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March 03, 2017

MARTINE GUTIERREZ: JEANS

by Houda Lazrak

This is an interview with Martine Gutierrez, Van Lier Resident at ISCP from August 2016 to February 2017, by Houda Lazrak, Communications and Development Associate.

Houda Lazrak: Is JEANS, at 37th Street and 9th Avenue in Manhattan, on view December 5th, 2016 through January 15th, 2017, your first large-scale billboard project?

Martine Gutierrez: Yes! I have been wanting to do a billboard for a long time. Two years ago, I produced a large-scale installation called RedWoman91 with RYAN LEE Gallery for their window space on the High Line in Chelsea. The piece was a site-specific video that read somewhat like a billboard due to its scale and color. It addressed the digital interrelationships of online personas related to social media and chatrooms, but also individuals’ acts of curating their online presence. The title RedWoman91 can be interpreted as an email or username for a web persona and the character’s performance is congruent to a livestream in a chatroom. There is a noteworthy shift between RedWoman91 and JEANS. In RedWoman91 the performance is mirrored back to the character as she performs for herself in a live camera. With the adoption of a supermodel role in JEANS though, the performance is directly geared to a large and unpredictable audience. There are more similarities than differences between the two campaigns. I am using the mechanisms of billboard advertising and marketing color schemes to host performances of non-binary gender representation in a consumable way. To the unsuspecting eye, JEANS is a real billboard that puts forth an existing product by a seemingly cis woman—it’s all very stealth. If I hadn’t already been wearing a red catsuit in RedWoman91, I would have used red; pink is such a gendered color.

HL: So the color pink was not the initial color of choice at the start of your creative process?

MG: Well, initially the billboard was going to be a different fake campaign, a boots campaign that I am also working on for my magazine Indigenous Woman. The boots are called ‘identified boots,’ and have almost every queer symbol inscribed on them. I shot that campaign and later learned that the proposed billboard would not fit the image. So I shot the JEANS campaign. Originally, I wanted the image to be black and white, which is very classic, very Calvin Klein 1990s—but noone looks up in New York, including me. I had to find a way to pull viewers’ attention away from their phones and get them to look up five stories. That’s when I knew I had to show some derrière cleavage and infuse a bold marketing color to attract attention. I still wanted to have the campaign be in black and white though.  At the time, I was looking at makeup ads, such as Maybelline or Cover Girl, and saw a lot of lime greens and hot pink colors—acidic shades that were reminiscent of fruit, like watermelon and oranges. I came to be satisfied with the pink backdrop, like it is now, but had the text in lime green. I didn’t like it. My aesthetic is definitely ‘less is more’ as opposed to sassy and loud so I decided to revert to black and white text.

Also, you can see paint strokes on the image, which I photoshopped in. I knew the mark of the hand would be missing in the billboard’s mass printing and installation but I wanted to make the nostalgia visible. I pre-fabricated romantic gestures of dripping glue, brushstrokes and other accidental human residues to counter the mechanical precision of digital work.

HL: You’ve touched upon this already but are you referencing any specific ad campaign, particularly in your choice of jeans as the product you are selling?

MG: Denim as a fabric and the way denim has been used in the history of fashion advertising is so interesting to me. Denim is often looked at as the poor man’s uniform, in part because of the large Latin community who wear denim while working in the United States’ agricultural industry. There is a history of blue jeans being distributed in prisons to identify convicts. It is also still prevalent in terms such as ‘blue collar’ to identify the working class. Jeans remain a strong iconic American status symbol though. I have friends who have travelled through South America with only a suitcase of name brand secondhand jeans, such as Levi’s or Tommy Hilfiger, so coveted that their sales financed the entire trip!

