Professors Create Code that Turns Large-Scale Data into Art

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A computer image of the entire novel of Moby Dick produced through Meaney and Szczepanski’s code.

How does a computer view the human world—say, the human genome or literary works such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick?

Two UT professors have provided some insight, thanks to a code they’ve created that allows the computer to transform large-scale data and information into digital images—compressed pictures composed of colorful lines.

Evan Meaney, assistant professor of art, and Amy Szczepanski, assistant research professor in electrical engineering and computer science, have made a body of artwork called Null_Sets using their code. They’ve also provided a way for the public to make their own art using the code, whether it’s converting a love song, the Patriot Act, or the deed of one’s house into colorful images.

“The goal is to challenge people’s assumptions about what computer data looks like,” Szczepanski said. “In some sense, people trust the computer too much and imagine it as some magical box that does something. They forget that there’s actually a lot of human work that went on behind the scenes to make it happen.

“In as much as we mechanize things we’re still doing things for people and to interact with people.”

Amy Szczepanski

Szczepanski and Meaney designed their approach by running code on a supercomputer at the Remote Data Analysis and Visualization Center (RDAV) to create many test images. The center is an initiative of the UT Joint Institute for Computational Science and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

The idea for the project began in 2010 while Szczepanski was working on an RDAV project that was trying to find ways to encourage researchers in other fields besides the hard sciences to consider using supercomputing to help their work.

She contacted Meaney, a digital artist, after a recommendation from UT’s visual arts committee. Together, they wrote the code for Null_Sets. The UT Research Foundation is currently working on patenting the code.

The project is receiving widespread recognition. Meaney recently won the jury prize for the Null_Sets project at the Distributed Microtopias exhibition at the fifteenth Annual Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival in Ithaca, New York.

Evan Meaney

Meaney has applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that would allow him and Szczepanski to turn Null_Sets into an iPad and Android app. Right now, the Null_Sets website has a size limit that means large amounts of data can’t be converted, and the server times out after a certain period. With the app, users would be able to upload and convert large amounts of data conveniently.

“We want to put a better face on it and have it be more user-friendly,” Meaney said.

To learn more about the Null_Sets project, view the collection of art, or make your own, visit Meaney’s website.

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lola.alapo@tennessee.edu)

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