“It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.”
—Don de Lillo, White Noise
Every minute, numbers track the actions of nations and individuals worldwide, adding to an already dense storm of data. Digits scroll up and down incessantly, mapping the number of cold days in Bogota today as compared to 100 years ago; the index of happiness among married couples in Syria; soybean futures traded in Chicago; or the strength of the Chinese yuan. This had long been under the purview of researchers and specialists, but today much of this information is democratized and dispersed into our ether via the Internet. This is Carlo Zanni’s domain, for one of his primary artistic materials is data itself: its movements and evolution, its astonishing revelations, and its supposed infallibility. In his work, data is transformed from its tidy threads of sober algorithms into potent matter that illuminates the troubled intersections of global economics, politics, and ecology.
For his project, Flying False Colors (The Sixth Day), 2009, Zanni pulls data from the website of the Joint Oil Data Initiative, an organization founded in 2001 to track the amount of oil requested each month by the Oil Demand Top 30 Countries. The vicissitudes of the data determine the duration of wind emitted by an air compressor built into the base of a flagpole. Zanni has programmed the number of seconds the flag is blown to connote the number (in thousands) of barrels requested by each country. The direction and speed the flag flies are determined by real-time data from weather conditions in the particular location. When, for example, the flag flies southward for 14 seconds it would display the oil demand and current weather in Italy, while flying northeast for 72 seconds might represent China. Therefore, while we appear to be observing the simple flickering of a flag in the gallery, we are actually witnessing a real-time illustration of the depletion of a limited global resource, the disparity of its distribution, and the gauge of what we know to be one of the world’s prevailing sources of conflict.
The design of Zanni’s flag references the official Ecology flag created in 1969 in Los Angeles by Ron Cobb. The symbol on the flag is the Greek symbol Theta, a derivative of thanatos, meaning death—the ovoid design evokes a human skull and was meant to herald danger. However, Zanni’s intention is not to convey the hopeless dread of a world irretrievably bent on destroying itself. He strategically manufactured the design on the flag with graphite powder that is loosely bonded to the cloth. Thus, over the weeks of being constantly buffeted by the wind the air compressor generated, the design will eventually flake off, leaving behind a pure white flag—the international symbol of surrender and ceasefire. This white flag, exhausted and erased, flutters in the gallery as an elegiac wish for a day when our volatile dependence on fossil fuel is behind us.
At work in this project is a strategy Zanni frequently invokes: the pairing of “mere” numbers to their real life implications. This juxtaposition underscores the tension between a distanced and abstemious mathematics on one hand, and the messy, human reality it strains to enumerate. His work seems to pose the question: Which way of processing the world is more real? And which actually controls the other?
The phrase “flying false colors” in the title of Zanni’s piece historically referred to the act of literally flying a false flag in order to fool the enemy, but today pertains to the practice of covert operations carried out by governments and paramilitary groups. Flying False Colors is the second part of Zanni’s trilogy based on Sydney Pollack’s 1975 film Three Days of the Condor. This suspenseful film follows three days in the life of a man running from the CIA due to his discovery of potential plans for the US government to invade the Middle East for oil. Based on the novel Six Days of the Condor (1974) by James Grady, the film’s final minutes include a moment when the man confronts a top CIA agent for an explanation. The agent memorably justifies the CIA’s intentions with the sinister and infantilizing argument that when US citizens run out of oil, “They won’t want us to ask them [for their opinion on how we should proceed]. They’ll want us to get it for them.”
While plotlines linking the oil industry to global political conspiracies are a familiar cinematic trope in today’s action films, Three Days, made in the wake of the Watergate scandal and the 1973 oil crisis, was one of the very first to suggest such a clear connection between the two. Today, of course, we can see that the film also unwittingly predicted the profit-driven reality of the United States’ invasion of Iraq and was a frighteningly prescient indicator of the secretive, paternalistic, and avaricious workings of the Bush administration. (Notably, both Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were already working in the White House at the time of this film’s release.)
For The Fifth Day, made in January 2009, Zanni programmed an algorithm to connect color photographs he took from a taxi travelling through Alexandria to data the artist found on Egypt’s literacy rates or corruption scale, among other gauges of civic well-being, in order to form a “portrait” of the Middle East based on both factuality and subjectivity. The piece is shown online as a slideshow in which the invisible data affects the sequence of the images. Such hybrids of coding and individuality might work to underscore De Lillo’s assertion, at the top of this essay, that we are all the sum of our data.
Yet, one must presume that if Zanni believed that we are only the aggregate of statistics, he would cease his alchemies of metaphor and impression—both immeasurable entities. Today, in an atmosphere clotted with transmitted signals and data streams, our unprecedented access to information can feel like unprecedented power. But it remains up to the individual to decide what to do with that power, lest the numbers just pile up in a vast, bland dustbin of digital code.
Commissioned for Carlos Zanni’s exhibit at the Chelsea Art Museum, New York, and Marsèlleria, Milan.