Data from Surprising Origins: Looking at the Work of R. Luke Dubois

When R. Luke Dubois sat down with a group of students for lunch on Friday, November 20th, he could have begun by introducing himself: Known as R. Luke Dubois or just Luke Dubois, he is an artist based in New York City with many notable works related to data, some of which have been on display at the Zilkha Gallery since the beginning of the semester. But instead he began by asking us what we were working on.

At first, most of us nervously fidgeted in silence. We hadn’t been expecting the spotlight to be on us. After a couple awkward moments, I offered up an explanation of my final project for my data analysis class. Dubois responded with interest and gave some suggestions. After that, other students slowly began to come forward with their ideas, and he continued to react excitedly. He then powered up the projector behind him and showed us some related work by other artists, such as Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg.

After this discussion had gone on for a while, I realized that Dubois wasn’t going to talk about himself or his work unless he was prodded to. I turned the spotlight back on him by asking whether he thinks of himself as an artist or data researcher. Dubois jerked his eyes upwards, and when they re-centered on us he had a funny smile on his face. “I’m a musician,” he responded. “I play the cello badly. I played so badly that I switched to a computer.”


In 1984, Luke Dubois asked his parents for a bike, and instead they got him a computer. This triggered his love affair with the machines. “First, I really wanted a painting program,” he said. Because programs couldn’t be downloaded back then, Dubois hand-typed 800 lines of code from a magazine to boot up the program. “And then there was no mouse,” he said wryly, “so I did the whole thing with comp macros.”

In college, Dubois fell in love with the RCA Mark II, an electronic sound synthesizer that could make four notes at once. Dubois began to play music on this machine, and he was surprised by its popularity. “People would pay me to do this,” he remarked with surprise, which led him to found a four-person band that improvised music using these electronic instruments.

“All of my stuff comes out of music,” Dubois remarked. “The truth of the matter is that music is data.” This can clearly be seen in Dubois’s pieces, many of which use composition to represent the structure of a data set.

“People say I’m a new media artist,” he said, referring back to my question that had started it all. “Whatever that means. None of this stuff is new…. People will tell you that no one was using data in creative ways until the 1970s,” Dubois sighed. His frustration with this viewpoint was clear, and it made me realize that this was something I too have believed about data usage; calling the last decade “The Hub of Information” really excludes the preceding years, when in reality, Dubois explained, people have been making art with data for 40,000 years.

So what exactly is R. Luke Dubois’s work? Can it be attributed to the power of data analysis through visualizations, or is it due to the power of music? Perhaps it can simply be both; Dubois feels that it’s dangerous to try to make that distinction “Genre creates ghetto,” he said. “You should stick with the broadest one possible, because then you retain the right to pick it.” To Dubois, “musician” is the broadest, because it envelopes all the keys of his work: music, art, creation, composition, and data. He is a hallmark of the important realization that data is everywhere, and it’s so much more than a table of number in excel. We shouldn’t shy away from data because of the label given to what we want to do, but allow for data to be included in work of all kinds.