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Interview with Loren Madsen: The Birth of Data Sculpture

By Pierre Dragicevic, February 2015
 

Loren Madsen is a data sculpture pioneer. He started exploring this art form more than twenty years ago with his sculpture “CPI / Cost of Living”, and still continues today with work such as “District 5”. In this email interview, Loren Madsen provides insights into the artistic and social context of his avant-garde work, explains what led him to work on data sculptures, and what they mean to him.

Pierre Dragicevic is a research scientist interested in the history of physical visualizations.


 

Pierre Dragicevic: Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

Loren Madsen: I went to university in California and started my art career in Los Angeles. I had my first solo sculpture exhibition in 1973, consisting of precariously balanced bricks rooted in gravity and friction. They evolved pretty quickly into large-scale, site-specific installations which I pursued until the early 1990s.

In 1977 my wife and I moved to New York where we lived for almost 30 years. I taught in NYC at the School of Visual Arts graduate program for 18 years. In 2005 we moved to rural Northern California where we have property. I taught here for two years.

P: Were you trained as a sculptor?

L: I spent two years in graduate studies in art history and then switched to sculpture for two more years. I ended up being seriously over-educated but I've forgotten most of it by now.

P: On your website you present some of your work as “data art”. What is data art?

L: Art whose form in large part is determined by data or information. I converted miles-per-gallon, or degrees Fahrenheit, or GDP per person into inches. Voila!

P: Did you coin this term?

L: No. It just entered my vocabulary at some point, along with data visualization, infoviz, dataviz, and many more.

P: How did you get involved in data art?

L: Installation art was becoming just theater. I wanted content, to tell stories (as my old gallery mate Philip Guston used to say). In 1991 I made an installation titled “Missing Matter” that summarized what I felt about cosmological issues. A bit later I was struck how my students' experience as young artists differed so radically from my own. They pay unthinkable rents and leave school heavily in debt. They cannot, as I did, work part-time to finance time in the studio. I investigated these economics and graphed historical trends in housing, food and fuel costs and, realizing the numbers could be turned into a sculpture, made “CPI”, my first real data art project.

P: This was in 1995?

L: I began “CPI” in 1994 but completed the sculpture only in 1995. Information is quick; wood is slow.

P: Were you aware of similar work at the time?

L: The only artist I knew of who used information was Hans Haacke, whose work I didn't care for very much. All of a sudden he became very important to me. Ha! From him I discovered Hanne Darboven, Nancy Burson and others. They all worked in two dimensions. It was only later that sculptors like Cory Imig, Justin Stewart and Adrien Segal began working in 3D.

P: Can you point us to early 3D data art from Imig, Stewart and Segal? We are seeking every opportunity to make our list more complete!

L: You have both Stewart (2008 – Justin Stewart’s Data Sculptures) and Segal (2011 – Adrien Segal’s Data Furniture) on your site. I met Cory Imig when I was visiting artist at Vermont Studio Center in 2008 and was surprised and impressed with her casual 3D assembly of information, mostly personal. See her website, especially the 'documenting' section. [now featured in our list]

P: This was more than 10 years after “CPI”. Hasn't your work inspired other artists earlier on?

L: Not that I'm aware of. I think it was more a case of simultaneous invention, like Newton and Leibniz coming up with calculus at the same time. I began hearing of other artists who were using data doing 2D works. I was very excited in 1999 to see a group show (no longer online) at White Columns, a non-profit space in NY, which featured data art. The only 3D work I can remember is a guy who tallied his monthly beer consumption by stacking the empty cans.

P: The term “data sculpture” seems to have become very popular today. You prefer to talk about three-dimensional data art. Are the two one and the same?

L: Yes, one and the same.

P: What reactions did “CPI” elicit when it was first exhibited? Besides the striking message it conveys, did people realize they were seeing a new form of art?

L: Not much reaction at all. In the early days I couldn't decide whether to put an explanation near the sculpture—I left one at the gallery desk—so most people simply understood it as an abstract. Now I always have a description nearby. It had a much larger impact when I used it in a lecture and could explain the content, process and motivation.

P: There is never any legend, scale or axis label on any of your data sculptures. Is it because you consider them as explanations that do not belong to the art piece itself, but instead should be placed next to it?

L: The explanations I mount next to sculpture now do contain scale and axis labels, along with a brief explanation (I've attached an example). I'm currently working on a piece which will have that information right on the sculpture itself. But yes, I consider them art first and data second.

P: You have interesting slides from a lecture entitled “Art as Information / Information as Art”. What do you mean by that?

