Sunday, June 25, 2006

By the Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s “People’s Choice”

Last week’s posting, Data Visualization as Art, reminded me of another topic where art and numbers intersect. In this case, it’s Komar and Melamid’s “People’s Choice” project. I say “project” because People’s Choice comprises many different paintings, each of which is the result of market research into the “most wanted” and “least wanted” paintings of various countries. The data from the market research is part of the displayed art too.

This 1999 New York Times review of the project’s accompanying book, Painting by Numbers: Komar & Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art, explains the idea:

Noting the gulf that yawned between a democratic society and its self-consciously elitist art world, Komar and Melamid decided to find out for themselves what people who were not a part of that world liked to see in pictures. Accordingly, they availed themselves of that scorned but ubiquitous resource, the opinion poll. Beginning late in 1993, telephone researchers hired by them questioned 1,001 Americans of all demographic shadings, asking them about their preferences as to color, dimensions, settings, figures — 102 questions in all. Sixty-seven percent of respondents liked a painting that was large, but not too large — about the size of a dishwasher (options ranged from “paperback book” to “full wall”). A whopping 88 percent favored a landscape, optimally featuring water, a taste echoed by the majority color preferences, blue being No. 1 and green No. 2. Respondents also inclined toward realistic treatment, visible brushstrokes, blended colors, soft curves. They liked the idea of wild animals appearing, as well as people — famous or not — fully clothed and at leisure....Armed with this information, Komar and Melamid started to paint.

Below is Komar and Melamid’s “Most Wanted” painting for the United States, reduced down from its original “dishwasher-size” canvas. It features the attributes just mentioned (yes, that’s George Washington posed in the middle):

The image is from the Dia Art Foundation’s site, which has a Web version of People’s Choice, including the survey results.

Back to the New York Times review:

Komar and Melamid’s project is conceptualism at its most elegant and
effective, a little bomb thrown into the works. It puts into question
not only the relation between art and ordinary people, and the meaning
of ‘‘the market,’‘ but also the ambiguity of opinion polls and, by
extension, the discordance between the individual and the mass.

Finally, the Dia Foundation’s Director’s Introduction quotes Melamid:

In a way it was a traditional idea, because a faith in numbers is fundamental to people, starting with Plato’s idea of a world which is based on numbers. In ancient Greece, when sculptors wanted to create an ideal human body they measured the most beautiful men and women and then made an average measurement, and that’s how they described the ideal of beauty and how the most beautiful sculpture was created. In a way, this is the same thing; in principle, it’s nothing new. It’s interesting: we believe in numbers, and numbers never lie. Numbers are innocent. It’s absolutely true data. It doesn’t say anything about personalities, but it says something more about ideals, and about how this world functions. That’s really the truth, as much as we can get to the truth. Truth is a number.

You might as well consider that commentary part of the piece too.

In art textbooks of the future, look for People’s Choice to join Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can paintings as emblems of (post)modern consumer society.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Data Visualization as Art

Will there be a future Rembrandt whose medium is data visualization? I was thinking about this after encountering Jesse Bachman’s “Death and Taxes: A visual look at where US tax dollars go.”

According to the summary, Bachman spent close to a year researching and creating this visualization of where the U.S. government spends money. I have reproduced a small version below...

...but I highly recommend you scroll around the big version to appreciate the piece’s detail, clarity, and artistry.

I use the word artistry with the idea that some data visualizations qualify as art. Bachman’s piece clearly has artistic intent, from its political message to the name of the site it’s on (deviantART). And independent of the data’s message, the visual design and rendering is...well, artistic.

By comparison, below is an infographic on a similar subject. It is nicely done but feels more like good craft than art. (See here for the full-page version.)

(Yes, I realize at this point that we are ankle-deep in the “What is art?” swamp. Maybe Bachman’s stuff is really “graphic design”? Or can graphic design be art? And so on. For the rest of this post, I promise to restrict myself to sloshing around the edge of the swamp rather than going deeper.)

Bachman is selling posters of “Death and Taxes,” so you can hang it on your wall, art-like. Similarly, data-visualization titan Edward Tufte’s Web site has a “Fine Art” section where you can order large, high-resolution prints of his work.

