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BAI student grants help realize creative visions like ‘Face the Data’

Greenberg ’21 collaborates with technologists on the formation of a digital portrait using day-to-day data usage

Launched in 2016, the Brown Arts Initiative, or BAI, represents a wide array of performing, literary and visual arts at Brown. Its diverse range of student grant programs has supported students on projects that involve the production, study and critique of the creative arts. To Madeline Greenberg ’21, BAI student grants have made possible her collaboration with local artists and the fulfillment of her interdisciplinary research on data science, online surveillance and art. 

Scheduled to be completed by February 2021, Greenberg’s grant-funded project, ‘Face the Data,’ centers on creating a digital “portrait” of herself using data collected from her daily activities. Data sources range from social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, to fitness apps like Strava, to modes of surveillance existing through the Brown student ID, which links to sites including Canvas and Courses@Brown.

As a performance arts studies scholar with a specific focus on the various interpretations of performance within digital spaces, Greenberg was drawn to data visualization technology and surveillance within shared online public spaces. “I became interested in the ways that we can’t necessarily identify our own voices within digital spaces because of all the ways that they are beyond our control and how much information is actually hidden from us,” Greenberg said. 

Through ‘Face the Data,’ Greenberg seeks to examine the performance of the self as presented by Internet usage and how it can often be interpreted by outsiders who do not know the person at all. In this particular case, three artists are commissioned to carry out their different interpretations of Greenberg’s data portfolio, a process to be recorded and limited to the span of one hour, by the end of the year. 

Maya Man, an artist and creative technologist from the Google Creative Lab, is collaborating with Greenberg on the project and plans to create a web-based art piece. “It has been really interesting,” Man said, noting the intimacy of the data, “to be able to go behind the scenes of someone’s Internet activity — see what kind of information is being generated based on what they’re doing online. That’s something we don’t think about enough.” 

Lins Derry, an interactive designer, choreographer and another creative technologist Greenberg has recruited, said her experience working on the project has been “stimulating” thus far. “The concept of ‘Face the Data’ provides many interesting entry points to explore topics like transmedia performance,” Derry said. 

Greenberg finds partnering with these artists the most rewarding aspect of this creative journey. Aspiring to become an artist in the same multifaceted practice combining technology and art, she notes that “having the opportunity to have conversations with them, share in the joy of new ideas, it’s all been very thrilling.” 

Greenberg’s experience stays true to the founding objective of BAI student funding. 

From programs supporting documentary arts to poetry, Faculty Director of BAI and Literary Arts Professor Thalia Field ’88 MFA’95 said that “these student grants are designed to give lots of incentive to students to come forward and do projects with the support of BAI.” 

Along with its support of Brown students’ manifold creative pursuits, BAI also plays a critical role in the arts community during an uncertain time. “The student grant has given me the funding to truly pay artists who deserve to have funding right now,” Greenberg said, “at a time when there is no guarantee of a next project.” She is thankful that student grants allow the continuation of smaller-scale projects for unconventional artists who have suffered a heavy financial blow as the pandemic worsens. 

The BAI grant programs will again open next year on Jan. 12, and students like Greenberg encourage younger artists to apply. “It is a wonderful way to fund art,” she said, “especially art that is interdisciplinary.” Students can also apply for financial aid through other types of BAI support, such as the ‘Bring Art In’ Initiative that began last spring, in which applications are accepted on a rolling basis. 


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