Despite what her work seemingly indicates, Nathalie Miebach will tell you right away: She’s no scientist. She’s an artist. A data sculptor, to be precise. But the road that led her to an interest in science isn’t hard to map. While she was born in a small fishing town in Germany, her father was commissioned to build one of the cameras for the Hubble space telescope, which moved the family to the U.S. As a college student, she took an interest in science classes at Harvard University. She was particularly interested in astronomy. But where it fell short for her was there was nothing tangible in it. It all dealt with space and time, and she couldn’t put her hands on anything.
So, instead of writing a final paper for the class that semester, she used the data at hand and some skills she’d picked up in a basket weaving class recently to create a three-dimensional model.
“It was a different way of seeing the data,” she said. “A basket is a very simple grid made out of vertical and horizontal elements. I could use that grid to translate information. Because I’m using material that has tension, the grid will change tension and contort depending on the data I’m translating."
Miebach will be at this week’s Global Privacy Summit here in Washington, and she’s created something that was new even to her. That’s because when she was commissioned by the IAPP to create something that might resonate with the privacy profession, she really had to think about it.
“I had a hard time with privacy because I spent about two or three months just reading and reading and trying to figure out a way structurally that I could really tell a story,” she said. “Because if you just throw people data, it doesn’t make any meaningful connection. You have to frame it into a narrative or a story that people can feel empathy towards or something they can relate to. You have to give an entry point that doesn’t have anything to do with science or privacy.”
A Boston-based artist, she had an idea that would likely resonate with most: Copley Square. One of the most photographed spots in Boston, it’s also one of the most surveilled ever since September 11, 2001, and the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013.
Having done extensive work creating artistic representations of weather patterns, Miebach decided to combine weather and surveillance data into one, three-dimension piece.
“One of the things that struck me is surveillance and weather share something in common: both are invisible,” she said.
While collecting data on the weather is doable, collecting data on surveillance proved to be more challenging given that it’s by definition a covert practice, and there’s little numerical data available.
Taking the data she was able to gather, Miebach created what she calls a spinning top of sorts. To describe the piece here doesn’t do it justice, as goes art, so you’d be better off going to check it out and chat with Miebach herself.
Miebach said getting her hands dirty with surveillance data changed her ideas about surveillance itself.
“It really changed,” she said. “It really changed my online behavior. I’d be trying to Google something like ‘surveillance cameras on Copley Square,’ and even just researching the subject, I became really worried. I was uncomfortable. And I didn’t like the feeling that I was feeling uncomfortable. So the more I learned about it, the more I started to surveil mself a bit and change my own behaviors in reaction to the things I was learning about.”
While Miebach isn’t used to mingling with the kind of crowd she’ll meet in DC, she said she’s excited for the opportunity to do so.
“I’m just really looking forward to hearing peoples’ perspectives on the topic, and I’m very eager to hear how people will react to my work,” she said, adding she’s curious to “engage people in how else we can get people to think about surveillance, and how the arts can be a powerful vehicle in engaging people in that critical conversation.”
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