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Son Yeoul’s (D+T)*A storage: Between Unpredictability and Imagination

Kim Sung-Ho, Art Critic

I. Distrust in Data
Machine has evolved into electronic devices and computers and artificial intelligence since it was first invented for convenient life. The humanity is about to embark on the Fourth Industrial Revolution of technological convergence after undergoing the mechanization in the First Industrial Revolution, mass production in the Second Industrial Revolution, and informationization in the Third Industrial Revolution. We have arrived in the world of innovative technology today in which everything is stored and used as big data instead of the old days of information monopoly. Now data is just stored and used with no question asked about their significance.
The work of Son Yeoul starts with the question, “Can data be trusted?” It is an unexpected question raised by a writer in the field of media art that produces data and visualize in such a scientific way. It is particularly so because her work faces and uses computational technology while positioned in the deep tradition of oriental painting she studied as an undergraduate. In this regard, her work is the science embraced in art.

II. The Negative Leading to the Positive: Data Organism in Cistern and The Flag of Data
In this solo exhibition, (D+T)*A storage, Son Yeoul reflects on computing technology in biology of organisms with flesh and blood, and comforting breezy naturalism or compassionate aesthetics, instead of dry engineering of sterility. Like Nam June Paik who stated, “I use technology to hate technology properly,” Son acquires data technologies to distrust data and creates her work using the technologies.
By doing so, Son rethinks prevailing rosy optimism about science and technology in her work as in “ambiguity of data, data manipulation, representation and understanding of data, misalignment experienced when understanding phenomena with data.” At the same time, she attempts to create experimental media art that expands the boundary of the artistic medium across the tradition and the contemporary, and the science and art through computer engineering that generates entities with data and algorithm. In other words, the attempts to push away and embrace the science and technology represented by data unravel simultaneously. In this sense, her work is both engineering and critical of engineering. Furthermore, her work can be seen as critique of social and sociological work to call the attention of the society using various types of data in computer engineering as materials.
For example, her work, Data Cistern - Data Organism in Cistern (2014) used the data on the number of children died in 2015 in addition to seismic data and carbon dioxide emissions. Data gathered under the theme of social issues such as hunger, disaster, war, are converged into the “light” of the flashing LED in the end. In addition, “cistern”, a part of the title of the work, implies “clean water used by the Goddess of Mercy to relieve the pain and relinquish thirst of all creatures in Buddhism.” That is, she takes her work through the image of death to the image of life. She brings in negative data to criticize the extremely negative to eventually convey both negative and positive messages.
In another work, The Flag of Data (2017), Son compared the CO2 emissions of various countries in 2006 and questioned the margins of error in the data. Based on NASA satellite images of the generation and movement of CO2 in the atmosphere in 2006, she examined research on the amount of CO2 generated in the Table Mountain Fire that broke out in January 2006 and published a booklet on the data as a supporting material for her work.
With special emphasis on the differences in data among collecting agencies and data sources, the artist demonstrated that the margins of error are caused by the political and social position of each country rather than errors in data collection. In other words, the artist raises a critical message that the countries with high CO2 emissions are ironically the indicator of the wealthy countries rather than the main culprit of pollution.
Interestingly, her work is full of simple images with emotional appeal that betrays the hard work of the creative process that involves researching big data and defining categories to represent the data in various ways in a single algorithm. It is worth reflecting on the irony of the tender emotions conveyed from the work full of socially critical messages and the positive ending from the negative beginning.
The artist made the dry and dull data into abundantly lyrical sensibility by indicating the size of the error margin with a degree that a LED flag in a traditional lamp using moves.

