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Flutist and data scientist Mansi Shah will have her work Counterpoints featured this week in Brooklyn as a part of Data Through Design (DxD), an independent collective which organizes an annual data art exhibition featuring works that creatively analyze, interpret and interrogate data made available in NYC’s Open Data Portal. This valuable civic resource is aimed at increasing information access and transparency. The exhibition opening is a highlight of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics and BetaNYC’s Open Data Week.
For those of you who (like me) didn't know there was an annual celebration of Open Data, NYC Open Data Week is an annual festival of community-driven events organized and produced by the NYC Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics and BetaNYC. Every year, New Yorkers come together all across the five boroughs to celebrate New York City’s Open Data Law, which was signed into law on March 7, 2012. Coincidentally, the first weekend of March is also International Open Data Day. With these dates anchoring Open Data Week, we rally NYC’s civic tech and open data communities and offer opportunities for more people to learn about and engage with municipal open data.
So what does that all mean?
Each year, a different theme is developed to challenge artists to surface hidden stories, patterns and connections in data, to examine its shortcomings, and to question claims to objectivity that data representations project. These novel and artistic creations harness the potential for data to enliven and deepen our understanding of life in the city and explore its limitations. These interpretations remind us that, while data may be seen as a cold, abstract approximation of the world as it is experienced in real life, gathering and interpreting the numbers remains a deeply human endeavor.
The theme for this year is Ground Truth: the insight we receive from being ”on the ground,” collecting or confirming data through direct observation, as opposed to abstract estimates, samples, or reports derived from remote locations. As our large-scale social and environmental upheaval continues, we invite artists to step out into their world to examine the relationship between lived experience and the overlay of data and mediated information used to interpret such experience. These works investigate data’s relationship to physical place and personal experience.
Counterpoints is featured as one of twelve projects featured in Data By Design's Ground Truth IRL: a public exhibition of 12 data-driven, interdisciplinary art projects open March 5th through13th. Shah, as well as collaborating artists Lucy Hatem (clarinet) and Torstein Johansen (composer and bass), uses urban data to inform and reimagine musical composition. Shah and company took data from NYC’s Open Data collection and Planet Labs' satellite imagery relating to specific areas around Brooklyn, and converted it into prose scores. Then, the performers interpreted these scores through improvisation and spontaneous composition, resulting in site-specific performances that are different every time they are performed.
Shah, who works at Planet Labs, is a contributor for I Care if You Listen (notably featured in this article on data-driven race reckoning in classical music), a "multimedia hub for living music creators." She is also the creator and curator of Colors of Classical Music, a platform dedicated to sharing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) western classical music stories in an effort to uplift, inspire, and amplify the voices of color that exist in western classical music today as we look towards a more inclusive and representative future. Says the group's Facebook page: "For too long, the 'Western Classical Canon' has upheld a false, single-sided view of what this music is, who belongs here, and what it looks like to be part of the classical music world." Shah's work at
In so many ways, Shah is expanding the perception of what contemporary classical music is and should be, encouraging engagement of people of color into the conversation, but also bridging the divide between science and art, technology and music, and most importantly, data and heart.
Shah also speaks on the significance of local data analytics, and shares with our readers that "NYC is not the only place that has open data archives. Both Raleigh and Cary (and probably many more NC cities/towns!) have open data portals that enable citizens to take an active part in knowing about how the municipality serves the people that live there. I hope projects like these can get even local folks excited/curious about the role of data in civic engagement and feeling like they have the ability to contribute and make a difference in their hometowns."
Artist Statement from Mansi Shah:
Counterpoints is a site-specific performance designed to explore boundaries between data and reality, define a sense of place, and test the limits between remote observation and experience. This project reimagines the idea of a musical score, using geospatial and publicly available urban data as a basis for improvisation and spontaneous composition and offering viewers a way to experience a physical location on various levels at once.
How has our understanding of place, and specifically what it means to be in a physically embodied space during a global pandemic, shaped our experience of our surroundings? Time series satellite imagery of locations around Brooklyn and Manhattan from 2018 through 2021 show changes over time, while data from NYC’s Open Data collection (converted into prose scores) is interpreted by the performers. This data informs the audio improvisations and presents ways to experience and explore a sense of place from multiple perspectives simultaneously.
The performers use these videos and data-based prompts as different types of scores as a basis for musical improvisation. No two iterations or performances of this project will be the same: just as a person’s experience of a place changes constantly, the improvised music in response to the data and video will be different every time. Audiences are encouraged to experience this performance both live at the exhibition, and through the pre-recorded videos below as they travel through the city, observing how their experience of their physical surroundings changes as they also move virtually through them.
We are so excited to celebrate Shah and company's success and wish her and her team the best this week! Counterpoints will be celebrated at The Hall, 9 Hall Street, Building J, Brooklyn, until March 13, and is available as a digital experience online.