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report workshop

What makes a good data chef?

The last edition of the Data Cuisine in 2015 brought us to Leeuwarden, where this year’s Media Art Friesland Festival centred on food as a topic. Leeuwarden is a small town in the north-west of the Netherlands. It’s a cosy and tidy place, where the real Frisians speak Frisian, a language that is the closest to English. It doesn’t have much manufacturing industry, and lives mainly from agriculture and service industry.

Eight people participated in the workshop and of these three were from Leeuwarden. Like often, when we run a Data Cuisine workshop, people from other cities or even countries travel to join the workshop. This time, most participants lived in the Netherlands, but some originally came from Sweden, Germany or Austria.

Working with such a small group sounds like spending a lot of resources on a workshop whose experimental character doesn’t promise any kind of immediate revenues. But Data Cuisine workshops are intense, in that for most participants it’s not easy to bring the data and the food together — which means a lot of knowledge transfer, support and talking on the our part. In Leeuwarden, where we didn’t have two full days for the workshop, we felt that more participants could have been problematic in this regard.

Having run this workshop six times already, we have learnt that participants mainly struggle with two challenges, both connected to the data:

Knowing which story to tell and finding the data, that support the story

A data dish is only as good as the story you want to tell or the statement you want to make with it. Some participants arrive at the workshop, knowing exactly what they want to say with a dish, but they don’t have the right numbers at hand that they could use. Finding the necessary data set during the workshop is almost impossible — if the particular statistical data exist at all. Unfortunately, a good amount of ideas for data dishes couldn’t be realised simply because the data was missing.

In other cases, people bring data to the workshop, that they find interesting, but the numbers don’t allow an interesting comparison. But a high-contrast comparison between data points is necessary for representing statistical data with food, since food is not a super-precise but rather a ‘low-res’ medium.

It does not sound too difficult to find a story to tell or a statement to make —­ but sometimes it’s exactly this part that challenges participants most. It’s easy to get hooked by some interestingly looking data, but that’s not enough to create a good data dish. The stronger your own angle is on the data, the better the dish.

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A statistics on cannabis consumption among 15-16 year old kids inspired Saskia and Saibot. They have never tried cannabis and wanted to make a statement about kids not having to. They wanted to create a dish that could serve as an alternative to smoking a joint — a dish that gives you a natural high because of its taste.

The second big challenge is to transfer the data into food

It seems to be rather difficult for most participants to stick to the data and to work on a more or less precise representation. Certainly, it’s easier to use the statistics for inspiration only. We however insist on the relative accurateness of the transferred data, because the precision of the data gives a dish a true kick. In order to be precise, we can’t avoid rulers and balances, measuring cups and sometimes calculators.

To sum up, being a Data Cuisine chef requires rich imagination, an associative mind, but also the ability to enjoy precision and the challenges that come with it. Data visualisation and representation is a language with a distinct set of rules and a huge vocabulary. It becomes exciting when you follow those rules and when you are able to choose the right “words” out of the vast array of possibilities in order to say what you think.

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Daan, Anja and Franzi expressed their concern about the ageing Dutch society. They chose data in the form of the population pyramid of Dutch citizens in 1960, 2015 and 2050, and created a pasta graphics with it. The three colours represent the young (green), the not-so-young-anymore (red) and the old (black). In order to give a taste of the different age groups, the 1960’s pasta is topped with a meat sauce made with a prefab blend of spices by Knorr. The 2015 ‘back-to-basics’ pasta comes with Carbonara, and the pasta of the future is a mix of noodles and Wakame salad.

More on the results of the Leeuwarden Data Cuisine workshop can be found here: http://www.citylab.com/design/2015/11/more-delicious-dishes-from-the-masterchefs-of-data-cuisine/416511/

action report workshop

The Out of Soil journey

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In April 2015, when we did the Out of Soil project at the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Berlin, Dr Vandana Shiva invited us to India. Supported by the ifa foundation, we went there in late September and participated in Bhoomi, the festival of the living soil in Delhi. We also ran two workshops as an extension to the original Out of Soil project.

The Soil Games workshop

The first part of our trip took us to the Navdanya farm in Dehradun, which is a rural region north of Delhi. Navdanya is an organisation, which is founded by Vandana Shiva for conserving seeds, biodiversity, culture and farming knowledge. People with different backgrounds come from India and all over the world to this farm to learn about sustainable agriculture. When we arrived, we joined the final days of the A-Z seminar of eco-agriculture, a 4-weeks course that provides hands-on knowledge about organic farming and biodiversity.

Together with seminar participants, we held our first workshop on Soil Games. We started out with the question: what would soil say if it could speak? Discussing this in pairs of two, people wrote down their personal slogans and attached them to their garments.

