We are positively swimming in data. Based on my intimate relationship with TCG’s database, I can tell you within a few minutes how many of our books are written by authors whose names start with “k”(34), how many people are registered for the national conference this year (517), and how many member theatres did Othello in the past year (10).
It wasn’t always this way. A youngish friend of mine recently learned from a 60s-era box office manager that in his day, theatres calculated attendance by counting up the unsold tickets after the show and subtracting that number from the capacity of the house. Both of us marveled that they were able to get by with knowing so little information. Today’s ticket systems can tell us all about when and where tickets were reserved, as well as patrons’ seat assignments, addresses, and probably zodiac sign. All of this sortable, indexable information is very convenient, if sometimes a little overwhelming. But can it be art?
Recently, I received an invitation to a Meetup event called “Data Mining & Visualization“. I was possibly predisposed to be cynical, and expected to find ordinary items with especially pretty bar graphs. But the organizer’s description seemed very appealing:
“Data is information and information is power, the trick is knowing how to manipulate it to generate helpful insights, or in the case of many artists, beautiful visualizations that teach us something about ourselves.”
Always eager to link arts and geekiness, I decided that anyone who could write a sentence like that could probably create an event worth my $5. And thus began an investigation into what data and visualization artists actually do.
It turns out, quite a lot. Sometimes projects use data as almost as decoration, as with this project in Minneapolis in which the titles of recently checked on books are displayed in light on an elevator, and this one in the New York Times building, in which thousands of small screens give sense of the day’s events by pulling sentences written that day on the paper’s web site by reporters, bloggers, and even emailers. It reads like a poem with mad libs thrown in:
“ We’ve been hot, then cold, hot then cold.”
They say, “Give up. It’s too hard.”
“We were lucky she didn’t need a mortgage.”
Other projects serve to illuminate social issues, like this one, which shows meeting and collaborations at the World Economic Forum. And this presentation which illustrates world immigration in 2004 .
There’s also data satire. A multimedia project called Commidified attempts to debunk modern commercialism in a variety of creative ways. This is my favorite section which takes flickr images and combines them with deep-seeming corporate slogans. It’s an effective undoing of vague ads designed to invoke…whatever sort of vague expansiveness they’re trying to invoke.
All this playful use of data – as satire, to illuminate social issues, and indeed to promote art, remind me of some of the qualities theatre is best known for. This has got me wondering – what is theatre going to do with our giant evolving ball of data?
Katie Barry has been a preschool teacher in Vietnam, a theatre tech in Vermont, and, most recently, a web associate at TCG. When not writing descriptions of herself in the third person, Katie enjoys traveling, theatre, all things international, long brunches, books, and playing with her two kittens. She lives in Brooklyn with Yuki and is learning to swing dance.