FutureEverything Science and Art Festival

In anticipation of the FutureEverything art and science festival in Manchester, we take a look at what to expect, in addition to discussing the elegance of good design, and, of course, the weather

Feature by Stewart McIver | 21 Mar 2016

This month the streets of Manchester will host the FutureEverything festival, with the hope of collaborating on tackling the biggest challenges we face over the coming decades. Workshops, music and art installations will stand alongside the conference itself to promote the convergence of art and science. Drew Hemment, founder and creative director of FutureEverything explains, “We see our festival as a lab, a place to try out new ideas for size, to experiment with new ideas and art forms. It’s a place to experience art at the bleeding edge of the possible, discover game-changing ideas, meet the people creating them, and get involved in shaping the future.”

Among these installations is The Corridor, an audiovisual experience created by Andrew Hodson in collaboration with local artists, inspired by (and located in) various sites around Manchester. The design is simultaneously intimate and invasive, with participants interacting with sound poems on their phones. It uses found data, recently collected from the different sites, immersing the listener in sights and sounds. Effectively, when at your most private, Hodson reminds you of how much your data is freely available to others, from simple eavesdropping, to hacking, to sprawling user agreements that grant advertisers free access to your information. Those with tickets for the accompanying workshop can engage with its ‘sonic playground’ to create and remix their own sound poems.

Compare this with Ed Carter and David Cranmer’s Smoke Signals spectacle, which uses twelve smoke generators to propel seemingly random smoke rings across the room to the accompaniment of haunting audio. Actually, the timing is defined using abstracted emails analysed with permission from various ArtsAPI organisations to ‘encrypt’ the information via the creation and interaction of colliding smoke rings. The concept of generating convincing randomisation through obscure data sources is nearly as old as computers themselves, but this source was chosen very carefully. It represents the value of information amassed by art foundations and the relationships they cultivate, which often passes unnoticed by the public and potential supporters. What better way to catch their attention than blowing smoke rings in their faces?

FutureEverything Science and Art Festival

However, it’s the collaboration between the Met Office and FutureEverything that proves the highlight of this focus on coalescing art and science. Hemment explains, “Project Ukko is named after the Finnish god of thunder and wind. It visualises cutting-edge climate predictions, and lets us look far into the future, to see which way the wind blows, and predict future extreme weather events.” This is possible thanks to the wealth of climate data amassed worldwide over fifty years. Trends obscured by time or distance can be identified and used to make more accurate predictions in seemingly distinct regions. More than that, the design is stunning.

By using different opacities, colours and angles of the icons, Project Ukko provides extra dimensions of data at a glance, and extrapolates even further by tapping into individual nodes. That such a complex mix of information is comprehensible by non-scientists is largely thanks to the design ethos of Moritz Stefaner, the data visualisation artist commissioned by FutureEverything to design Project Ukko. “Generally, I don’t see function and form as competitors in any way; rather, a good visual communicates the essence of an idea, and an approach, in a succinct and elegant way. I am often guided by a certain intuition of what types of images are dense and chaotic enough to be interesting, but also structured and multi-layered enough in order to be comprehensible. The goal is to clarify, not simplify, and carve out as much of the 'inner beauty' of the data set as possible.”

As a tool for analysing climate, though, it manages something truly exciting: accessibility. “Many scientific tools do indeed have interfaces that are not immediately self-explanatory, and often packed with information. The visualisation we developed strikes a balance between being an exploratory tool, allowing us to browse the whole world in the search for interesting patterns, and also being explanatory, in the sense that we try to introduce non-scientists to the big picture of uncertainty in future wind predictions.” That means weighing up the efficacy of wind energy in a particular location can be quicker, more reliable, and therefore more likely too. More importantly, it means small communities can be better informed on the viability of wind energy for supplying their homes. If this sounds farfetched, it’s possible to give Project Ukko a try online at project-ukko.net.

The program, if it can be repurposed for other fields, would be revolutionary for analysing demographics or financial markets, or even for the tracking of epidemics. When asked about its potential, Stefaner replied, “We are only scratching the surface of what we can do with all the new types of data sources on a global level.” In other words, expect to see much more from FutureEverything over the coming years.

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FutureEverything takes place across Manchester 30 Mar-2 Apr