The reality is that I’m not selling jeans. When you strip away the jeans, you are left with only ‘Martine.’  My performance as a supermodel is convincing but I am just as immaterial. I am not a brand or a celebrity. My work has always stemmed from the reality that it does not serve as a definitive statement on gender. Instead, my art has been cultivated into a language for self-reflection and understanding of how I identify in the world. This is partly because of the tension between my gender and my Guatemalan heritage, which is challenging to navigate in a genuine way. Unfortunately, much of how we perceive ourselves relies on others’ perceptions: validations of beauty, gender identities, self-worth, success, etc. Society perpetuates these normalcies as truths. Without care, we end up performing echoes of historical characters and hollow stereotypes.

HL: In a lot of your work you embody a specific persona or role. Did you come up with a particular character for JEANS too? Who is she?

MG: She is definitely a supermodel. But I don’t think it’s the farthest stretch to say she is more familiar to me than other characters—but very sexy! I was trying to play an ambiguous model. Someone who is cool enough to be seen in today’s media without referencing one particular supermodel.

HL: You also speak about her as both the product and the consumer.

MG: Yes, I am actually referring to myself when I talk about being both the product and consumer.  I am confronting control to have ownership over my body and how it is used as an underrepresented identity—and to have authority over what I’m selling and what the advertisement looks like. I am fully versed in the confrontations that follow the spectacle of my gender. I therefore utilize large public installations such as JEANS as an opportunity to take back my power. It is rare for the media not to use the label of ‘brown, transgender woman’ as buzz words as they project upon me the stereotype of my own exoticism.

I know my distinct identity has given me many opportunities. People are interested in placing me in a box and saying, “look at this person, isn’t she interesting to figure out?” But I know a lot of people, with whom I share parallels, who find themselves in positions with few opportunities to be heard. Even if a platform is available, they have little to no control over how the content is used. As a minority entering the mainstream (the straight white world) we find ourselves labeled as the other. I would never create a billboard that said “she or he?,” or something equally lacking sensitivity. Even though last year was considered the year of transgender awareness, the undertone of many trans-themed features still read along the lines of ‘look at the beautiful freak.’ The focus was on the individual’s gender, and the transformation to becoming a woman. When do we ever say, “Kate Moss, white model, born female”? It shouldn’t feel necessary to describe me, or any another LGBTQ or non-binary person of color, by my gender or ethnic background.

HL: What about the makeup? Were you trying to achieve a specific look with it?

MG: The makeup… I had a lot on! I had smoky eyes, a glossy lip, gelled brows, and some contouring on my nose and cheeks. For years, I compiled binders full of my favorite fashion magazine pages with little idea of why I found the imagery compelling, whether it was a color palette, the makeup, or the inspiring locations on private estates. They now serve as tools to learn how a model holds her body or references product placement. Though makeup trends vary, depending on the era and the brand, I see definite similarities between how makeup is used on a woman’s face —which shapes and features are celebrated and considered feminine.

HL: It is obvious that JEANS is in the middle ground between art and commerce. Were you thinking of incorporating the two while creating the work?

MG: I think this confluence has been gradual with time. The first video I made with a real connection to commerce was a music video for my pop star persona where I feature a white BMW convertible—the video could easily be mistaken for a BMW advertisement.

I inherently have an aesthetic that could be paralleled to fashion imagery or product merchandizing; I depend on my constructed fantasies to convince viewers that they should rest on their preconceived notions of what they are seeing. In reality, things aren’t what they appear to be: locations are sets, people are mannequins, I was not born female. Up until two years ago, I used predominately male pronouns. I am interested in how the fashion world builds glamorous settings. The transformation of products and models, specifically women, have always escaped reality in a way I find aspirationally inviting.

HL: Can you speak about the gendered visual cues in the image? By this I am mainly referencing your derrre cleavage and what it represents in terms of gender politics.

MG: The fastest way to answer this is: “kiss my ass!” If your question had come from a seemingly entitled, straight white male, that would have been my answer! I would flip my hair and walk away. But I’ll delve a little deeper here…

When selling anything, there is an unspoken commitment to selling sex at the same time.  This is true for fashion, cosmetics, cars, and produce. I mean, don’t get me started on Chiquita Banana! It’s part of marketing anything – it’s sex sex sex. In the past, I’ve shot several portraits wearing feminizing makeup and I showing my boy chest; it was quite jarring. Since I started hormone replacement therapy, I feel less and less the need to feminize my gender because features that were once masculine are now veiled by soft round flesh. I feel the need to nurture and protect myself as I am only budding—my derrière at the moment is the most familiar currency I have to showcase.

