Online exhibition: We Need Us

June 2014 – present day

Commissioned by the ODI and The Space
2018 update commissioned by Neon

We need us. All of us. You, me, the machines, the data.

As the world revolves ever-faster around invisible infrastructure and light-speed communications, our screen-based relationships result in our connection to nature and all that is human beginning to fade.

‘We Need Us’ is a live online animated artwork that explores open data, by artist Julie Freeman in collaboration with the Open Data Institute and Zooniverse, the largest citizen science initiative in the world. ‘We Need Us’ concentrates specifically on metadata which it draws from Zooniverse, to create an ever-growing dynamic environment of sounds and animated forms. Zooniverse has over a million altruistic contributors, with an active user contributing at least every second, each contributor creates a trail of metadata.

Unlike traditional data-visualisation which we use to help us understand and make sense of information from large data sets, ‘We Need Us’ considers the unique properties of the data itself. Through the work, Julie Freeman asks us to consider the distinct, living qualities and particular characteristics data might have, such as growth, velocity and fragility. She asks us to consider what is the meaning of data beyond its content? Julie is interested in how each of us generates Metadata – data about data –  every time we go online, use our phones, or walk in a surveilled area.

She says:“Data is such a broad and over-used term that it’s easy to forget that it’s just collections of values which help us understand a phenomenon more deeply. The evolution of metadata is creating a world where our ‘metaselves’ are analysed and pre-judged before the real self makes an impression. Sometimes the real self has no part to play in the narrative. Over time, our ‘metaselves’, defined by our everyday networked actions, shape our real selves as we are framed by expectations we have only partially set.”

‘We Need Us’ is comprised of hand-crafted data sets. The initial forms have been set by the artist and reference Malevich and other avant-garde artists challenging perceptions of reality and truth from the earliest days of the last century. The work seeks to take the viewer beyond experiencing data as purely holding information or explicit value(s) and towards viewing it as a vital, highly-valued material which is now essential in our ability to function as a global society.

The ultimate behaviours and final forms of the work cannot be known until the project is complete. Throughout the life of the project they will continually evolve over time, leaving traces and trails, which draw from and interrogate the ebb and flow of the metadata created by the Zooniverse participants.

We Need Us is a framework, a system, that exists in the knowledge that it will change when the metadata flows through it in ways that are unpredictable and unknowable.

We Need Us reminds us of the humanity in technology, and that we need ‘us’, each other and ourselves as much as we need it.