as in those other works, has no equivalent here. Although Koblin did make different versions of the piece in which he highlighted certain airplane types, altitudes, regions, and airline hubs (such as the Southwest, Florida, and Atlanta) the viewer of the video Flight Patterns cannot manipulate the appearance or decide to study more closely just one plane or one route.
In fact, if you didn’t know the background of how Koblin generated the imagery, you could even reasonably infer that this work is not based on data but on only slightly manipulated and combined photographs and videos taken from a spacecraft or satellite. This is where the genius in Flight Patterns lies. Chances are, few of us have actually viewed airplanes crossing the country from a height above the aircraft. And yet, with one brief explanation, the piece is immediately comprehended. We think, of course this is what it looks like.
The other artworks mentioned above retain a visual link between the data and its accessibility. In Wind you can move the cursor around and click on various points to, for example, see the current wind speeds in Omaha today. In We Feel Fine and The Dumpster you can learn the feelings of a person on a specific day, like Wednesday, February 27, 2005. One could conclude that Koblin’s piece is different because it is based on images rather than text. But that would be incorrect, in that Flight Patterns was derived from data that clarified the position of airplanes in the sky during a precise period of time, supplied by FlightView software. In this sense, Koblin’s work is perhaps more like Semiconductor’s work 20Hz in imagining what the depicted subject could look like. However, the gap between knowledge and illustration differs between these two visualizations. Many of us have flown, yet few have studied geo-magnetic storms above the Earth.
And it is this familiarity with the topic, along with its alluring graphics, that makes Flight Patterns so intriguing even though the subject is impersonal. Watching Koblin’s brief (57 seconds-long) work, you might recollect an overnight flight to London marred by the anguish of a crying toddler in the seat next to you. Or a trip heading south to Houston that left at the crack of dawn and provided a heart-stoppingly gorgeous sunrise on the ascent above the clouds. It’s as if the visualization confirms your own experience with flying. This seems to affirm Koblin’s stated goal for understanding data. Sophisticated data visualizations allow for new global insights while simultaneously referencing our own actions. The macro is in front of your eyes, the micro is in your memory.
Aaron Koblin (American, born 1982) has an MFA from UCLA’s Design l Media Arts program. His work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Centre Pompidou, Paris, among others. His projects have been shown at international festivals including TED (2007, 2009-2011); Ars Electronica (2006, 2008, 2011-2012); South by Southwest (2007, 2009, 2011, 2012), SIGGRAPH (2005-2006, 2009); and the Japan Media Arts Festival (2005-2006, 2008, 2011). Koblin has received Grammy nominations for two of his music videos (2009, 2011) and was awarded first place for science visualization through the National Science Foundation (2006). Other recognitions include the Abramowitz Artist in Residence at MIT (2010); Creativity Magazine’s Creativity 50 (2009); Best and Brightest by Esquire Magazine (2010); Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company (2010); and one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30 (2011). He currently leads the Data Arts Team in Google’s Creative Lab in San Francisco, California.
Read more about Koblin and his work
- interview with Iliyas Ong, “An Artist for our Digital Time,” DesignTAXI Accessed at http://designtaxi.com/article/100795/Aaron-Koblin-Tech-Lead-of-Google-Creative-Labs/ on December 18, 2012. ↩