Unit 2: 3D – Data Visualisation (pt 1)

Ahead of our first session, we were provided with a brief to collect data about ourselves over 7 days that we would be visualising over this 3 week 3D project. I chose to record my use of technology by clocking the time I interacted with screens over this period. I made use of the Screentime function on my iPhone to log my phone usage with great accuracy, and manually logged my use of the computer, TV and other screens (e.g. on the treadmill) as best I could.

The results of this proved to be both intriguing and mildly horrifying. Overall, screentime accounted for almost 39 hours in my week – equivalent to around a quarter of my total time in a week, or more than a third of my waking hours in a week (assuming 8 hours sleep per night).

The first session clarified further the task ahead – to create 30+ maquettes visualising our data with different materials/techniques. We were introduced to some artists who had either been involved in data visualisation or in 3D pieces that could have been adapted to serve in this way.

First, we used paper. I found it tricky to move beyond a straight graphical representation of the data and get beyond the 2D of the paper itself.

Left: Infinite scroll study, Right: Scale segments showing proportion of time spent in a week – from top Non-screen time, phone time, tv time, other

The infinite scroll is an element I am interested in exploring further – the mechanism used by social media apps such as Instagram and Facebook which meanas a you never complete/reach the end of a feed and could scroll downwards on it forever. I learnt about this feature in an episode of Abstract on Netflix with one of the Instagram designers, Ian Spalter, who cited this as his biggest regret. This study was simple in construction – the paper leant itself easily to this shape – and i extended the length by sticking multiple sheets together. I like that you could potentially unroll this piece and discover how long it goes for, but the fact it does have an end may undermine my intention? I could relate the length specifically to the length of time on an average day spent on my phone.

The other paper work, where I carefully measured the 2D areas to represent each proportion of my time to scale, may be more accurate to the purposes, but I found the exactitude limiting. It was only in the larger non-screen time I found myself becoming more engaged in the creative process. I tore the paper into individual strips which I then scrunched and stuck back together in striated layers. The idea here being that time spent away from screens enables the greatest degree of freedom. It was interesting that Sarah considered the non-screen one as a piece in itself, and commented on its brave construction. Perhaps it could act as a visualisation of that free time alone?

In the afternoon we moved onto paper clay. While we could have explored its materiality akin to paper (once rolled and allowed to dry a little) I was more drawn to its very pliable putty-like texture and in working with it in this way.

From top (clockwise): Thumb 7 day screen time bar chart, screen/non-screen pie chart, screen/non-screen balls, scale models of the different screens according to time spent in a week (phone, laptop, TV)

I used scale again here to explore the comparison of data within context of use. The two screen/non-screen proportional pieces are pleasingly simplistic. I like that with the balls you are drawn to holding them and weighing them in your hands, and did wonder about constructing a weighing scales to demonstrate this too. The pie chart comes across like a cheese wheel which I find quite amusing.

The 3 screen models appear quite surrealist to my eye, with the phone so outsized (while the tv and laptop could work together quite reasonably). I like that in fact the phone could believably be true to life scale, and then in that sense the TV and laptop actually the surreal scale.

I enjoyed most the tactile making of the thumbs though. I used the natural wrinkling of the clay as it was compressed to evoke the creases in the skin, and found it pleasing to be moulding a thumb using my own thumb – and using the nail of my thumb to create the thumbnails on them. That there are 7 is eye-catching (where we might expect a set of 5) and when collected in this way it is difficult to identify them as thumbs (where you would usually only have 1 in a set!). So playing with people’s expectations here is quite fun. Also, how they stand up from the base makes them appear as though coming out of the surface – a little creepy to my eye, especially since I had them all bent as though mid-scroll. The size of them relates to the length of time spent using screens in each day of the 7 day period, so is in effect a bar chart.

This was an example of using the thing itself to identify the thing, which we saw being used to good effect in journalistic data visualisation. I think this is more akin to illustration, where the data is telling us a story and the visualisation lends itself to communicating part of that – using visual shortcuts to aid understanding. Mona Chalabi (data editor at Guardian US) does this to good effect. I came across the below piece in the Beazley design of the year exhibition in the Design Museum in London, relating to this blog post on the Guardian website.

