Playful Visualizations at Work, Working Visualizations at Play

Artist Analyst

As we get closer to the end of the academic quarter, and thus the end of the grade-motivated production of our dialogue in our wonderfully exciting, structured seminar, I am reading more and more and feeling more and more excited by the anticipated art of this coming summer and how -fun- and -exhilarating- it will be to work through some of my photoshop/pixelmator frustrations and limitations using my hands and paint and epoxy and physical texts. I’m not anti-technology, and this seminar has certainly encouraged me to learn more and do more with my computer, but I can’t wait to be outside with just my hands and some supplies. I am going to spend one more week playing with pixelmator, but am certainly going to spend the next days, months, and years thinking about a number of ideas generated by our blog. One thought in particular that I want to note today was sparked by Liz’s most recent post in which she wrote:

This brings me back to something I had discussed earlier, which is that our data always seems to be more useful for ourselves than for our readers. This may explain why the scholarly article and book have had such a long life; they don’t simply convey understanding, they enact it as well. Close reading recreates, in the article, the process through which we imbue texts with meaning. The act of applying historical research to a volume of literature mimics the act of research and the flash of understanding that comes when one grasps how a specific historical fact is relevant to the text at hand. Articles are processes, they are a temporal movement towards the end of an argument. Visualizations, however, lack that sense of journey. They are always, already, at the end even when you, the reader, are still at the beginning.

Wow. One issue I’ve always had with writing is I can never quote quite enough of the brilliance I see in other people’s work. Luckily, no one is grading my blog (at least, I hope that my writing skills are not under serious scrutiny here as I rarely read over what I publish), so I get to copy Liz’s paragraph in all its glory. The value of a process versus the product has been a concern of mine for the past few months. I have hopped and skipped and (mostly) stumbled through a wide variety of text analysis tools, all kinds of word generators and algorithms that changed my text input into hilarious explosions of letters. As you have seen in my posts, I also spent quite a bit of time in Microsoft Office.  However, there is no single product of this play that to me says that, here, I’ve found something breathtakingly new and spectacularly beautiful/useful for my greater purposes of understanding David Foster Wallace’s last work. That said, I now have an intimacy with chapter 14 of The Pale King that I have with few other texts on the planet. When I think of other works I know as well, I can only come up with a handful: Julio Cortázar’s “El otro cielo,” Sophocles’ Antigone, Harry Potter books 5-7, and André Gide’s L’Immoraliste. What’s interesting about this list, in terms of what Liz wrote above, is that my closeness to this list of highly varied texts is derived from an equally varied list of practices of reading. Harry Potter I’ve read four to five times. That type of intimacy is easily understood, right? I teach Antigone every year to undergraduates. I wrote one of my senior theses in college on Cortázar’s “cielo.” I painted sections of L’Immoraliste in a similar way to the pictures of a painting I posted recently in the entry entitled “l’art pour l’art.” Liz’s statement, that the visualization lacks a sense of journey, really intrigues me. I think she is right, at least about a lot of types of visualizations. Temporally, writing an essay on Wallace demands more time than copying part of his novel into Many Eyes and seeing what types of visuals can be created from it. Additionally, the process, or the parts of the process we do not edit out of the final product, are more transparent. What I want to know, or to think about, is what the difference might be between the journey depicted in an article or conference presentation, and what one can see in a piece of art. As with a visualization like a graph or word cloud, it is difficult to see a process when looking at one of my paintings. I can see the process, of course, as the artist, but it is not immediately visible to an audience. Our relationship to our own work is, necessarily, so different from what anyone else might be able to take away from it. I like that with an essay, it is easier to trace or unpack the levels of research that have gone into constructing an argument. But, I also like that my art can stand alone, and that there are an infinite number of ways for an audience to evaluate, think about, or create from what I’ve done.

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