HLN Commissions Data-driven Artworks for CNN Center

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When I stepped into the new Headline News (HLN) studios at the CNN Center, I knew that something big was afoot. Just months ago, I’d taken a class of students on the CNN Tour, and the HLN studios were empty, bombed-out beige shells of corporate wasteland. Those same studios are now full of young creative professionals, bean-bag-furnished meeting rooms, and contemporary artwork. HLN feels more like a tech startup—it’s news for the social media generation. Part of this rebranding of HLN entailed commissioning local artists to produce “data driven” artwork to brighten the newsrooms, as well as inspire the worker bees and tourists who interact with the art.
Karyn Lu, director of product strategy and partnerships at HLN [and a BURNAWAY board member], sent out a call for artists to celebrate the launch of The Daily Share, HLN’s social-media driven daytime news show. “I’m really proud that we were able to collaborate with the Atlanta arts community to build pieces that are both visually beautiful and driven by real-time social media data,” says Lu. “There’s something very powerful about manifesting that abstract activity in this physical way.”
The commissioned pieces, on view through 2015, are installed throughout the building, and to see two of them you must go on a CNN Tour. If you’ve never been “Inside CNN,” I highly recommend it, and the addition of new artwork is an added bonus for the tour.
The piece #nicehashtag by Nathan Sharratt completely nails the concept of “data driven” artwork, and is an excellent example of how art can transform conceptual into representational. His larger-than-life hashtag symbol is parked outside an HLN studio. Inside the translucent sculpture, Phillips Hue bulbs change color over time reflecting the mood of the Twittersphere. Sharratt worked with data engineers at HLN to bring this concept to life; a custom-made software collects real-time information on tweets, scans them for emotional language, and translates the overall Twitter mood into different colors. Lu said the work is usually neutral cool tones when she sees it; however, during the week of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, it was a bright, angry red.
Mass Collective (for music, art, science, and social) produced Twitter Nest, a lovely sculpture depicting the birth of new technologies. The group, founded by Chris Carter and James Caudle, took old Beta tapes from CNN that were destined to be destroyed, unspooled them, and wove them into a nest. Inside the nest are three acrylic eggs that light up and change color when anybody interacts with The Daily Share on Twitter. Mass Collective’s visual interpretation of how old technologies beget newer ones is incredibly clever and perfect for an active media-based office. The work can be seen from a viewing bridge on the CNN Tour. Viewers can peer down into an HLN office full of writers, producers, and other media professionals, and near the entrance to the office (maybe 20 feet down from the viewing bridge) is the Twitter Nest. People on the tour are encouraged to interact with the piece to give hardworking journalists a jolt of colorful energy in their office.

Using recycled wood and broken furniture, Mike Stasny made a herd of creatures, called Tricerabytes, with Phillips Hue bulbs that blink in different colors when you “like” The Daily Share on social media. Stasny describes the animals as “a combination of natural history museum skeletons mixed with an unhealthy amount of science fiction.” Stasny’s craftsmanship was superb in this installation; I enjoyed the articulation of the creatures formed by both delicate and rough woodwork. I loved the coy wit of a “herd” of social-media-connected animals, and the beautiful conceptual construction balanced out the straightforward “data driven” aspect of the sculpture. Stasny’s sculpture is currently displayed behind the glass of the CNN Store in the public atrium.
The most captivating and yet most basic of the works is a pop-up gallery by the Instagram hashtag project #weloveatl. The physical component was designed and constructed by ReadySetATL in the style of a rustic information kiosk with monitors, on which visitors can watch an endless feed of Instagram photos from everyday shutterbugs who used the #weloveatl hashtag. The photos show a cheery, bubblegum view of Atlanta—even the dingiest areas of downtown are saturated with light and color, and free of trash and homeless people! The crowd-sourced installation contains no information on who selects these photos, and not all of the photos on the feed identify the photographer. It’s really awesome that everyday people get to be artists with this project, yet the works are so stunning that the photographers deserve recognition for their contributions.
Each of these artworks shows a different side of the living, breathing mediascape that our data contributes to every day. Sharratt shows us the collective life and energy we imbue into social networks and how our physical realities alter our digital personalities. Mass Collective emphasizes how current technology will beget the next tech revolution, and their piece encourages us to embrace this march of progress. Stasny lets viewers interact with technology while also slyly poking fun at the herd mentality of digital worlds. #Weloveatl shows us a mediascape with a vacuous beauty everyone can contribute to, but a nameless, faceless apparatus manicures this digital paradise. #Weloveatl unintentionally shows the dangers of crowdsourcing art in our mediascape—the screens are mesmerizing, yet when you step back the work is conceptually empty and artistically soulless.
Collectively, these artworks show the brave new world we are transitioning into, and I hope that media leaders of the future, like HLN, will use it wisely.

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