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Beginner's Luck? Data Researcher Sells His First Piece Of Art To The Whitney

TED Fellow, Jean-Baptiste Michel, says "I really consider this a very direct consequence of my being a TED Fellow." So modest!

by Zach Sokol
18 April 2014, 6:50pm

Call it beginner's luck? Data researcher and TED Fellow, Jean-Baptiste Michel, has achieved in one fell (and unexpected) swoop what most artists strive for their entire careers: the mathematician and now installation artist sold a small sculpture, the first piece of art he's ever created, to the Whitney Museum of American Art by chance. 

The piece, titled "I wish I could be exactly what you're looking for," is a 10x15 pink square with a small screen in its top-right corner which flashes bleak (and maybe ironic) sentences such as, "I WISH you could delete feelings," and "I WISH I could record my dreams and watch them later." The messages are culled from real tweets using Raspberry Pi so that the text is updated every five minutes. 

Michel tells TED, "I'm not an artist. I never thought that I could do anything in that area... I really consider this a very direct consequence of my being a TED Fellow." The Whitney discovered his work after artist JR's studio director encouraged him to display it at the SPRING/BREAK art show in New York.

Though modest of him to attribute the museum acquisition to TED-related networking, I want to disagree with his claim of not being an artist. Not only did Michel show what people can learn using Google's Ngram Viewer at TEDxBoston in 2011, but he is the man who calculated the "mathematics of history" at TED2012, embedded below. I think anyone could make a strong argument that Michel's mastery of data is an artform in and of itself. He might not be a sculptor at heart, but this purchase by the Whitney possibly connotes that fine art is most interesting (and even successful) when not rigidly defined.

"I wish I could be exactly what you're looking for" is followed by two other sculptures of similar design, titled "It's time to try defying gravity" and "I need to go away for a while." Take a look at those artworks, as well as his infamous 2012 TED Talk. Even if Michel decides to not pursue his newfound entrance to the art world, it's guaranteed that every undergrad at Cooper Union, RISD, and so on are probably kicking themselves and maybe reconsidering that start-up offer. 

"It's time to try defying gravity" (2014)

"I need to go away for a while." (2014)

"I wish I could be exactly what you're looking for" (2014)

@zachsokol

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TED talks
Ted
sculptures
I wish I could be exactly what you're looking for
Jean-baptiste michel
TED Fellows
The Whitney