The fact she has used actual people within a gallery to signify the people who are and are not represented in modern galleries in the US is really powerful. First because we can ‘read’ the data quickly – that predominantly white males are present within the foreground (here being used metaphorically as those who are foregrounded in the art world – who is brought to our attention). In doing so she has made use of the classic Fine Art conventions of perspective in history painting I think to evoke the sense of tradition and out-datedness of the modern art world in how it has done this – the romanesque arches in the gallery emphasise this. It’s also particularly powerful I think because it humanises these underrepresented artists by actually painting them as simple silhouetted figures. It is too easy for statistics and data to dehumanise and cloud our understanding, while dehumanisation is especially problematic when we are considering populations considered to be ‘outliers’ or minorities (i.e. women, non-white races and cultures). The key is in cuing empathy – showing the human impact of data, as the numbers are usually all too easily swept under the rug (as the infamous quote below highlights). I found this article in the Guardian particularly interesting on this subject.

The death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic.

Joseph Stalin

Approaches to Drawing: Alexander Calder

They used to sell wrapping paper at the League and we found that it was pretty good for drawing. You folded a sheet into eight rectangles and it would fit in your pocket. With this we used to pass our time drawing people in the subway on our way to and fro.

I seemed to have a knack for doing it with a single line.

Alexander Calder (autobiography, 1966)

Calder didn’t start pursuing a career in art until the aged of 24 in 1922, when he began taking night drawing classes in New York, having found the working life following his graduation from engineering to be much too dull. He found his start as an illustrator at the National Police Gazette capturing athletic events including one time a circus (which was to serve as inspiration for the work that would catapult his career).

Once he had his own studio, he immediately began experimenting in wood and wire, and then wire alone. His works are recognisably playful and characterful and were sometimes called caricatures.

One cannot describe his works – one must see them…The figures are amazing and in these works of art all artistic rules are suspended for the moment.

B. Werner review of Calder’s ‘Portraits, Sculptures, Wire Forms’ Nierendorf Galerie, April 1929
The Brass family, 1929
Kiki de Montparnasse, c.1930

His networking in Paris was crucial to his gaining renown in the art world, and also was to provide a key catalyst to his work – none more so than his visit to Mondrian’s studio in 1930.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue, and Yellow, 1930, oil on canvas, Kunsthaus Zurich

It was a very exciting room. Light came in from the left and from the right, and on the solid wall between the windows there were experimental stunts with colored rectangles of cardboard tacked on… I suggested to Mondrian that perhaps it would be fun to make these rectangles oscillate…

This one visit gave me a shock that started things.

Though I had heard the word ‘modern’ before, I did not consciously know or feel the term ‘abstract’. So now, at thirty two, I wanted to paint and work in the abstract.

Alexander Calder (autobiography, 1966)
Drawings, 1931-2. Alexander Calder: “These are some of the drawings I made right after I visited Mondrian’s studio. They are among the first abstract things that I did and they led to the wire universes”
Mobile c.1932 Alexander Calder 1898-1976 Lent from a private collection 1992 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/L01686

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending the stairs’ is the result of the desire for motion. Here he also eliminated representative form…

Therefore why not plastic forms in motion?…Just as one can compose colors, or forms, so one can compose motions.

Alexander Calder, exhibition notes at Berkshire Museum, Aug 1933

I had not heard of the mention of ‘plastic forms’ before, and initially thought this referred only to the material plastic. Upon researching this though I understand it now to mean anything that has the capacity for the artist to shape it, so in most cases for Calder, wire.

The move into kinetic or moving sculpture was groundbreaking for Calder – here he not only was playing with form and space in his wire drawings, but also time and movement. Though some were powered by motors, others were only subject to the movement of air or external stimuli.

A Universe, 1934 – motorized mobile: iron pipe, wire, wood, string

The underlying sense of form in my work has been the system of the Universe, or part thereof… the idea of detached bodies floating in space…

There is the idea of something floating – not supported – the use of a very long thread, or a long arm in cantilever…seems to best approximate this freedom from the earth.

Thus what I produce is not precisely what I have in mind – but a sort of sketch, a man-made approximation

That others grasp what I have in mind seems unessential, at least as long as they have something else in theirs.

Alexander Calder, ‘What Abstract Art means to me’, 1950

I have enjoyed learning more about Calder, after I was first fascinated by one of his mobiles at the Peggy Guggenheim in Venice. One thing that I am eager to try and take into my own practice is to try the line drawing technique. Til now I think I have shied away from this for fear of making a mistake, but I am intrigued by the unique forms that come from this method, and the simplicity of the finished work, so will resolve to experiment with this!