And then there’s Mark Lombardi, whose work I saw a few years ago in an art gallery. He researched and created highly detailed graphs showing the connections between people and events. Here’s an example of one of his works, “george w. bush, harken energy, and jackson stevens c.1979-90, 5th version.”

Here is a close-up of one little part:

This piece is “only” 20 x 44 inches. Lombardi’s work got as big as 5 feet by 12 feet, dense with connections. Everything he did was researched and drawn by hand. Despite working in the computer age (up until his death in 2000), he used index cards for the research and pencil/graphite on paper for the pieces. See here for more examples as well as, at the bottom of the page, Lombardi’s commentary.

The schematic-diagram look of Lombardi’s work was an artistic choice, a visual antiseptic that left only facts on the page. Because many of his pieces involved scandals, the connections often intersected the famous (George W. Bush and Bill Clinton each got caught in a Lombardi web) with the infamous, leaving the viewer to decide the significance.

I bring up Lombardi because his work and Bachman’s “Death and Taxes” strike me as opposite ends of the “data visualization as art” spectrum. While both render data clearly and with a message—that is, they are not using data to drive abstract art (a whole other category)—Bachman does so with overt artistic technique whereas Lombardi employs the covert artistry of minimalism.

So if certain data visualizations can be art, we might as well ask whether history will judge a future data-viz artist as a master, on par with a Rembrandt. I think it could happen because, when anointing great artists, art historians often pick artists whose work is representative of their time. This being the information age, data-viz art looks suspiciously representative to me.

[I originally found “Death and Taxes” via a write-up on]

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Unexpected Numbers from the Economist’s 2006 Pocket World in Figures

Next time you come up short for cocktail-party chatter, just remember: “Equatorial Guinea.”

I take that lesson from the Economist magazine’s 2006 Pocket World in Figures, a book that compiles a wide range of numbers about various countries and regions of the world. Following are a few unexpected results that caught my eye.

Which country had the highest economic growth from 1993 to 2003, measured by the average annual percentage increase in real Gross Domestic Product (GDP)?
Everybody knows about China’s big growth, but at 8.9% it’s only enough for 4th place. The winner is Equatorial Guinea at 25.9%, due to its relatively recent exploitation of oil reserves. The other two ahead of China (Bosnia and Liberia) both experienced bounce-back growth after wars.

Which country is the largest donor of bilateral and multilateral aid, as a percentage of GDP?
If you’re expecting a Scandinavian country to be the winner here, you are close. Norway (0.92% of GDP) and Denmark (0.84% of GDP) are numbers two and three. But number one is Saudi Arabia at 1.11% of GDP. What about the United States? Although it is by far the largest donor nation in absolute dollars, it ranks 26th when measured as a percentage of GDP (0.15%).

Which country is most energy efficient, in terms of GDP per unit of energy use?
This one is measured in “purchasing power parity dollars per kilogram of oil equivalent.” I take that to mean economic output per energy input. The winner is Peru, and the rest of the top-10 countries are strange bedfellows: Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Namibia, Morocco, Uruguay, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ireland, and Italy.

Which country has the greatest number of cars per 1,000 people?
Unless you somehow already know the answer, don’t bother guessing. The winner is Lebanon at 732 cars per 1,000 people. The United States is 14th at 481 per 1,000.

That result about car-happy Lebanon begs to have its source checked. However, specific sourcing is absent from 2006 Pocket World in Figures, an unfortunate omission even if the book’s purpose is more toward entertainment than serious reference material.

So there you have it. If, after dishing these facts and figures, you aren’t the life of the party, then you’re not partying with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Sunday, June 4, 2006

Latitude with Attitude

What’s wrong with this picture?

It’s a Dell Latitude notebook computer with an Apple decal over the Dell logo. If you look carefully, you can see the Dell logo showing through.

Because some of Apple’s notebooks are a similar color and have the logo in the same place, this customization is a particularly clever visual hack.

The perpetrator told me he was inspired by his love of iPod/iTunes—an example of a brand that’s loved trumping a brand that’s respected.