Category Archives: Art History

Data in Contemporary Art: Brian Jungen

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Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery

Last month, Manuel Lima caused a bit of a stir in the data visualization world when he proposed a divide between Information Visualization and Information Art. This kind of phylogenic approach aside, how does data fit into a contemporary art context? To answer this question, it might be helpful to start with an investigation into contemporary artists who use or have used data within their practice. A few months ago, I featured an article on Mark Lombardi, whose data-centric illustrations have found their way into the collections of many major art galleries & museums. This time I’ll move away from 2-d form and look at a piece by Canadian artist Brian Jungen.

Brian Jungen‘s 2001 piece Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time consists of hundreds of plastic cafeteria trays, stacked neatly on a wooden shipping pallet. As is often the case with Jungen’s work, this piece is more complex than it may at first appear. Start with the wooden pallet, which has been hand-carved from red cedar. Above it, the trays themselves are also carefully considered: the number and colour of the trays correspond to the population of Aboriginal males incarcerated in Canada’s prisons. This block of trays looks solid, but it is in fact a hollow container; in the center a TV plays, showing a looping series of daytime television programs. Finally, the entire work references a historical event, in which an inmate at Ontario’s Millhaven Institution escaped inside a makeshift structure of stacked trays.

I think it’s possible to understand Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time, at least in part, as a data visualization. In general, Jungen’s practice resolves around disassembly and re-assembly – both key parts of any visualization project – so it is not too much of a surprise to see him treading into this territory. Though some of his later work involves data in more abstract ways (his famous Prototypes for New Understanding were made in a strictly numbered edition corresponding to Michael Jordan’s number; other works involve the construction of new maps from boundary data), Passage of Time remains his most data-centric work.

A major exhibition of Brian Jungen’s work is currently on show at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. An excellent introduction to Jungen’s work can be found on the NMAI’s website, including a brilliant essay by museum curator Paul Chaat Smith.

Data, Conspiracy and Concept: Mark Lombardi

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While working on my New York Times visualizations over the last few weeks, I have been reminded of and influenced by the work of American artist Mark Lombardi. Lombardi’s drawings outlining connections between people and organizations, which he called ‘Narrative Structures’ were the result of meticulous research and careful draftsmanship. He collected mentions of individuals, corporations, and government bodies from newspapers, indexes of books, and magazines, and catalogued this data on index cards – at one time he had more than 14,000 cards on file. He began using diagrams as a way to makes sense of this huge store of data, intending to put his dicoveries together into writing; but the diagrams themselves quickly became his central form of output.  These charts and maps are often extremely complex and typically focus on conspiracies. The image above shows a small portion of a piece depicting relationships between George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens.

Ten years ago, the types of relationships that Lombardi exposed were hugely difficult to unearth – the number of hours that went into each of his diagrams is staggering to consider. There may be some question as to the accuracy of his conclusions, but if recent interest by the FBI in Lombardi’s work is any indication, he seems to have been on to something.

Compare this painstaking work to the ease of assembling my 365/360 diagrams, which also depict relationships between people and organizations, and which also use media as a source. Each of these graphics takes only 13 calls to the NYT Article Search API, and is drawn completely in about a minute. Of course, my simple renderings lack the careful draftsmanship and personal attention that is integral to Lombardi’s pieces, but they certainly share a similar level of complexity and intent. There is a question, also, as to how the long, repetitive process of research contributed to the ultimate value of his hand-drawn diagrams – how do weeks and weeks of research and production compare to a 50 second render?  Despite this, I wonder what kind of work Lombardi might have produced had the ease of access provided by the Times API and other such tools had been a reality in the 1990s.

Mark Lombardi died of an apparent suicide in 2000. Though the circumstances surrounding his death reamain somewhat mysterious, it appears he was, at least in part, discouraged by having to re-create one of his most complex drawings – which had been distroyed by a sprinkler system in his apartment. You can read more about Mark Lombardi here, here, and here.