At first I shot a lot of images with the pants buttoned. Only in the last couple frames did I unbutton the pants and pull them down. Comparatively, the last images felt much more dynamic and a lot riskier.  The small of a man’s back doesn’t have the same currency that a woman’s does. Because my body reads so feminine in the JEANS image, it becomes more charged. If I had my scruff and my happy trail and was poised in the same position, where would the viewers’ attention go? Would they still see me as feminine? Probably not. Does it make me an activist to use my gender to say, “Look at me, I’m non-gender binary?” I don’t know, but I don’t want my identity to ostracize the conversation.

HL: So why do you want people to look at this image?

MG: Well, I want to be famous! No, I’m joking… I want validation. I want to feel extraordinarily ordinary. I want this billboard to address the obvious: public gaze and self-exhibitionism, and my use of mechanisms of consumerism to fabricate a non-existent brand. The craftsmanship with which I execute my practice should be at the forefront of the conversation. These topics would be the meat of the press if I was a straight, white or cis male artist.

HL: Finally, can you explain the campaign hashtag #martinejeans. Are people going to find anything if they look up that hashtag on social media?

MG: #MARTINEJEANS! At first I was thinking about putting one of my websites on the billboard but I don’t want to promote myself in that way. Modeling is not an aspiration of mine, though it is a skill I am interested in honing for my work. The hashtag seemed like the best navigator to produce content for the project and guide curious viewers to find more information about my practice. #martinejeans leads to a collection of images on Instagram. It connects to all my other posts regarding JEANS, like #behindthejeans. If anyone uses the hashtag when posting an image, it will automatically be part of the project on Instagram. The hashtag could even link to this interview, making it evident that it isn’t a real advertisement for jeans but an installation brimming with commentary.

April 13, 2017

Interview about Open Studios with Dennis Elliott, Founder of the International Studio & Curatorial Program

by Juliana Cope

This in an interview with Founder and former Director of the International Studio & Curatorial Program and current board member Dennis Elliott, by Director of Development and Programs Manager, Juliana Cope.

Juliana Cope (JC): Can you describe ISCP’s first Open Studios? When and where was it and why did you hold it? Who came and how did you promote it?

Dennis Elliott (DE): The first Open Studios was in the fall, 1994 at ISCP (then known as ISP) in a half-empty warehouse on Greenwich St. in Lower Manhattan’s TriBeCa.

It was memorable as there were only three artists exhibiting in their studios. With no common area to mount an exhibition, the studios seemed to be the only possible venue to present the artists’ work. Showing work in progress was a logical evolution given the mission of an artist-in-residence program.

The Open Studios were mandatory as the sponsors wanted their artists to have exposure to the New York art community. Implementing Open Studios, Visiting Critics, Salons and Field Trips were not only desirable program initiatives but were part of the contractual agreement with the sponsors.

For the first Open Studios (and for many years after), I mailed invitations with personal messages. It now seems quaint with the onslaught of social media. However, my demanding, “You must come!” on each invite actually worked. The participating artists designed the invites, which gave them more ownership of the event. The mailing list was only a couple of hundred names, compiled while I was administrating two other studio programs and with the contacts made during the first ten months of ISCP’s existence….

I would guess that about 150 attended the first Open Studios. Having hosted other Open Studios in the past, I was aware of the allure of refreshments—in my enthusiasm, I went to the absurd length of roasting turkeys and hams in my apartment the night before.

November 1994 was the beginning of my ISCP Open Studios learning curve. While this foray into inviting the public was somewhat clumsy, it was also very heady and loaded with promise….

