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Newcastle University academic turns web pages into art

image captionAn academic from Newcastle University has turned a research project "that sort of went wrong" into art. Originally intending to explore the different pieces of information on web pages and how they link to each other, Martyn Dade-Robertson realised the result was more beautiful than it was scientifically useful.
image captionAs an architect, Dr Dade-Robertson likes to think of the internet as "a city and each of you have territories". His software uses "web crawlers" to see what is on each page - text, pictures, links and the code that makes it work. They map the elements and their links to each other. The resulting lines are web addresses.
image caption"Pages that are linked together tend to gravitate towards one another and those that are not linked tend to gravitate away from one another," Dr Dade-Robertson says. "What you get are these starburst patterns." External links fall to the periphery while the website's core links are in the middle.
image captionA site's content dictates how the portrait looks. The lines in this search engine snapshot radiate outwards, to the rest of the internet. Even small sites are "unbelievably complicated" but do not give a "huge insight into how they work", Dr Dade-Robertson says. It was only later he decided they might work as art.
image captionThis is the upper left section of the previous portrait. "It's a little bit like in the 19th century an industrialist might have got someone to paint a picture of their factories," Dr Dade-Robertson says. His portraits depict their virtual, internet presence instead. He now adds colour and layers of post-production.
image captionWith the "art" idea in mind, Dr Dade-Robertson approached the Biscuit Factory gallery in Newcastle. It hosted an exhibition of his pieces which included websites of local landmarks like this one of Bamburgh Castle - "landmarks, but unrecognisable". His work is currently exhibited at Durham Net Park.
image captionEach piece takes about a week to produce. The "web crawlers" take a few hours to collect data from each page. "What I get from that is a wire frame, essentially lines and dots," Dr Dade-Robertson says. He uses graphic design software and photo editing tools to add layers and apply special effects.
image captionEach portrait can end up with about 30 layers. "I get really perfectionist about it," Dr Dade-Robertson says. "I fiddle with colour contrast and all kinds of things for quite a while." He believes people are attracted to the results because they reflect something "beyond our imagination".
image captionDr Dade-Robertson says the portraits are scientifically limited because "there are so many lines that cross and it's just very, very hard to read". They also lack useful data, such as which pages are most read. But he says the "beauty in that complexity" is worth persevering with. Any profits will fund university research.

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