For Digital Historians, data visualization is an important means for understanding and interpreting data. When analyzing large datasets, visualization tools can be used to reveal patterns, see connections, and find holes within research. Visualization also offers an effective way to present complex data in a clear and visually appealing manner. For artist R. Luke DuBois, data visualization goes even further, as it can be presented as art. DuBois is a multidisciplinary artist with experience as a composer and a programmer. As a programmer, DuBois co-authored Jitter, which is a software suite which allows real-time manipulation of video and 3D imagery. As an artist, DuBouis focuses on using digital technology to visualize and expose the narratives within data. As technology can be used to express both our voices and our cultures, DuBouis visualizes data to capture how we communicate and understand our selves, and each other, in the 21st century. I recently came across his TED talk “Insightful Human Portraits made from Data,” and I found his data visualizations very interesting and thought provoking.
“So I’m an artist, but a little bit of a peculiar one. I don’t paint. I can’t draw. My shop teacher in high school wrote that I was a menace on my report card. You probably don’t really want to see my photographs. But there is one thing I know how to do: I know how to program a computer. I can code. And people will tell me that 100 years ago, folks like me didn’t exist, that it was impossible, that art made with data is a new thing, it’s a product of our age, it’s something that’s really important to think of as something that’s very ‘now.’ And that’s true.”
—R. Luke DuBois, “Insightful Human Portraits made from Data.”
In the age of information, our personas are no longer defined by formal paintings and photographs. Instead, people create virtual identities through constructing descriptions and releasing images on social media. As our lives are driven by data, DuBois manipulates big data to explore what portraiture can look like in this day and age. The image to the left is from a piece entitled “Hindsight Is Always 20/20,” which was commissioned for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. DuBois scraped data from the American Presidency Project at the University of California for the State of the Union addresses of every president in American history. He then used this data to find the top 66 words used by each president, and presented this in descending order of frequency on eye charts, mounted in light boxes. Each chart reflects the ideas and experiences which defined each presidency. In this way, this piece is as much a form of art as it is a form of digital history.
“And how you get there, from ‘gentlemen’ to ‘terror’ in 43 easy steps, tells us a lot about American history, and gives you a different insight than you would have looking at a series of paintings. These pieces provide a history lesson of the United States through the political rhetoric of its leaders.”
Many contemporary artists believe that art should evolve to reflect our reality, and incorporate various materials, media, and technologies to produce art that examines the past, depicts the present, and imagines the future. DuBois achieves this by visualizing data to produce art that explores the ideas, concepts, and practices of contemporary society. In doing so, he also presents historical narratives and data visualization methods which can be adopted and built on by Digital Historians. His TED talk “Insightful Human Portraits made from Data” can be found below.