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Monthly Archives: September 2012

Daniel works in the field of data communication. That is the practice of making data – literally numbers – into something that informs day-to-day management decisions. Of the bookInformation is Beautiful by David McCandless, Daniel says, “This is the most intuitive way to present data. Anyone can use Excel to produce a graph, but graphic design skills are required to create images that communicate so much more than just the relationship between the x and y axis.”

Information is Beautiful is the coffee table book of your dreams. It tackles issues and subjects as diverse as endangered species, annual government spend, alternative therapies and wine vintages and presents them in a way that is both functional and beautiful. It might seem a bit late in the day to take about McCandless’ book, which was published in 2009; however, this book marked the entry of data visualisation into the mainstream, and since then it has only been gaining in applications, sophistication and status. Crucially, data visualisation breaks down barriers between high and low forms of access to information, bridging between the popular and intellectual spheres.

Data visualisation has its origin in the 17th century, when cartography (the mapping of the earth) that had begun in the ancient Greece, developed into a much more accurate science. Quantitative data presented in a graphical way instantly has more power; Florence Nightingale’s ‘rose diagrams’ (pie charts) of the 1850s, which demonstrated the link between deaths in the Crimean war and poor hygiene, were able to gather public support for reforms far more effectively than the most persuasively written article. Conversely, a contemporary example dealing with a similar subject matter is The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone by Richard G Wilkinson and Kate E Pickett; this book presents a convincing case for reducing the gap between rich and poor; however, the way it presents its data lacks a certainje ne sais quoi that perhaps a graphic designer could have provided.

The phenomenon that we understand today as data visualisation has developed through the twin disciplines of graphic design and computer sciences. It has applications in the world of work, leisure and study; sometimes applying to all three. The way in which we are ‘plugged in’ to the internet means we need to consume new knowledge fast, and have at least some of the analysis done for us. McCandless’ most well known graphic design is the Billion Dollar-o-Gram. Speaking at the Ted Global Oxford in 2010, McCandless said that this image ‘arose out of frustration’ with press reportage relating to billions of dollars. He went on to say that without context, billions of dollars ‘don’t make any sense…and the only way to understand them is visually and relatively’.

McCandless’ graphics have appeared on mugs and posters as well as in exhibitions. He has worked with organisations including Tate Britain and MoMA and at Wellcome Collection, a free science and art exhibition venue in London, where one of his graphics was used in their exhibition High Society. The graphic presented a breakdown of the money made by the drugs trade and the amount spent on the war against drugs; it was an effective way of breaking down the myths surrounding this complex issue.

It is more usual to access data visualisations on-line; many fun applications help users to navigate the world wide web by mapping music, blog topics or image albums. Of the hundreds of thousands of data visualisations available on-line, some are more successful than others, the best ones have immediate impact – sometimes the information they present is surprising or even shocking – as well as providing meaningful analysis. Most significantly, the fields of popular science and education are using data visualisations combined with interactivity and animation, to communicate important new research. Professor Hans Rosling in The Joy of Stats, a BBC4 documentary programme from 2010, used an animated graphic to plot the life expectancy in 200 countries in relation to their wealth – this is well worth a watch on YouTube. Rosling is the co-founder of Gapminder, a venture that promotes a ‘fact-based world view’ and uses data visualisations to engage audiences with global issues.

We may be about to see the refining of data visualisation into a discipline in its own right (not simply existing on the fringes of graphic design, communication, information science and art) as the inaugural competition to celebrate global excellence launched in April this year. The judging panel includes senior curator at MoMA Paola Antonelli, Guardian Datablog editor Simon Rogers, McCandless and blogger and journalist Maria Popova. There are many tools already available to help individuals produce their own data visualisations (including IBM’s Many EyesTableau Public and Google’s Fusion Tables); and an ever greater expectation of dynamically presented information (due to interactive smartphone apps and the roll out of HTML5). This may be the year when data visualisation explodes.