JC: ISCP has held Open Studios in various locations as it moved from TriBeCa to Midtown to Brooklyn. Have you noticed any interesting differences based on the building and studio spaces?

DE: Physically and aesthetically, the TriBeCa and East Williamsburg buildings were similar. I was drawn to both for—among other things—the skylights allowing light and air into the central footprint, which was critical in affording more studio space and making the program viable.

Both buildings had their charm. And, both were secured in a down market with extremely advantageous leases. The real estate gods smiled on me during the TriBeCa-lease negotiation. The bursting of the dot-com bubble had pretty much emptied the building. That and an ingénue managing agent’s first negotiation were unexpected gifts that allowed ISCP to be born in an enormous top-floor with practically no capital.

Similarly, after viewing over 100 potential but unsatisfactory new homes for ISCP in 2007, a marathon lease negotiation resulted in ISCP’s move into an ideal facility in East Williamsburg. Again, favorable terms allowed ISCP to thrive. So much so that we were able to expand by developing another floor at the depth of the 2008 recession.

However, our Midtown experience was fraught from the beginning with facility and lease issues. It was a mostly difficult seven years for ISCP. The silver lining was that it forced ISCP to stand on its own, form a 501 (c) (3) and nurture the beginnings of what has become an exceptional board.

My concern for moving ISCP to Brooklyn was alleviated, once I discovered that NYC’s art community had preceded us. Being a stone’s throw from Bushwick compensated for our loss of the walking-access to Chelsea we had when we were on West 39th St. Also, moving into much larger, less expensive facilities allowed us to dedicate a decent amount of space for common areas, a gallery and a project room, thus permitting exhibitions, lectures, panels, conferences and the ability to provide space to academic institutions and other nonprofit organizations. This added a whole new dimension to the program, increasing ISCP’s visibility and community involvement.

Acting as a community resource was not really possible during ISCP’s fourteen years in Manhattan. Of the many things that excited me about the move to Brooklyn, having a community to work with and being appreciated by it, were at the top of the list.

Our current facilities have allowed ISCP to enhance its appeal and its work. The spacious studios, curatorial offices, open and efficient office spaces for the staff, common areas, three kitchenettes, bathrooms on every floor and ample storage area have helped make ISCP a destination for art professionals from all over the world.

JC: Who were some of the most noteworthy Open Studios visitors throughout the years and what bonds were forged with them?

For me, the most noteworthy Open Studios visitors were to be found in two categories: sponsors/potential sponsors and the diplomats/bureaucrats (mostly from the consulates and embassies in NYC and Washington DC). At many Open Studios: conversations were initiated, proposals were made and, best of all, deals were struck.

Four that stood out were Anne Garneau, the great Cultural Attaché at the Canadian Consulate, who attended Open Studios many times and worked tirelessly to bring Canadian residents to the program, and who even procured funds from her communications budget in support of this initiative. Likewise, Jacques Soullilou, Cultural Attaché of the French Embassy, who deserves credit for attracting support from the French Cultural Institute for artists’ residencies at ISCP. Third, Francis Greenburger, who founded and built a major real estate company New York, has been a longtime supporter and sponsor of ISCP. Just after 2002, Francis and I even tried to initiate an ISCP outpost in Montreal, but political changes at the time thwarted our efforts. Finally, Edward Albee, perhaps my favorite noteworthy visitor, would come to Open Studios and spend hours with the artists, most of whom had no idea who he was.

JC: From your position as a practicing artist what are the greatest values of Open Studio events?

DE: Open Studios can provide much desired feedback for the artists and curators. The event provides a broad spectrum of visitors and potential for career-altering encounters. There have been multiple connections made at the Open Studios that led to inclusion in exhibitions, invitations to travel and one-person shows. Other than that, it is really motivating to have an audience for your work and the subsequent exchange of ideas that can validate your efforts in the studio.

JC: ISCP used to be called ISP. Has having curators in residence changed the dynamics of ISCP’s Open Studios over the years?

