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Making art out of the data of everyday life

For followers of a growing self-discovery movement preoccupied with personal-data mining, the quantities in our lives can say a lot about its quality.

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If, as Socrates said, the unexamined life isn't worth living, then Eugene Granovsky's life is richer than most. Every day he collects and records a wide assortment of personal data: his weight, his body mass, how far he walks, how much he sleeps, the air quality in his bedroom. He also maintains a checklist of daily tasks: did he floss, drink water, meditate, work out, and leave the house looking nice?

Every evening at 8:36, Granovsky takes an Instagram photo of wherever he happens to be. By his own admission, the pictures are not very exciting: a disproportionate number are of his computer screen, if he's still at work, or of his feet propped up in front of the TV. That's OK. Unlike other Instagram feeds, Granovsky's is not meant to induce life envy. Instead it's part of a larger life project.

Granovsky's recording of personal data isn't merely an obsession and a compulsion. He's part of a social movement known as "quantified self," which encourages the collection of data to serve a higher purpose. "The point of tracking is self-knowledge," he says. "I want to be the best person I can be."

People have been tracking personal data for as long as there have been devices to measure it, but quantified self didn't begin until 2008, when Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, two editors at Wired magazine, realized that technology was making it easier and cheaper to track personal data. Smartphone apps not only can record your location, how many steps you take each day, or how much you toss and turn when you're sleeping, they can also export the data into spreadsheets and charts and graphs so you, the user, can make sense of it.

Now at quantified self meetup groups, "lifeloggers," as members call themselves, share different things they've measured and what the data have shown them about how they're living their lives. (One member, for instance, tracked her activities and levels of happiness and discovered that she was happiest when she did volunteer work and most productive in the morning.) There are more than 150 meetups in 120 cities, with a total of 33,000 members. Those numbers double every year, says Granovsky, who leads the 450-member Chicago group with his friend Mark Moschel. The group meets every six weeks, usually at 1871, a hub for digital entrepreneurs in the Merchandise Mart. Its membership encompasses a wide range of ages and interests; at recent meetings, there have been show-and-tell presentations of data from triathlon training, OK Cupid interactions, and patient-tracking programs set up by doctors.

Many newcomers to "lifelogging" begin by tracking things that are easily quantifiable, like how far or fast they run, or how different variables affect their performance. Do you run faster in the morning or at night? Do you sleep more if you stop drinking caffeine at noon instead of 3 PM?

Mark Moschel and Eugene Granovsky, shown at 1871, lead the Chicago chapter of the lifelogger group quantified self. - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • Mark Moschel and Eugene Granovsky, shown at 1871, lead the Chicago chapter of the lifelogger group quantified self.

"Once you know how much you're sleeping, it's not intuitive anymore," Granovsky explains. "You can see results when you cut down on caffeine. That's where numbers really help."

But it's not just about numbers and self-improvement, or even keeping track of whether you flossed (though Moschel says that tracking did prevent a lecture from his dentist). Quantified self is also a philosophy. Or, as Granovksy likes to say, "data without context is meaningless." Take the nightly Instagram.

"The person who first did it gave a talk at a quantified self conference," says Moschel. "He called it the 'uncurated life,' the time in between that you usually ignore. Eugene has a photo from every day. When he looks back, it's like a trigger to remember what he was doing that day. It's like an external memory."

"It's the mundane parts of life," says Granovsky. "That's what makes it interesting."

And, it can be argued, life is mostly a collection of mundane moments. Or, as Stephen Cartwright, an artist who has translated his life data into sculpture, puts it, "it's incremental things adding up to big things. One hour builds on the next. It's the same with data. Each piece is not significant, but if you aggregate it and see patterns, it becomes significant."

One of Moschel's early forays into quantified self ended up having a profound effect on his life. "I wanted some data to track," he says. "So I decided to track happiness." He signed up with the website AskMeEvery, which sends a particular question to users every day via text message, and then kept track of the answers. Moschel's question was "How are you today?"; he answered on a scale of one to seven. At the time he was working as a consultant and traveling every week. He collected data for three months and then plotted it into a graph.

"It was amazing data," he says. "Monday through Thursday, the numbers were low. Friday through Sunday, they were very high. It was obvious in retrospect. The graph showed that I didn't enjoy traveling for work. So I decided to quit my job and do something else."

Both Granovsky, who's 29, and Moschel, 26, trained as engineers; now they work as freelance developers. Soon after Moschel quit his consulting job, they teamed up and bought AskMeEvery.