First published April 2012

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A man stands by some trees with blood smeared down his face.  He is looking away from you. You continue scanning across the landscape, trying to find clues to explain what has happened. The atmosphere is tense. A car lies on its side, smoke billowing from it as if it has been in a crash. There is no-one else around… To continue any further with this description would be a spoiler. To see the entirety of David Ferrando Giraut’s 13-minute film, Road Movie (Perpetuum Mobile), you will have to visit the new exhibition Topophobia at the Bluecoat. The theme is ‘anxiety around place’ and the exhibition showcases the artwork of 10 artists, including the work of its two curators, Anne Eggebert and Polly Gould.

Eggebert and Gould describe the works as sharing a common thread of “fearfulness, anxiety, unease, embarrassment, dislocation, alienation, nostalgia, loss, stage fright, urban dread, disturbing, or humorous incongruity, suspense and…thrill”. In addition, Eggebert says that the works reveal an emerging theme within contemporary art practice of “an anxious relation[ship] to the techniques and technologies of display.” This touring exhibition is the outcome of a long-term research-based curatorial partnership between the pair, who have been collaborating since 1999 and are both sometime tutors at Central St Martin’s College.

Sara-Jayne Parsons, curator at the Bluecoat, says that Giraut’s piece is the one that has stayed with her, having seen the exhibition in its inaugural venue, Danielle Arnaud, London. Road Movie is certainly powerful and masterful in creating a feeling of unease. The other pieces for the most part are about anxiety but do not necessarily make the viewer feel anxious; as Eggebert says, “art can offer our fears back to us to be enjoyed at a safe distance.” Giraut’s piece is not the only one that feels cinematic; Uta Kogelsberger’s photographs are straight out of an apocalyptic Hollywood movie, while at the same time they celebrate the beauty and grandeur of the urban landscape. Elsewhere Almut Rink questions the artifice of the built up environment, through now retro but once futuristic architectural software, planting rows upon rows of identical CGI trees.

Suspended above the crowd, held up by scaffolding, is a human-sized nest or tree-house out of which legs or arms swing in a deadpan fashion from time to time. Liverpool-based artist Emily Speed has been commissioned to produce this new work, Panoply. Speed’s practise explores the relationship between architecture and the human body but this is her first performance in a gallery. The architecture of the Bluecoat is a great location for Speed’s cheeky new piece as it seems like a continuation of the evolution of this venue, especially in light of its redevelopment for the 2008 Capital of Culture. Several of the pieces, including Speed’s, borrow from child-like activities; building dens, making collages or hand-drawing maps. As I walk around the exhibition I start to re-examine these formative experiences; were these innocent activities actually a way of coping with the scary world outside my front door?

Topophobia is well balanced in terms of media old and new. Sometimes one is used to explore the other. Eggebert produces hand-drawn maps from Google Earth images, contrasting them with real plants or closely observed botanical drawings. Contrasting the landscape with modern life is also the subject of Marja Helander’s crisp and intense photographic images (pictured). Helander is Finnish and here cleverly expresses the difficulty of reconciling her life as a business woman with her snowy surroundings, and the contrast of her native culture with the weekly supermarket shop – it’s a nice touch that through the window of this gallery is a Tesco Metro and you can watch people rushing busily past. Abigail Reynolds’ sculptural collages continue the trend of the hand-made and Louise K Wilson combines cinema and collage in her new video work, Everything begins and ends at exactly the right time and place (signal/noise cut).

Dr Caterina Albano says in her accompanying catalogue essay, that agoraphobia is a “fear of modernity.” This put me in mind of the film Goodbye Lenin, where a family try to keep their mother from discovering that capitalism has taken over East Germany – imposing on her an artificial agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is a crippling disorder, which prevents sufferers from leaving their homes and fully engaging in society. This exhibition makes me wonder whether cities full of advertising slogans and ugly or half-finished redevelopments are really the best backdrops to our lives. In Topophobia, the impact of the fluxuating German economy is the subject of Matthias Einhoff’s film, Brache Berlin. Einhoff uses the soundtrack and zooming camerawork of a promo video to introduce us to an area of Berlin that has been snapped up by property developers only to become a fenced-off wasteland. This video seems especially poignant in Liverpool in a week that a key UN figure described the Toxteth area as trapped in a “vicious cycle of social exclusion and drugs problems”.

