A review of The Library of Missing Datasets, a series of art installations bringing attention to missing data, directed by Mimi Ọnụọha
The Library of Missing Datasets
Mimi Ọnụọha, Artist and Researcher
Zakiya Collier, Shift Collective
The Library of Missing Datasets is an extended research project and series of art installations created by Nigerian-American, Brooklyn-based media artist and researcher Mimi Ọnụọha. The body of work is concerned with the question of missing data, which the artist defines as blank spots that exist in spaces that are otherwise data-saturated.
The research aspect of the work focuses on the observation that within many spaces where large amounts of data are collected, there exist coterminous empty spaces where no data live. The process of fleshing out these patterns of absence involves interrogating the structure of systems of data collection, for which the presence of absence is as expected as it is banal. The presence, then, of missing data is not solely an invitation to fill the data, but an examination of the reasons for their presence. There will always be missing data. As described in Ọnụọha’s article, “What Is Missing Is Still There” (2018):
...as the list grows, I have increasingly been struck by the symbolic questions these shadow datasets raise. Their existence is assured: as long as we classify things and sort the world according to these classifications, there will always be missing datasets. There will always be bits that ooze out beneath spreadsheet cells, things that cannot be contained, or that sometimes should not. Making sense of the world through exclusion implies a certain simplicity, and missing datasets, by virtue of their existence and nonexistence, challenge that simplicity.
The installation series consists of two pieces, The Library of Missing Datasets (2016) and The Library of Missing Datasets 2.0 (2018). Both of these installations involve painted and treated steel filing cabinets (41cm x 50cm x 57 cm) that each contain 80-100 filing folders inside of them. The first work in the series, The Library of Missing Datasets (2016) is an ivory white color, with gray-green folders inside. The titles of the folders in the work change depending upon where the work is shown. Every folder is labeled with the title of a missing dataset. Crucially, there is nothing inside these folders—all are left empty, a nod to the theme of missingness that unites them. In some installations of the work, audiences are given gloves and the ability to pick up and examine these folders, experiencing for themselves the physicality of the absence.
While The Library of Missing Datasets 2.0 shares the same overall appearance and build as the previous work in the series, there are some notable differences. The later work is gold in color, with charcoal filing folders inside it. The labels for the datasets in this cabinet speak specifically to Blackness, and to the reality of Black people being over-collected and under-represented in U.S. datasets. The gold color of the cabinet speaks to the experience of Black folks featuring strongly as objects of collection (but rarely as subjects with agency over collection) as a kind of wealth extraction.
The Library of Missing Datasets is a research project and art installation series of physical repositories that are concerned with the absence of certain datasets in a world increasingly driven by data collection. Each installation of the project catalogs the “missing datasets'' in traditional steel filing cabinets containing empty file folders both echoing back to a time when conversations about data had a grounded, tangible quality and signaling to an issue of this time in which data collection and missing datasets both exist in excess. In the words of the project’s creator, artist, and researcher, Mimi Ọnụọha, “The Library of Missing Datasets is a physical repository of those things that have been excluded in a society where so much is collected.”
Positioned as a library, the project encourages the public to engage with the emptiness of the folders labeled with missing datasets in order to consider implications of the datasets’ absences. It invites audiences to attend to what is missing and consider questions such as: Why does this dataset not exist? What does this exclusion serve? Who does this exclusion serve? Should it exist? What related datasets do exist? Who should create the dataset? Who is benefited by the existence of the dataset? What is the purpose? Who might be harmed? Rather than positing additional data collection as a logical solution to this problem, the analog, tangible experience encourages reflection, conversation, and attention to the excess that may otherwise be forgotten, erased, devalued, truncated, and targeted.
Emblematic of the project’s goal of considering the implications of excluded and absent datasets that are used to make decisions—from the ads received on social media, to the types of medical services available in neighborhoods, to the school for which someone registers their child—the first installation project contains missing datasets such as “Publicly available gun trace data” and “Accurate historical weather data.” The second installation, The Library of Missing Datasets v2.0, featuring a gold file cabinet instead of white and charcoal folders instead of green, explores the ways Blackness is often excluded from datasets: the gold file cabinet symbolizes the ways Black people are viewed rich for extraction and surveillance but are rarely participants in their own data collection. Numerous absent datasets such as “Accurate birth registration data in Rwanda” and “Public list of citizens on domestic surveillance lists” powerfully remind the public that the absences alone provide insight into a society’s values, priorities, and biases.
Apart from the art installation, the larger project is previewed on Mimi Ọnụọha’s website and the conceptual and theoretical work behind the project is detailed in a GitHub repository, which will prove more accessible over time than the temporary physical repository installations. Last updated in 2018 with the promise of a website with a full list of the project’s missing datasets, this project’s GitHub would benefit from updates on datasets that may now be available as well as the inclusion of this complete, though never completed, list of missing datasets in the digital repository to offer access to the project for those who were unable to experience the art installations in person. The missing datasets are awaiting further consideration, exploration, or even data collection by the publics that may encounter them in a digital form.
A main goal of the project is for audiences to examine the reasons for the absence of certain datasets that cut across topics, time periods, races, and other factors. To that end, The Library of Missing Datasets has been cited in scholarly texts such as Aristea Fotopoulou’s “Understanding Citizen Data Practices from a Feminist Perspective: Embodiment and the Ethics of Care” (2019) and Jessica Marie Johnson’s Wicked Flesh: Black Women, Intimacy, and Freedom in the Atlantic World (2020). Johnson points to The Library of Missing Datasets as a work on null and missing data as it relates to her own historical interventionist writing: “Identifying archival silences as null values surfaces slaveowners and officials as responsible for missing and unacknowledged black life in the archive, but it resists equating the missing or inapplicable information with black death.”1 The project has also been featured in Kimberly Drew and Jenna Wortham’s Black Futures; in studio, museum, and digital project blog posts and articles; and in the Financial Times.