Stephen Cartwright, Deviation, 2012, acrylic, aluminum and mixed media - COURTESY ELMHURST ART MUSEUM
  • Courtesy Elmhurst Art Museum
  • Stephen Cartwright, Deviation, 2012, acrylic, aluminum and mixed media

While some lifeloggers use their data for self-improvement projects and others amass it just to have it—Granovsky estimates he's only looked at 20 percent of his—others, like Cartwright, turn it into art. His sculpture Deviation, based on his physical location (latitude and elevation) over a period of several months, is currently on display, along with a dozen other life-data-based works, at the Elmhurt Art Museum in an exhibit called "LifeLoggers: Chronicling the Everyday." (The exhibit, curated by Nadine Wasserman and Rachel Seligman, was previously at Carleton College in Minnesota.)

For the past 15 years Cartwright has been logging his coordinates every hour. The project began when he started tracking old ladies he saw on the street. (He was studying in England, and they reminded him of his grandmother.) Eventually he realized that this was just another way of charting where he went every day and decided it would be "less weird" if he just recorded his own coordinates. So he bought a GPS device and started logging. Back then, the GPS was still military technology, so there were errors programmed into it to confound unauthorized users, and some of his data were, as he puts it, "randomly inaccurate."

When Cartwright finally plotted his GPS data onto a 3-D drawing program and looked at the pattern the dots made, he says, "it was really interesting to me. It was this visual thing. It showed where I'd been in time and space, and also where I hadn't been."

You don't have to know about the data behind Cartwright's work in order to appreciate it, but it does make you look at it in a different way. Deviation is two bar graphs made of yellow and blue Lucite that move up and down when you push a button; the height of the bars reflects actual numbers. If you know how to read it, it tells the story of where the artist has been.

Staci Boris, the chief curator at EAM, invited Moschel and Granovsky to give a talk about the basics of lifelogging the Friday night before Memorial Day. An hour before it's scheduled to begin, the three of them take a walk through the exhibit. Moschel and Granovsky are already admirers of Cartwright's work, but the other artists are new to them. (Cartwright will be giving his own artist talk June 27.)

Jennifer Dalton, The Reappraisal, 2009, archival photographic prints in acrylic frames on wood and metal shelves - COURTESY ELMHURST ART MUSEUM
  • Courtesy Elmhurst Art Museum
  • Jennifer Dalton, The Reappraisal, 2009, archival photographic prints in acrylic frames on wood and metal shelves

Granovsky stops to spend a few minutes examining The Reappraisal by Jennifer Dalton. Dalton had Christie's appraise every item she owned. Then she created a card with a picture of the object, its appraised value, how much she thinks it's worth, and how much she would sell it for. Invariably, she believes each of her possessions is worth several thousand dollars more than the auction house does. "I like this," Granovsky says. "It handles the line between what's valuable to you and valuable to someone else."

Several of the pieces in the show demonstrate Moschel's theory that lifelogging functions as an external memory that can trigger even more memories. John Peña's Daily Geology is a collection of daily drawings that illustrate something that happened that day. Elise Engler makes tiny drawings of everything she packs in her luggage on big trips (to China, to the Galapagos, to Antarctica) and what she brings home.

Others use data in much more oblique ways. Natalie Miebach tracks the weather at significant moments in her life, then uses the data to write a musical composition and then create a sculpture. You can't tell by listening or by looking what the weather was like; the data are the kernel around which she builds her art.

One of the most striking works is Journal, in Progress by Suzanne Szucs. It's similar to Granovsky's Instagram project, only much, much bigger: Szucs took a Polaroid every day, from 1994 until 2009, when Polaroid stopped making film, though the exhibit only shows the photos from 2001 on. There are approximately 3,000 of them, and they take up three walls of gallery space. As you move through, you can recognize people and places and watch them change and grow older.

"It's time made tangible," says Boris.

"That reminds me of a guy I met at a quantified life conference," Moschel says. "He took a picture every time he grabbed something with his right hand."

"Why?" Boris asks. "What does that tell him?"

"He just wanted to record it over time," Moschel says. "There's something beautiful about it."

Suzanne Szucs, Journal, in Progress, 1994—2009, Polaroid film - COURTESY ELMHURST ART MUSEUM
  • Courtesy Elmhurst Art Museum
  • Suzanne Szucs, Journal, in Progress, 1994—2009, Polaroid film

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