A successful group show allows its audience to make connections and relationships between the work of the different artists, and Topophobia does that very well. The final leg of this tour is Spacex in Exeter. Each presentation has and will change according to the different architectural context. For an exhibition not conceived exclusively for the Bluecoat, it is very in-keeping with the venue’s programme of thought-provoking thematic shows. It seems to speak a lot about Liverpool and how the Bluecoat operates as an oasis in a city full of the peaks and troughs of new developments, history, partial-regeneration, fantastic architecture and terrible deprivation.

Linda Pittwood

Topophobia at the Bluecoat, until Sun 22nd April

First published March 2012

In addition to the reduction in government funding, the arts sector can also expect less corporate sponsorship, foundation grants and individual donations as the economy is put under pressure. Less funding is likely to reduce the quality of the arts offer in some regions and force the closure of galleries, museums and artist-led initiatives. It seems an appropriate time to ask: why do we need cultural engagement and what will happen to museums and galleries if we don’t visit them?

In 2010 the Government cut national museums budgets by 15%, Arts Council England was asked to reduce their administrative budget by 40% and to pass 15% cuts on to their regularly funded organisations. The Arts Council is a vital funding stream for large museums and individual artists alike. In museums, the gradual loss of staff as well as a reduction in the scope and ambition of exhibition programmes and other activities could lead to a reduction in visitors (PDF). Without visitors, museums will lose their reason for being. The process of interpreting objects, artworks and history is ongoing and dependant on new voices to keep them relevant; these voices come from staff, visitors and the community. The National Museums Directors Conference describes museums as “spaces in which identities are understood, formed and shared” and “a stimulating public space in which people can come together and be inspired.” (PDF)

Museums also help us to celebrate, question and explore human history. Without remembering its history, it is possible that the human race could succumb to a collective amnesia. Doctor of neurology Oliver Sacks describes an individual with amnesia as “… isolated in a single moment of being… without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment”; this could describe a vision of the future for us all without culture. Archbishop Desmond Tutu echoed this sentiment when, speaking about an exhibition of photographs of apartheid he said, “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Representing the dark side of human history is an important role of arts organisations. There are many museums and galleries, including the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, that are proactive in confronting today’s crises by bringing social injustice to our attention.

It is possible that the UK could lose its international outlook as a result of the reduction in cultural experiences. At the moment the UK is one of the most globalised countries in the world (PDF). Globalisation is defined by three key elements; social, economic and political, but also by the flow of ideas, trade and social mobility among other factors. Artists and art organisations have historically been at the forefront of introducing new ideas to the UK as well as critiquing the existing systems and status quo. Cities across the country have already lost key arts venues, and the Arts Council’s RFO portfolio had to be reduced from 849 to just 695 in the National Portfolio. It does not seem outlandish to wonder whether losing its voice in the international flow of ideas will leave the UK isolated and less able to participate in other global activities such as politics and trade.

Sheffield is a topical example of a city about feel the impact of cuts to its cultural provision. In January, Museums Sheffield found out that it will lose its share of the Arts Council England Renaissance support, equivalent to 30% of its annual budget.  The result will be the loss of, “around 45 key professional posts,” as well as, “greatly reduced educational activity for schools and adults in Sheffield,” and, “the end of significant exhibitions of a national standard” the museum told the Guardian.

Like Liverpool and Glasgow, the regeneration of Sheffield since the 1990s has involved improving its cultural offer, through projects such as the Millennium Galleries and Winter Gardens. In the future, without being able to rely on its flagship museum service, Sheffield may not be able to compete as effectively for tourism with its neighbouring cities of Leeds and York. Cultural tourism is vital to support the city’s growing service industry and ensure ongoing prosperity.

It will be interesting to follow the stories of Liverpool and Sheffield as their fate unfolds over the next months and years. Culture has been an important part of the regeneration of regional cities, as well as bringing new ideas and tourists to the UK. A decline in the quality of cultural provision could mean less cultural engagement.  Less cultural engagement could result in the stagnation of our interpretation of history, forgetting our history and losing our international voice.

First published February 2012

Fighting the Friday night traffic to escape from Liverpool, we battle through the rain and put our lives in the hands of the sat nav as we plunge into the darkness. It was worth it when we arrived at Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, for the opening of A Private Affair: Personal Collections of Contemporary Art. No time to linger over the permanent displays – but they look to be worth a few hours lingering – although we did catch a glimpse of a vast ceramics collection from the balcony above an elegant atrium.

