Increasingly, we are awash in data visualizations – that’s the name for the various animations, diagrams, and charts employed by information designers to make sense of raw numbers and facts. Call it the PowerPointization of information, the meticulous packaging of complex sets of data into bite-sized nuggets meant to be read at a glance. No cable news broadest or online newspaper is complete without them. Usually, these things abound during events of national importance – coverage of the 2010 midterm elections on CNN was festooned with zooming animations, interactive bar charts, and multicolored maps.
The degree to which these kinds of snappy visualizations either represent core facts or invent new ones is one of the main threads running through artist R. Luke DuBois’s work. DuBois addresses the cultural fictions of data visualizations, using the tools of the information design trade to more poetic ends, and opening up fields of ambiguous meaning in what at first glance seems to be a boiled-down presentation of data.
In 2008’s Hindsight is Always 20/20, historical State of the Union Addresses were presented as tag clouds arranged on eye charts. Clever and direct, these eye charts were similar to the kinds of data visualizations used in politico media. Yet, the installation of eye charts in an orderly assemblage of freestanding lightboxes resembled nothing so much as a funereal procession of headstones, with the respective Presidents’ vision (pun intended) as epitaph.
That sense of duplicity is compounded in 2010’s A More Perfect Union, a “romantic atlas” of the U.S. shown in a set of meticulously crafted state-by-state maps of the current online dating scene. As DuBois puts it, the aim was “to take on the U.S. census and find a way to critique it… the census is deeply flawed, so i made my own, deeply flawed, census in response.” Those flaws relate both to the practice of writing self-promotional descriptions for an online dating profile, and also to the inherent problem of trying to then gain an overview of national, regional, or local – hell any – identity based on how people interpellate.
We’re left with puzzling maps which replace city names with the most prominent, unique word used in profiles there. Said DuBois about A More Perfect Union, "What’s fascinating about the data I analyzed wasn’t that San Francisco turned out to be “gay,” but that we, as a country, have a very broad vocabulary of identity that is quite under-appreciated. So, in that sense, the more interesting areas of the maps are places like Northwestern Indiana, where you find ‘drown,’ ‘interracial,’ ‘serbian,’ ‘request,’ ‘cereal,’ ‘soda,’ and ‘disaffected,’ terms of identity mixed with food mixed with seemingly incongruous verbs and adjectives that don’t really sound like they belong on a dating site at all."
So what does all this amount to? As a single’s guide to the states, perhaps not so much. But DuBois’s training as a musician (he has a doctorate in composition from Columbia) may shed some insight on other readings. “I hand-traced a Rand McNally to make the maps, and I always felt that the lines of the highways would serve as a ‘score’ to create a type of word poetry out the maps.… I think of these maps as scores, but also as portraits, just as a piece of music can be a portrait as well.”
In this light, the atlas becomes a score, unhinging the data from empirical observation, and pushing it into more uncertain descriptive terrain. By juxtaposing concrete poetry, modernist musical scores, a huge pile of reference data, and a coy sense of play, DuBois is increasingly articulating a highly personal visual methodology for investigating the data fictions that shape personal and national narratives.