R. Luke DuBois
1,334,134 views • 12:43

So I'm an artist, but a little bit of a peculiar one. I don't paint. I can't draw. My shop teacher in high school wrote that I was a menace on my report card. You probably don't really want to see my photographs. But there is one thing I know how to do: I know how to program a computer. I can code.

And people will tell me that 100 years ago, folks like me didn't exist, that it was impossible, that art made with data is a new thing, it's a product of our age, it's something that's really important to think of as something that's very "now." And that's true.

But there is an art form that's been around for a very long time that's really about using information, abstract information, to make emotionally resonant pieces. And it's called music. We've been making music for tens of thousands of years, right? And if you think about what music is — notes and chords and keys and harmonies and melodies — these things are algorithms. These things are systems that are designed to unfold over time, to make us feel. I came to the arts through music. I was trained as a composer, and about 15 years ago, I started making pieces that were designed to look at the intersection between sound and image, to use an image to unveil a musical structure or to use a sound to show you something interesting about something that's usually pictorial.

So what you're seeing on the screen is literally being drawn by the musical structure of the musicians onstage, and there's no accident that it looks like a plant, because the underlying algorithmic biology of the plant is what informed the musical structure in the first place. So once you know how to do this, once you know how to code with media, you can do some pretty cool stuff.

This is a project I did for the Sundance Film Festival. Really simple idea: you take every Academy Award Best Picture, you speed it up to one minute each and string them all together. And so in 75 minutes, I can show you the history of Hollywood cinema. And what it really shows you is the history of editing in Hollywood cinema. So on the left, we've got Casablanca; on the right, we've got Chicago. And you can see that Casablanca is a little easier to read. That's because the average length of a cinematic shot in the 1940s was 26 seconds, and now it's around six seconds.

This is a project that was inspired by some work that was funded by the US Federal Government in the early 2000s, to look at video footage and find a specific actor in any video. And so I repurposed this code to train a system on one person in our culture who would never need to be surveilled in that manner, which is Britney Spears. I downloaded 2,000 paparazzi photos of Britney Spears and trained my computer to find her face and her face alone. I can run any footage of her through it and will center her eyes in the frame, and this sort of is a little double commentary about surveillance in our society. We are very fraught with anxiety about being watched, but then we obsess over celebrity.

What you're seeing on the screen here is a collaboration I did with an artist named Lián Amaris. What she did is very simple to explain and describe, but very hard to do. She took 72 minutes of activity, getting ready for a night out on the town, and stretched it over three days and performed it on a traffic island in slow motion in New York City. I was there, too, with a film crew. We filmed the whole thing, and then we reversed the process, speeding it up to 72 minutes again, so it looks like she's moving normally and the whole world is flying by.

At a certain point, I figured out that what I was doing was making portraits. When you think about portraiture, you tend to think about stuff like this. The guy on the left is named Gilbert Stuart. He's sort of the first real portraitist of the United States. And on the right is his portrait of George Washington from 1796. This is the so-called Lansdowne portrait. And if you look at this painting, there's a lot of symbolism, right? We've got a rainbow out the window. We've got a sword. We've got a quill on the desk. All of these things are meant to evoke George Washington as the father of the nation.

This is my portrait of George Washington. And this is an eye chart, only instead of letters, they're words. And what the words are is the 66 words in George Washington's State of the Union addresses that he uses more than any other president. So "gentlemen" has its own symbolism and its own rhetoric. And it's really kind of significant that that's the word he used the most. This is the eye chart for George W. Bush, who was president when I made this piece. And how you get there, from "gentlemen" to "terror" in 43 easy steps, tells us a lot about American history, and gives you a different insight than you would have looking at a series of paintings. These pieces provide a history lesson of the United States through the political rhetoric of its leaders. Ronald Reagan spent a lot of time talking about deficits. Bill Clinton spent a lot of time talking about the century in which he would no longer be president, but maybe his wife would be. Lyndon Johnson was the first President to give his State of the Union addresses on prime-time television; he began every paragraph with the word "tonight." And Richard Nixon, or more accurately, his speechwriter, a guy named William Safire, spent a lot of time thinking about language and making sure that his boss portrayed a rhetoric of honesty.

This project is shown as a series of monolithic sculptures. It's an outdoor series of light boxes. And it's important to note that they're to scale, so if you stand 20 feet back and you can read between those two black lines, you have 20/20 vision.

(Laughter)

This is a portrait. And there's a lot of these. There's a lot of ways to do this with data. I started looking for a way to think about how I can do a more democratic form of portraiture, something that's more about my country and how it works. Every 10 years, we make a census in the United States. We literally count people, find out who lives where, what kind of jobs we've got, the language we speak at home. And this is important stuff — really important stuff. But it doesn't really tell us who we are. It doesn't tell us about our dreams and our aspirations.