DE: I always felt that curators do the greater good. If one thinks that curators have little support now to develop their practice, back in the 90s there was none. Even our core long-term sponsors were implacable then about not underwriting curators’ residencies. Finally after much exhortation, the Netherlands took the plunge in 1999.

Having curators in residence has been a potent stimulus for the program’s synergy. Just the exchange that goes on in the common rooms, studio visits, the programmed and social events have incalculable value. In addition, there are the outside influences the curators bring to the table: their research, writings, lectures, panels and exhibitions. The program’s mission is to nurture their practice and, in return, this experience can reap benefits for ISCP through association and visibility.

Having curators make presentations at the Open Studios by giving a preview of their research brings in work of artists not in residence, which adds a further dynamic to the event and the program.

JC: Do you know the history of Open Studios in New York City? Salons have been around for centuries but the idea of Open Studios is a little different. I am curious how you have seen this type of program change since the 1990’s.

DE: The New York art community is much larger, more commercial and just different than when I started administering programs in the early 1980s. At that time, one could almost know everyone…it was like a cottage industry. But, as thousands of young artists and curators poured into the city over the years, the art community grew exponentially.

Now, arts residencies have morphed into more professional and corporation-like structures, each with their own characteristics. ISCP has persistently maintained its support of artists and curators—that may seem an anomaly to many of the other art worlds that exist in New York.

The Open Studios are the most visible component of how ISCP has grown and diversified over the last 20+ years.

Note: This interview is edited and excerpted from a longer exchange that took place by email in March 2017.

Image:

Left to right: ISCP alumna Lene Berg, playwright Edward Albee, ISCP founder Dennis Elliott, ISCP alumni Damien Deroubaix and Valérie Mannaerts in 2008. Work by Deroubaix in the background.

March 01, 2018

Concrete Complexity: When Data Visualization Gets Put to the Test of Materiality

by Gentiane Bélanger

Each year, ISCP presents a solo exhibition of a current resident, which gives rise to the ideal conditions for productive curatorial collaboration. 2016 saw the dynamic artistic duo of Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens scheming together with Kari Conte, Director of Programs and Exhibitions, to create a deeply engaging onsite presentation of their sculptures in the exhibition “Measures of Inequity.” The following essay by Gentiane Bélanger was commissioned by ISCP on the occasion of the exhibition and gives a sense of the overall effect of the dense installation of 18 works, which invited sustained viewing and thinking, and reflection on the economic, national, and political implications raised by the delicate sculptures on view. Bélanger’s astute essay below is a foundational text that grounds and contextualizes the artists’ work.

 

Concrete Complexity: When Data Visualization Gets Put to the Test of Materiality

New media theorist Lev Manovich argues that big data visualization is to the twenty-first century what photography and film have been to the twentieth. Manovich considers big data visualization’s exponential rise over the past fifteen years as a profound epistemological and aesthetic paradigm shift, from a reductionist and linear approach to knowledge to an embrace of interconnected complexity.[1] Essentially deriving from Cartesian geometry—with most charts conceived from a plane defined by x, y, and z axes—classic diagrammatic language tends however to interpret complex phenomena in a reductionist fashion. Most current data visualization follows this principle, as evidenced by the standards established by one of today’s foremost infographics theorists, Edward Tufte. Good infographic design, Tufte asserts, is a marvel of economy and spatialization, revealing data through a minimal layout uncluttered by contextual paraphernalia. For Tufte, best practices in information design amount to an act of distillation or excavation, removing all relativist and ornamental muck—what he terms chartjunk—to get down to information’s objective bedrock. Diagrams should not be interpretive in themselves, but should rather support robust interpretation by visualizing connections between otherwise indecipherable data. “What is to be sought in designs for the display of information is the clear portrayal of complexity. Not the complication of the simple.”[2]

Tufte’s reductionist view is expressed through nine principles of excellence governing “graphical elegance”:

