After Tufte

 

After Tufte examines data visualization as both an art form and analytical tool. The keystone of this project is Edward Tufte’s book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which is widely considered a classic on the topic of statistical graphics. The book describes Tufte’s theory on data graphics, which includes guidelines for graphical excellence and integrity, and a set of principles and equations for editing and refining. Tufte describes data graphics as “instruments for reasoning about quantitative information.” Excellent graphics, he says, involve the “efficient communication of complex quantitative ideas.”
 

There are a few key differences between the data/statistical graphics discussed by Tufte and the data visualizations that comprise this project. The first difference lies in the types of data that are deemed suitable for graphical display. Tufte operates within the parameters of quantitative information; however, contemporary data visualizations (beyond the ones included here) also analyze qualitative information. Second, Tufte’s data graphics are strictly 2-dimensional, designed for print publication. The term “data visualizations” describes a broader category that includes not only those same data graphics (updated to reflect the nuances of digital publication), but also interactive, sensory-overloading infographics displaying multiple live data feeds, or kinetic sculptures that relate directly to the 3-dimensional realm.
 

The exhibition presents a variety of works that can be described as data visualizations and evaluates them in relation to Tufte’s theory. Some of the selected artists have professional experience outside the field of art. Most have programming and technical skills that complement their study of topics of interest. At the very least, they are driven to understand the world scientifically, through data. Laurie Frick, for example, worked for Hewlett-Packard for 20 years before pursuing a career in the art world. Marcin Ignac is a self-described “artist / programmer / designer”. Edward Tufte himself is a large-scale sculptor in addition to a statistician.

 

Some of the works have direct correlations to Tufte’s theory. Marcin Ignac’s Every Day of My Life is exhibited as a “small multiple,” defined by Tufte as “a series of graphics showing the same combination of variables, indexed by changes in another variable.” Every Day of My Life is a visualization of Ignac’s computer usage statistics for 2.5 years between 2010 and 2012. Each line represents one day, black areas are periods when his computer is not turned on. The image on the left represents mouse clicks, the middle image has color-coded blocks representing the most foreground app running at the given moment, and the right image represents keystrokes.
 

Laurie Frick works with data sets that are specific to a person or group. Sample data sources include information gleaned from her fitbit or manually tracked with the help of other apps, and employee chat data from a design studio she collaborates with in Austin. Her process begins with data collection (often technology-assisted) and culminates with organizing and displaying the data by hand. This combination of digital and analog is oddly comforting, not to mention visually striking. It evokes the person-high stacks of handwritten code that are credited with taking humanity to the moon several decades ago – authored by computer scientist and systems engineer Margaret Hamilton.
 

David Bowen’s “tele-present” sculptures allow viewers to experience, in real-time, mechanical reproductions of actual motions that are naturally occurring elsewhere. Adrien Segal’s sculptural data visualizations show natural phenomena such as the speed and direction of wind at a certain location, over a particular time period. In a way, these works are similar to Eadwear Muybridge’s pioneering photographs of a racehorse in motion – they provide new ways for viewers to experience the motion of reality. There are also similarities to Edward Tufte’s own sculptural reproductions of Feynman Diagrams, which he considers “the best visualization ever.” Each line corresponds to a mathematical equation that shows nature's subatomic behavior, they have been used by scientists for 70 years.

 

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After Tufte supports the case for the merging of scientific and artistic modes of thought. Immense benefits are to be gained from acknowledging their inherent similarities and accessing the innovation that lies at their intersection. Both scientist and artist are deeply observant and endlessly curious. Both science and art reflect the human need to ask questions and seek answers. Both the scientist’s laboratory and the artist’s studio allow unbridled exploration and depend on continuous iteration.
 

Within the field of data science, it is beginning to become clear that “data artists” are as necessary as “data scientists.” According to Forbes, the data artist “blends engineering and statistical know-how with intuition and problem-solving abilities to uncover insights from data… beyond the technical bona fides, there is a level of artistry needed to explore data in ways that are as creative as they are rigorous.”
 

On the other hand, data artist Jer Thorp says in a TED talk: “There's no doubt that big data is big business. There's an industry being developed here. Think about how well we have done in previous industries that we have developed involving resources (resource industry, financial industry) -- not very well at all. And part of that problem is that we have had a lack of participation in these dialogues from multiple pieces of human society. We need to include artists, poets, writers in this dialogue, people who can bring a human element into this discussion.” This world of data is going to be transformative, and bringing the human element into the discussion is critical.
 

There are a number of organizations that could find this project intriguing – data visualization is inherently multi-disciplinary. Foundations and other non-profit institutions, such as the MIT Media Lab, often provide research grants and additional support for exploring relevant topics – data being one of the hottest areas. Newer, niche organizations such as Jer Thorp’s Office of Creative Research conduct data-related research and creative problem-solving services. Science or history museums may see the relevance of data visualization works. Even for-profit companies could have business interests in the area that encourage their participation. This curatorial project considers the glut of data present in our lives and reflects upon our increasingly data-dependent culture.

 

Referenced Works

  Marcin Ignac ,   Every Day of My Life  , 2012.    
 
       
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Marcin IgnacEvery Day of My Life, 2012. Printed data visualization, triptych.

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