This new temporary exhibition was co-organised by the Contemporary Art Society and the Harris, a local-council funded public gallery. A Private Affair showcases contemporary art taken from private collections based in the north of England. The owners have been convinced to part, for a time, with some of their favourite objects, and also to reveal the personal stories behind their collections.  Collectors are important to the work of the Contemporary Art Society and were historically important in the creation of our public museums and galleries. We are reminded by Paul Hobson, director of the CAS, that The Grundy (Blackpool), the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool) and the Harris all bear the names of their benefactors. This exhibition is very timely, given the shift in focus from public subsidy to private philanthropy to support the arts. This project makes visible the incredibly important work of the CAS, whose mission it is to support the continued acquisition of contemporary art.

The art in this exhibition is displayed in satisfying quantity and outstanding quality: Gordon Cheung’s Neon Shadows (pictured) depicts a scene of cowboys on horseback in melding layers of neon paint on Cheung’s trademark strips of the Financial Times; Iain Andrews Mythopoela, an intricate landscape etched on to a school desk; Blaise Drummond’s Excerpts from the Western World; and Tracey Emin’s Little Owl – just a handful of the covetable things on display.

Some of the pieces are on a domestic scale, but others such as Laura Ford’s Boy Story II, are hard to imagine in a living room context alongside family photographs. Ford’s sculptural work is most commonly seen in biennales and exhibitions showcasing the best of new British Art, and she is represented in the Tate collection. Here, her sculpture of a life-size faceless child wrapped in army-green, pulls a bundle of wooden sheets as big as him across the floor. Growing out of his face a gas mask reminiscent of a small elephant’s trunk adds to the chilling surrealism and mystery of the moment.

This begs the question, what art could you live with and revisit day after day? Peter Woods and his partner Francis Ryan usually see the artworks in their collection alongside the antique furniture and objects in their Merseyside home. This gives them an opportunity to use contemporary art to create witty interventions, such as displaying their Lisa Milroy painting, Blue Plate, above their collection of blue and white china. Peter says that sometimes he and Francis start to take their collection for granted in a domestic setting and sometimes they “sit with their backs to it”. This exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to experience fantastic creations by Glen Baxter, Roger Hiorns, Peter Doig, Chris Ofili and others, but also for the collectors to reacquaint themselves with their own collections. The CAS will certainly be pleased to hear that one of the legacies of this exhibition is that Peter and Francis say the experience has given them the courage to buy more challenging artworks in the future.

Some, such as Catherine Braithwaite, do not have all of their collection on display all of the time.  Catherine, a marketing professional specialising in the visual arts, lends to exhibitions as often as possible. Like many of the collectors, Catherine has bought from Ceri Hand Gallery, Manchester Contemporary and the John Moores Painting Prize. A recent purchase is Samantha Donnelly’s Singapore Sling. This sculptural object combines the visual harmonies of a Naum Gabo mathematical piece with the punky spirit of a Linder Stirling collage, topped off with a suggestive bulldog clip.  Donnelly opened her first solo show at Manchester’s Cornerhouse Gallery in January this year, suggesting that the collectors here have their fingers on the pulse of the UK contemporary art world. However, the collectors are all in agreement that art should not be purchased as an investment; they recommend buying something only if you love it and it excites you. None of the collectors talk about regret or being prohibited by the cost of contemporary art; they talk passionately about developing long-lasting relationships with artists and how the process of collecting improves their quality of life.

Private and public are usually presented as adversarial and distinct, but this show demonstrates they can co-exist and are intrinsically linked. Collectors have been the unsung missing piece of the puzzle in an art market, which is dependent as much on dialogues between passionate individuals as it is on finance. This is the first of three exhibitions planned at the Harris on the subject of collections and this year the gallery will open a new Heritage Lottery-funded local history gallery. On the basis of this thoughtful and daring exhibition, I expect any future endeavour at the Harris will be worth a visit.

Linda Pittwood

Exhibition continues until 5th May

First published February 2012