  • Show the data.
  • Induce the viewer to think about the substance rather than about methodology, graphic design, the technology of graphic production, or something else.
  • Avoid distorting what the data have to say.
  • Present many numbers in a small space.
  • Make large data sets coherent.
  • Encourage the eye to compare different pieces of data.
  • Reveal the data at several levels of detail, from a broad overview to the fine structure.
  • Serve a reasonably clear purpose: description, exploration, tabulation, or decoration.
  • Integrate closely with the statistical and verbal descriptions of a data set.[3]

But what if the reality apprehended is so intricate and complex that no distilled view can possibly do it justice? This is precisely the kind of challenge that big data presents, according to information designer Manuel Lima:

The complex connectedness of modern times requires new tools of analysis and exploration, but above all, it demands a new way of thinking. It demands a pluralistic understanding of the world that is able to envision the wider structural plan and at the same time examine the intricate mesh of connections among its smallest elements. It ultimately calls for a holistic systems approach; it calls for network thinking.[4]

In what he terms “network visualization,” Lima evokes a new visual language, characterized by cluttered, multidimensional representations focused on data clusters and their myriad relations rather than on isolated data. Relational and systemic, network visualization is more related to discourses on rhizomatic structures, emergence, and complexity and chaos theories than to, say, Cartesianism. Similarly, art historian Susanne Leeb expands the understanding of graphic design theory, and more specifically the notion of the diagram, to include another view. Some, like Tufte, view the diagram as a tool for retrospective systematization by synthesizing and ordering myriad factors into a single analytical figure. Others perceive the diagram as a prospective, relational map in constant emergence. Leeb doesn’t see these two perspectives—retrospective and systematic versus prospective and evolutive—as mutually exclusive, but rather as inherent facets of the diagram that are always in tension. In other words, diagrams can be tools of systematization, but they can also become destabilizing agents of discovery.[5] This heuristic understanding of the diagram aligns with Deleuzian thought. In an essay centred on Foucault’s philosophy, Deleuze states that the diagram never represents a pre-existing world but instead produces a new type of reality, a new model of truth. The diagram makes history by undoing preceding realities and significations, constituting so many points of emergence and creativity, unforeseen conjunctions, and improbable continuums. The diagram overrides history with new becomings.[6]

Anthropologists Anthony McCosker and Rowan Wilken consider the current fascination with big data as an expression of the mathematical sublime.[7] Within this proliferation of data, graphic designers become the new oracles, formulating graphic models that in turn shape our understanding of reality. They become the enunciators of knowledge and powerful visual rhetoricians. Just like language, data visualization can be used sophistically, tweaked into fallacious arguments. The longstanding debate around income inequality offers countless examples of such biased schematization. Take, for instance, Stephanie Evergreen’s argument on the misuse of color in data visualization and the incidental perpetuation of economic and racial inequalities.[8] By abstracting complex realities and codifying them into graphic conventions, data visualization at its best has the power to reveal intangible realities; at its worst, to inflict symbolic violence.

In the economic theories probed by Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens, diagrams reduce revenue flows, profit margins, labor forces, and the trading of resources to highly rationalized and hierarchized conceptual spaces. In economics diagrams take on a Foucauldian slant, their content susceptible to being used as a form of political technology, a device for control and governance situating subject and object in relation to one another and mapping out the shifting channels of power. Decision-making instances, for example—no longer rooted in bounded territories—now base their actions on an incommensurate heap of data denoting such parameters as gross domestic product, birth rate, life expectancy, national debt, currency value, and, of course, income disparity.

Against this backdrop, Ibghy & Lemmens give material form to charts and graphs culled from academic journals, essays, and conference proceedings in order to expose the arbitrariness of these visual languages and the extent of their power of abstraction. All that remains of the complexity of the realities represented by these charts are data that have been singled out and distributed across Cartesian grids. By questioning the strategies of representation employed by economists, Ibghy & Lemmens launch an epistemological inquiry into the construction of knowledge and the rhetorical power of data visualization. The works shown in Measures of Inequity include replicated diagrams of the trickle-down theory, disparities in access to care for selected groups, and income inequality in emerging countries. Classical economics abstractions like the Lorenz Curve, which maps out the distribution of wealth, are meticulously—albeit imperfectly—rendered using thread or color acetate fixed to wood skewers or plywood and propped on makeshift tables. The delicate materiality and alluring aesthetics of these works somehow undermine the authority of the original data, exposing their narrative construction. As Murtaza Vali explains, “These material effects seem to soften the data—it becomes palatable and possibly even somewhat pliable, making the inequities measured no longer feel irreversible.”[9]

