Data visualizers deal in abstractions. Bars stand in for entire populations, colors represents ideologies and vast distances are scaled to fit the width of a computer screen. Our visual and cultural understandings give these abstractions meaning—otherwise a line graph would be just a line.
Conversely, Ghana-born artist El Anatsui calls his abstract art data. In his first solo exhibition in New York, Anatsui displays more than 30 works made of metal and found wooden objects. According to the museum text, “This work has no specific orientation and illustrates the artist’s desire for his art to reflect the ever-changing condition of life. Anatsui also wishes to inspire creativity in the people charged with installing his work and says he merely provides ‘data’ for others to reenvision and manipulate.”
The large-scale aluminum and copper wire works in Gravity and Grace: Monumental Works by El Anatsui hang like sheets around the lofty fifth floor of the Brooklyn Museum. They represent much more, calling to mind different cultures, concepts as well as the art of abstraction itself.Though one could recognize some of his pieces for what they represent, their titles definitely make major headway into those associations and push them beyond metal sheets.
“Ozone Layer” bulges in some areas and shrinks in others, with thinning edges that suggest the diminishing layer of our Earth’s atmosphere. In a similar way hangs “Earth’s Skin,” which is graced by pastiches of color that call up African, Europe and American patterns. “Gli (Wall)” is a massive and undulating work of varied dimensions, materials and textures. In it all the divisiveness of boundaries stands — at least as far as one personally interprets it. “Drainpipe,” with its long, narrow tin cylinders, more visually represents its namesake than the others.
As data visualizers, it’s important that we are not only aware of how abstraction can help us but also how it can hurt. It’s an efficient and elegant way to communicate, but we must remember that these abstractions stand in for real — possibly life or death — issues.
Abstractions require us to think about our audience and take responsibility for the potential far-reaching distribution of our infographics: Red means something entirely different on a map of the U.S. than a map of Russia and China, just as a fist in the air is a gesture of solidarity to some, and an insult to others.
Ultimately, you lose control over your work once you release it into the world. The audience takes over and finds meaning from there.
Rani Molla has a digital media master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and is the editorial producer at GigaOM. She’s a journalism reader, writer, photographer, videographer, data visualizer and general doer. Follow her on Twitter.