If you want to know what a large set of data points feels like, try carrying 500 tulips through the streets of the Netherlands. This was the life of 34-year-old British artist Anna Ridler, when she set out to build with her own two hands the most extensive dataset of tulips possible.
While it sounds scientific, the project was all in the name of art. Her idea had been commissioned by Impakt, the organiser of an annual media art festival in Utrecht, Netherlands, with funding from the European Union. Over several months of “running around the Netherlands” on flower-market on Saturdays, Ridler collected 10,000 tulips. She held each one in her hand as she photographed it. “I would take sometimes 700 photographs in a day, and that hurts your wrist,” she says. Ridler labeled each picture, noting the flower’s colour and stripes, then fashioned them into a vibrant patchwork of images titled Myriad (Tulips). The total installation is 1,614 square feet, about the area of a spacious three-bedroom apartment. Only fractions of the work are being displayed in cities around the world, including Ridler’s hometown of London. It’s part of the “AI: More than Human” exhibition at the Barbican Centre until August 26.
The dataset is its own work of art, but it’s also an essential component of another Ridler project on display at the exhibition. Ridler, who’s a self-taught coder, fed all of the images and labels into a machine learning model to churn out an almost infinite variety of tulips. The result produced Mosaic Virus, a three-screen video installation. Ridler says the idea was inspired by “tulip mania,” a period in 17th century Netherlands when price of tulip bulbs shot up and then collapsed. The most prized bulbs were those with flamelike streaks, a phenomenon now known to be caused by a virus. Ridler says she finds it interesting that economists have compared that period to the recent craze over Bitcoin.
She designed her model, when connected to a real-time feed, to react to the price of the cryptocurrency. “As the price of Bitcoin goes up, the tulip becomes more stripy,” she says. “As the price of Bitcoin goes down, it starts to become more plain.”
While the piece explores financial speculation and raises questions on the meaning of value, Ridler says it’s also just a different way to view data. “I showed it to someone, and they were like: ‘You have just made a very poetic Bloomberg terminal.’ ”