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After a mapping of soil topics and game types, we drew possible connections between the two areas. In small groups, people started quickly developing ideas for soil games and sketching them out on big sheets of paper. In the end, they created about seven different concepts of soil games, ranging from a simple memory game to a very complex variation of Monopoly called “Monoposoil/Soilpoly”. As players enjoy growing their fields in the game, they learn about the consequences of capitalistic agriculture and their choices on organic or non-organic cultivation.

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The Soil Stories workshop

We also ran a Soil Stories workshop with students at J.P. International School in Muradabad, Uttar Pradesh. Working with 82 teenagers within a very limited amount of time, we focused on creating soil related narratives. Muradabad is a small rural town where most families farm, so most kids have a connection to soil – which also became apparent when we invited the students to share their personal stories dealing with soil. In groups of five they created one story cube, by combining key elements of their own stories with terms from our introduction into the topic or elements of myths and legends.

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This resulted in fifteen story cubes that were amazingly rich in associations and ideas. One group after another threw their dice. Depending on the words displayed, the kids invented a part of a story that was to be continued by the following group. Since the time was limited, we could not explore the full narrative potential of the story cubes during the workshop, but we could see that they would work very well both as a creative method of story telling and as an inspiration for the kids to think about soil in an unusual and fun way.

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The Out of Soil action at Bhoomi

The last stop on our Out of Soil journey was the Bhoomi festival in Delhi. Being half conference, half festival, Bhoomi is an event that celebrates the living soil, and this year it brought together 20 speakers and performers from around the world. More than 250 people attended the event that took place at the International Conference Centre in the heart of New Delhi. We set up a scaled-down version of the Soil Press Station, comprising Out Of Soil Stamps with information specifically relevant to India, ‘Soil says’ stickers, and the world map. During the one-day event we spoke with many people, handed out the stickers for them to fill in and wear, and stamped the Soil Stamps in order to assess people’s personal land footprint. The conversations we had with the visitors often centred on the issue of food consumption, and we got the impression that most people we talked to are naturally very conscious of their diet and its relation to soil and health.

Again, the ambiguity of the project—looking like an info booth of an NGO at first glance, but being an artistic participatory project—generated a lot of curiosity about our background and intention. The playfulness of the project levelled the potential threshold and allowed for a very diverse audience to engage in an open discussion about who has the right to land, how land is used and what it takes to preserve fertile grounds for the livelihoods of people.

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report symposium

Challenges and Limits of Collaboration

This year’s MutaMorphosis Conference in Prague was entitled Tribute to Uncertainty and offered a wide programme of sessions, but browsing the program one could not ignore the attention that the organisers had paid to what is going on in the field of art + science and in particular Bio Art. I had been invited to speak about Challenges of Participation in a session that was similarly called The Limits and Challenges of Collaboration and that was curated by Manuela Naveau from Ars Electronica. Together with me on the panel were Galia Offri and her partner Mushon Zer-Aviv as well as Mirko Tobias Schaefer, Assistant Professor for New Media & Digital Culture Utrecht University. Mirko is also the author of Bastard Culture! How User Participation Transforms Cultural Production at Amsterdam University Press.

In Prague, Mirko gave an analysis of participatory culture limiting user agency, focussing on social media. In his talk he revealed the discrepancy between social media’s official narrative of being participatory systems and their true nature of limiting participation and massively channelling user activities. He spoke about social media’s ephemeral design elements: Like, View, Endorse, Favourite, ReTweet, RePin, and how they lower the threshold to become an ‘active’ user. On-line activity is minimised to clicking a button, but gets maximum attention. Social media also initiate the economics of rewards. Mirko went on discussing elements of corporate control limiting user activities such as moderation, automated, distributed (through ‘flag’ and ‘report’) and human content review. The final part of his presentation centred on the expansion of the public sphere through social media and the problem of corporations shaping policies for this new public space.

From Wikipedia Illustrated:Hikikomori, literally “pulling away, being confined”, i.e., “acute social withdrawal”) is a Japanese term to refer to the phenomenon of reclusive people who have chosen to withdraw from social life, often seeking extreme degrees of isolation and confinement because of various personal and social factors in their lives.

Galia and Mushon presented their project Wikipedia Illustrated. This project entails the illustration of 26 Wikipedia articles, a blog to share the process, a book and a number of workshops. Through these activities the authors hope to draft a new path for a visual free culture. And indeed, Wikipedia looks like it can benefit from such artistic activism. Wikipedia pages don’t allow much visual information and while the textual information usually goes through various versions and updates, graphics don’t permit this kind of collaborative process. So it’s individual authors who insert images which are accepted by the community or dismissed. But the ‘simple’ act of creating and adding images that communicate the content or theme of a Wikipedia article in an illustrative and metaphorical way opens up a discussion of how much visual poetry Wikipedia can take before it looses its reputation as a factual medium and if contributors can change its rules. This project shows quite plainly and painfully how little room Wikipedia and similar collaborative platforms offer for reformation.