L: I was trying to wean prospective artists from the romantic notion that art is only personal expression, that art in fact has had readable, interpretable, content, as in the portrait of Napoleon by David (better by far than any Soviet realism). This is still news to many of our contemporaries. To me it was an easy transition to take information—data—and turn it into art, hence 'Information as Art.' In the early 1990s I would sit on our couch at home and quote statistics from the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. to my wife. She didn't get that these abstract numbers were pictures in my mind.

P: Do you mean you can effortlessly turn numbers into mental pictures?

L: Not effortless, but my wife was always surprised when I quoted columns of numbers to her, just like reading an interesting line from a book or a poem. I could "see" a form that the data described. She has always had to wait until I did the sculpture.

P: In your lecture, you also draw a parallel between data art and science. Can you explain?

L: Science at its best tries to describe the world and its manifestations accurately and objectively so I used science as a model when creating my own infographics. John Snow's mapping of a cholera outbreak in London in 1854 which led him to a contaminated water source, for instance, is both accurate and beautiful. I was also motivated by a desire to correct popular misconceptions on a variety of issues (hopeless, I know. You may know that currently there is an outbreak of measles in the US, due largely to mostly well-off and educated people having weird theories about vaccination, including deep irrational fears).  

P: You cite early 2D infographics as a source of inspiration, but your data sculptures like “CPI” also bear similarities with solid 3D visualizations made by scientists and engineers in the 19th and early 20th, such as Maxwell's thermodynamic surfaces or the solid models described by Brinton. Are such analogies fortuitous?

L: I think mostly fortuitous as I wasn't aware of these mathematical models when I began. However, I have always been a fan of Bauhaus artists. Max Bill was one who made elegant sculptures based on mathematical formulae. When I was a college student he was one of many artists, like Herbert Bayer, whose art based on math or rationality we weren't supposed to like. They weren't expressive and agonized as artists should be; think VanGogh.

P: How much was your work influenced by practices from information graphics and data visualization?

L: In truth I wasn't well informed about data graphics until I myself got interested. When I started looking for examples I almost immediately found Edward Tufte's “Envisioning Information” which, of course, led to many other sources, and also cemented a moral imperative to get the data right and express it clearly. My guess is that Mr. Tufte launched many an infoviz career.

P: When did you become aware of Tufte's work?

L: Probably 1995 or so. I've owned and lent to friends and students all of his books. As a consequence I can't find any of them. It's ironic, I think, that Tufte became involved with sculpture, has been making it for some years and has his own gallery in Chelsea in NY. Also ironic that they have nothing to do with data and are not, in my opinion, very interesting.

P: How did you make “CPI” in 1994? Did you use computer technology?

L: I gathered the data using the Statistical Abstract of the U.S. It's telling that it is not published on paper anymore, only online. But yes, I've been using 3D CAD since I got my first computer in 1986. My first CAD program was French, called SpaceEdit or something like that. B&W only and if any lines crossed in the X, Y or Z axes the whole program would crash and destroy your file. I've used many others since and am still seeking one that is easy to use and costs less than a Boeing 787.

P: How about woodwork? Did you use computer-controlled machines?

L: I would love to use CNC machines, especially a 5 axis router. They are very expensive and none, as far as I know, are available in my area. Some have recently been offered to artists in residency programs but I'd rather stay at home. So I do it all by hand. There's also an element of old-school art making here: being able to go into a meditative state while doing essentially boring chores.

P: Can you tell us more about the process you used to turn virtual computer models into physical shapes?

L: For “CPI” I made an oval for each year, with the horizontal (X) axis set by the cost of fuel and the vertical axis (Y) by the cost of food. In my CAD program I placed them 3/4" apart on the curving Z axis which was based on the cost of housing. Each of those ovals became the pattern to use in cutting a board. The boards were glued in the appropriate sequence and sanded smooth. I also rendered the CAD files to produce "drawings" of the prospective piece.

P: How did you go about exploring data art after “CPI”? Did your technique evolve?

L: The initial problem was finding the information. At that time it was mostly books. Now it's much easier to get data; the difficulty now is that we have so much, as you know. My second sculpture, HumDef (a very inelegant name) evolved from a constant conversation with my wife: She claimed that if we just reduced the budget of the US Defense Dept we could afford to improve many lives in the civilian population. I found that the US war budget is less that 25% of the whole and that most of the money goes to old people in Social Security and Medicare payments, plus interest on debt. By 2050 or so the old folks will be getting ALL the money.

Most of the pieces I do are like the first two: issues that I am interested in, pissed off about, or that impose themselves on me. As an artist and citizen I feel a moral obligation (pretentious, I know) to try to bring fact-based info to my viewers and friends. In the US, as I'm sure you know, the Republicans distort all sorts of facts in order to gain power. It's a conscious anti-intellectual stance which I find appalling, and I've been trying to bring some objectivity to the debates and to a non-academic audience. It's hopeless, of course.