The aesthetic connection between Ibghy & Lemmens’ corpus of works and avant-garde Modernism has been repeatedly observed. While in past projects, this citational trait suggested an overturning of the Russian Constructivist infatuation with progress and productivity,[10] in Measures of Inequity it takes on a new meaning. Productivity is a central point in the ongoing debate about economic inequality. If some politicians and economists like Newt Gingrich seem satisfied with macroeconomics, rounding off economic growth to the gross domestic product and viewing income inequality as a mere collateral effect, others instead emphasize the question of productivity. Such is the case with Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Paul Stiglitz, both of whom distinguish between wealth generated through productive endeavour (start-ups, innovative working contexts, etc.) and what Gillian White describes as rent-seeking: “the practice of increasing wealth by taking it from others rather than generating any actual economic activity.”[11] The increased financialization of economics tilts the balance of wealth towards this register of economic activity to an unprecedented degree, to the detriment of the ninety-nine percent who are left out of the game.

Furthermore, when Stiglitz argues that income inequality creates “a society with a gaping hole, not only in its economic makeup, but in its morality,”[12] he points to even harsher discrepancies, like unequal opportunity among marginalized groups. Krugman follows his lead by factoring in privilege:

“It would be foolish to deny that some people are, in fact, a lot more productive than average. It would be equally foolish, however, to deny that great success in business (or, actually, anything else) has a strong element of luck—not just the luck of being the first to stumble on a highly profitable idea or strategy, but also the luck of being born to the right parents.”[13]

If the United States excels in economic inequality (what Krugman ironically defines as a case of American exceptionalism), the global scope of the Occupy Movement eloquently demonstrates how generalized this gap of opportunity has become. The Occupy Movement was a univocal outcry in response to the globalization and capital mobility that brought down wages globally, destroying many middle-income jobs while consolidating wealth in the hands of a few financial-market speculators. And, in an eternal return, women have recently marched on Washington, D.C., as the 45th president of the United States gets down to business at the White House flanked by his Goldman Sachs–affiliated cabinet, following a campaign bent on capitalizing on anti-establishment discourses and dismissing minority groups (if anyone other than male, white, and heterosexual can be properly termed a “minority”).

Like Donald Trump’s campaign, the diagrams craftily replicated by Ibghy & Lemmens point to the distillation of richly complex reality into a reductionist language. A sense of loss emanates from Measures of Inequity: the loss of human richness, ambivalence, and singularity. In his essay “Against Infographics,” historian Daniel Rosenberg explains this:

“Anyone who uses data knows that clarity comes with trade-offs in many dimensions
. . . . We lose embeddedness. We lose traces of intention, local connections, and clues to what was hard and easy to understand—what needed explaining in the first place. The history of data graphics is a history of legends, cribs for reading, pointers on what is foreground and what is meant to stay to the back.”[14]

Rosenberg goes on to appropriate and overturn Tufte’s principles of graphic excellence.

These détournements aptly summarize the attitude adopted by Ibghy & Lemmens vis-à-vis data visualization:

  • Show the graphics.
  • Induce the viewer to think about the substance, methodology, design, technology, and aspects of production, dissemination, and consumption.
  • Highlight the manipulation of data in every representation.
  • Present many graphic elements in a small space.
  • Attend to incoherencies in large data sets.
  • Encourage the eye to compare different visual arrangements of the same subject.
  • Reveal epistemological differences produced by changes of scale.
  • Clarify the purposes and implications of data representations.
  • Show how verbal and graphic devices interact in data representation.[15]