And so in 2010, I decided to make my own census. And I started looking for a corpus of data that had a lot of descriptions written by ordinary Americans. And it turns out that there is such a corpus of data that's just sitting there for the taking. It's called online dating.

So in 2010, I joined 21 different online dating services, as a gay man, a straight man, a gay woman and a straight woman, in every zip code in America and downloaded about 19 million people's dating profiles — about 20 percent of the adult population of the United States. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder. This is going to become really freaking obvious. Just go with me.

(Laughter)

So what I did was I sorted all this stuff by zip code. And I looked at word analysis. These are some dating profiles from 2010 with the word "lonely" highlighted. If you look at these things topographically, if you imagine dark colors to light colors are more use of the word, you can see that Appalachia is a pretty lonely place. You can also see that Nebraska ain't that funny. This is the kinky map, so what this is showing you is that the women in Alaska need to get together with the men in southern New Mexico, and have a good time. And I have this at a pretty granular level, so I can tell you that the men in the eastern half of Long Island are way more interested in being spanked than men in the western half of Long Island. This will be your one takeaway from this whole conference. You're going to remember that fact for, like, 30 years.

(Laughter)

When you bring this down to a cartographic level, you can make maps and do the same trick I was doing with the eye charts. You can replace the name of every city in the United States with the word people use more in that city than anywhere else. If you've ever dated anyone from Seattle, this makes perfect sense. You've got "pretty." You've got "heartbreak." You've got "gig." You've got "cigarette." They play in a band and they smoke. And right above that you can see "email." That's Redmond, Washington, which is the headquarters of the Microsoft Corporation. Some of these you can guess — so, Los Angeles is "acting" and San Francisco is "gay." Some are a little bit more heartbreaking. In Baton Rouge, they talk about being curvy; downstream in New Orleans, they still talk about the flood. Folks in the American capital will say they're interesting. People in Baltimore, Maryland, will say they're afraid. This is New Jersey. I grew up somewhere between "annoying" and "cynical."

(Laughter) (Applause)

And New York City's number one word is "now," as in, "Now I'm working as a waiter, but actually I'm an actor."

(Laughter)

Or, "Now I'm a professor of engineering at NYU, but actually I'm an artist." If you go upstate, you see "dinosaur." That's Syracuse. The best place to eat in Syracuse, New York, is a Hell's Angels barbecue joint called Dinosaur Barbecue. That's where you would take somebody on a date. I live somewhere between "unconditional" and "midsummer," in Midtown Manhattan. And this is gentrified North Brooklyn, so you've got "DJ" and "glamorous" and "hipsters" and "urbane." So that's maybe a more democratic portrait. And the idea was, what if we made red-state and blue-state maps based on what we want to do on a Friday night?

This is a self-portrait. This is based on my email, about 500,000 emails sent over 20 years. You can think of this as a quantified selfie. So what I'm doing is running a physics equation based on my personal data. You have to imagine everybody I've ever corresponded with. It started out in the middle and it exploded with a big bang. And everybody has gravity to one another, gravity based on how much they've been emailing, who they've been emailing with. And it also does sentimental analysis, so if I say "I love you," you're heavier to me. And you attract to my email addresses in the middle, which act like mainline stars. And all the names are handwritten.

Sometimes you do this data and this work with real-time data to illuminate a specific problem in a specific city. This is a Walther PPK 9mm semiautomatic handgun that was used in a shooting in the French Quarter of New Orleans about two years ago on Valentine's Day in an argument over parking. Those are my cigarettes. This is the house where the shooting took place. This project involved a little bit of engineering. I've got a bike chain rigged up as a cam shaft, with a computer driving it. That computer and the mechanism are buried in a box. The gun's on top welded to a steel plate. There's a wire going through to the trigger, and the computer in the box is online. It's listening to the 911 feed of the New Orleans Police Department, so that anytime there's a shooting reported in New Orleans,

(Gunshot sound)

the gun fires. Now, there's a blank, so there's no bullet. There's big light, big noise and most importantly, there's a casing. There's about five shootings a day in New Orleans, so over the four months this piece was installed, the case filled up with bullets. You guys know what this is — you call this "data visualization." When you do it right, it's illuminating. When you do it wrong, it's anesthetizing. It reduces people to numbers. So watch out.

One last piece for you. I spent the last summer as the artist in residence for Times Square. And Times Square in New York is literally the crossroads of the world. One of the things people don't notice about it is it's the most Instagrammed place on Earth. About every five seconds, someone commits a selfie in Times Square. That's 17,000 a day, and I have them all.

(Laughter)

These are some of them with their eyes centered.

Every civilization, will use the maximum level of technology available to make art. And it's the responsibility of the artist to ask questions about what that technology means and how it reflects our culture.

So I leave you with this: we're more than numbers. We're people, and we have dreams and ideas. And reducing us to statistics is something that's done at our peril.

Thank you very much.

(Applause)