P: The idea of bringing factual evidence to public debates through data visualization has made its way in journalism (with the practice of data journalism) and science communication (Hans Rosling being a striking example). In what sense do you see your role – or more generally the role of artists – as complementary?

L: Hans Rosling is a hero and model of mine. But, yes, I see the roles as complementary except in this sense: journalists have a large and, hopefully, educable audience. The art audience is relatively small and already quite liberal so, while they may be informed by an artwork, they're already on the "correct" side of most social issues.

P: Your sculptures “Worry (Prayer) Beads” and “Tops” show deaths by terrorist attacks from 1945 to 2001. At least superficially, the message seems consistent with how the American public already feels about the terrible tragedy of 9/11. Were you seeking to convey a more complex message? Or just convey pure facts?

L: In 2001 I was living in NYC less than a mile from the World Trade Center. We watched the towers come down from our house and saw shocked and dust covered people walking up Broadway from lower Manhattan. So, in part, those sculptures were both an attempt to put 9/11 in perspective for myself and to personally understand how big the event was. It is still the deadliest terror attack in recorded history which does not, of course, make those in London, Madrid, Paris and elsewhere any less painful.

P: On his blog, visualization researcher Robert Kosara draws a distinction between artistic data visualization, which emphasizes the “sublime”, and pragmatic data visualization, whose role is to communicate useful facts about data. He implies that if you do more of the one, you do less of the other. Do you feel such a tension?

L: Pierre, you're questions are becoming ever more difficult. I appreciate that.

I understand Kosara's two categories and I think visualization can be art (Charles Joseph Minard's heartbreaking graph of Napoleon's march on Moscow is Tolstoy in a single page). Coming from an art background I am more strongly drawn to the abstract and beautiful than to the pragmatic, which I often find more confusing than simply reading an article on the subject.

Kosara asks whether video games are art. MoMA has begun collecting and exhibiting video games. I'm sure that infographics are also on their list. I know that smartphone apps are available as art, not just 'about' art.            

I'm wary of Kosara's term 'sublime', or Walter Benjamin's 'aura', or Clive Bell's 'significant form', or Denis Dutton's 'authenticity', among others. They are subjective judgments and ultimately exclusive. Since Marcel Duchamp art is, simply, what artists say it is. This also seems historically pertinent. The most reviled artists of the late 1800s were the Impressionists. If they lacked the 'sublime' or 'aura' then, they certainly got it back. Impressionism is now the most desired art in the world (Gaugin, $300,000,000!).

MIT did an interesting article called Auras: There’s an App for That about, basically, Instagram filters being a valid art tool.

P: Can you tell us about your more recent pieces?

L: I was commissioned by the City of Chicago to do a permanent sculpture for a police station. I knew that crime rates had been falling for awhile and also that average people were more fearful of crime than ever before. The FBI collects data on eight categories of crime. I turned these into a sculpture. Since the mid-1990s crime rates in ALL categories have plummeted. In fact, you are safer now in any US city than in, say, 1960. We finished installing the sculpture in December, 2014.

P: Did you choose to complement the sculpture with an explanatory text on how to read it?

L: Yes, absolutely. The explanatory plaque will be mounted near the sculpture.

P: Data sculptures are now everywhere. Is there any recent work or technological development that you find particularly inspiring?

L: We're overwhelmed. I try to keep up, but frequently return to examples from the past, for their beauty—B. W. Betts—or sheer whimsicality—Fritz Kahn—or other dedicated former practitioners like Mark Lombardi, all of whom work in 2D.

P: How do you envision the future of data sculpture or data art more generally?

L: In very conventional ways. It's a truism that the sheer amount of info requires a concise way to communicate. Graphics are it. As a reader of the Economist, NY Times and other publications I've noticed how much more frequently they use infographics. They also provide free access to their APIs for interested tinkerers. The New Museum in NYC will open a show called "Surround Audience" in February which is "All About Being Wired."

P: What are you currently preparing?

L: Even before Thomas Piketty we’ve known that economic inequality is a serious and growing problem. I'm taking a subset of that issue, the fact that (in the US at least) wealth is moving from the young to the old. It's a reflection of my own aging and the position of my kids in the economic world. I'm also keeping up with my “ephemera” series of immediate, printed responses to issues political, economic and personal.

P: Thank you very much, Loren. It has been an absolute pleasure doing this interview with you, and I learned a lot.

L: Thank you, Pierre. It has been a pleasure indeed.