III. Emotional Sensibility and Unpredictability: e-Tree Project and The Tree Seeking Homeostasis
In Son Yeoul’s The e-Tree Project (2017), we can easily find the same lyrical sensibility. This is a work of programming for storing various data with the Lsystem algorithm which can be found in nature, setting the range of operations, and computer operating at random.
The artist used data on social issues such as CO2 emission data of about 200 countries in 2013-2014 and the number of Internet users of about 200 countries in 2014. The audience can access the website for the work (, and click on each tree (E -Tree01–06) for a data category. The trees changes their shapes continuously according to the random operation. Trees in a variety of shapes with full of lyrical sensibility that cannot be specified using a term emerge and disappear based on the data of grave social critique.
We should keep in mind that in this work, the artist has designated only the colour range of leaves, the length and angle of plant stem using the most basic data calculation method, and the specific shapes of the trees that audiences see through their participation are the products of computer itself. Therefore, the artist does not know which order and shapes and movements which trees will show. The unpredictability is a result of the computer presents all the products of creation at random.
The “unpredictability” resulting from random creation and the “lyrical sensibility” based on the variation in computer engineering are also found in The Tree Seeking Homeostasis (2018). In the work, the length, spacing, and angle of branches and the colour of leaves of an artificial tree are programmed with big data on CO2 emissions of 121 countries based on a single algorithm.
In this work, which works in a holographic box, the artist indicates the products with the largest and the smallest CO2 emissions using leaves, and designs the fish in dots to swim between them. This work is designed to maintain homeostasis as the fish reaches the product with low CO2 emission, the length and spacing of branches elongates, and the fish reaches the product with high CO2 emission, the length and spacing of branches shortens.
In this sense, this work encourages audience to explore “unpredictability within predictability” by making data adjusted and calculated based on an algorithm and the computer create new values using the algorithm instead of a tool for understanding phenomena.

IV. Visualization of Data and Artistic Imagination
The key to understanding the work of Son Yeoul is the implication of duality in the use of computer data as materials and social messages articulated in the language of art. In other words, her work begins with looking at the engineering data from the standpoint of social criticism; however, the destination of her work is a warm lyricism embracing her own socially critical message. Her socially critical message or sociological point of view, which clothes cold and dry computer data with lyrical sensibility to incarnate the machine and draws the positive out of the negative, put her work somewhere between unpredictability and lyrical sensibility.
Moreover, in Son’s work, data values and categories are designated based on an algorithm, but the completion of the work is delegated to the computer to perform computing operations at random. Such work makes us to expect “unpredictability” from the emergence standpoint that we cannot predict which property will emerge.
A minor improvement area for her future work may be the need for more disassembly of structural order in forms that constitute “visualization of data” to increase flexibility of modification and variation. Once the flexibility is added, we will meet the artistic imagination commanded by Son beyond the unpredictability based on the emergence and randomness resulting from the combination of data that have been demonstrated to date. In other words, we can expect her work to move from the between “unpredictability and lyrical sensibility” to the between “unpredictability and imagination.”

The 2015 Lee Sedol versus AlphaGo Go game challenge match showed that the high probability of error and other problems in artificial intelligence have been resolved, and many areas of our life are expected to change and advance due to science and technology and the advent of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Computational forms such as algorithms, calculations, and data, beyond the digital forms used in movies and digital photography as well as analogue forms, will affect art and cognition as well as society. Such changes are generating both anticipations and concerns along with many discourses.
The content of (D+T)*A storage, the exhibition, is largely divided into two aspects based on data. One concerns the rethinking of the understanding and attitude toward science and technology as the artist grapples with issues such as the ambiguity of data, the way to represent and understand data, misalignment experienced when understanding phenomena with data, and data manipulation from the social and geological standpoint of Anthropocene. The other is the exploration of the potential and new representation methods of the computational generation process based on data and algorithm. This reflects the artist’s long-standing concern since her undergraduate years of studying traditional painting in the early 2000s about the restoration of cultural identity of Korea which has grown rapidly. The creative approach using the computational method to generate entities with data and algorithm unlike traditional painting is the product of the artist’s struggle to broaden the thinking beyond existing media and genres across the boundaries of the tradition and the contemporary and between art and science and technology.