Ibghy & Lemmens take this undermining of infographics a step further by confronting visual abstractions with the stubborn presence of matter so as to reintegrate them into the complex matrix of reality. The craftsmanship and aesthetic savviness implied in these reconstitutions point to the constructed nature and rhetorical agenda of visualized knowledge. Far from merely reflecting reality, Ibghy & Lemmens reposition data visualization as a crafted conceptual apparatus able to compose new perspectives on reality and influence decisional power in tangible ways. As such, data visualization is structurally analogous to financial speculation. Both are radical forms of abstraction levelling down the world’s rich complexities, only to have greater influence on the unfolding of concrete matters. Reframing these abstracted systems within the contingencies of everyday materiality, Ibghy & Lemmens undermine their slick veneer of objectivity and expose their susceptibility to ideological bias in the form of cracks, gaps, makeshift collage, and exquisitely imperfect sculptures. The careful handling of materials, the confection of intricate and fragile forms, the aesthetic choices that are made by the artists all mirror—and undermine—the decisions, manipulations, and agendas that go into data visualization. Having passed through Ibghy & Lemmens’ hands, graphs and charts have to be taken for what they fundamentally are: elaborate, inventive, and value-laden narratives. Amazing how the mundane qualities of acetate, thread, and plywood have the capacity to annihilate the auratic authority of abstraction, and to let critical knowledge seep through their imperfect seams.

This essay is by Gentiane Bélanger, Director/Curator, Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec.

Image: Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmens, installation view of Measures of Inequity, 2016. Photo by Martin Parsekian.

[1] Lev Manovich, foreword in Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information, by Manuel Lima (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011), 11-13.

[2] Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, 2nd ed. (Cheshire: Graphics Press, 2001), 191.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Manuel Lima, Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2011), 46.

[5] Susanne Leeb, “A Line with Variable Direction, which Traces No Contour, and Delimits No Form,” in Drawing a Hypothesis: Figures of Thought, ed. Nikolaus Gansterer (Vienna: Springer-Verlag, 2011), 29-42.

[6] “Le diagramme ne fonctionne jamais pour représenter un monde préexistant, il produit un nouveau type de réalité, un nouveau modèle de vérité. […] Il fait l’histoire en défaisant les réalités et les significations précédentes, constituant autant de points d’émergence et de créativité, de conjonctions inattendues, de continuums improbables. Il double l’histoire avec un devenir.” Gilles Deleuze, Foucault (Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1986), 43.

[7] Anthony McCosker and Rowan Wilken, “Rethinking ‘big data’ as visual knowledge: the sublime and the diagrammatic in data visualisation,” Visual Studies 29, no. 2 (2014): 155-164.

[8] “How Dataviz Can Unintentionally Perpetuate Inequality: The Bleeding Infestation Example,” http://stephanieevergreen.com/dataviz-inequality_pt1/.

The example she points to consists of a map of households with an income under a certain threshold, which coincidentally correlates with neighbourhoods of minority groups. The data are visualized as red dots, making the zones of concentrated poverty resemble bleeding wounds or disease scars on the map. What was intended as mere information emerges instead as stigmatizing.

[9] Murtaza Vali, “Richard Ibghy and Marilou Lemmens,” Artforum: Critics’ picks,   https://www.artforum.com/picks/id=63301.

[10] See Gentiane Bélanger, “Richard Ibghy & Marilou Lemmens: Putting Life to Work,” C Magazine 131, Autumn 2016, 67-68.

[11] Gillian B. White, “Stiglitz: Here’s How to Fix Inequality,” The Atlantic, November 2, 2015,  http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/11/stiglitz-heres-how-to-fix-inequality/413761/.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Paul Krugman, “Is Vast Inequality Necessary?,” The New York Times, January 15, 2016,  https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/15/opinion/is-vast-inequality-necessary.html.

[14] Daniel Rosenberg, “Against Infographics,” Art Journal 74, no. 4, Winter 2015, 56.

[15] Ibid., 57.

Journal

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