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  • Mitch Sumner

The Inspiration Behind Beauty of Data – Part 2

Hi Folks. My name is Mitch Sumner and I am the current MuseLab manager. My first project as the manager of the space (Fall 2015) was to co-curate, with Cori (see Part 1 here), our latest exhibit, Beauty of Data. In this second installment of our blog series on the inspiration behind Beauty of Data, I’m going to talk a little bit about both the collaboration and installation processes.

Our goal was to find a cross-section of people from across the entire university who had visualized their research in some shape or form. We wanted to ultimately find a mix of both 2D and 3D visualizations because we thought it would be intellectually interesting, make the final exhibit more visually appealing, and show that data can be visualized in interesting and beautiful ways that contrast the mundane and boring (I’m looking at you Excel pie charts) often associated with data visualizations. Questions we had to consider: How are we going to get faculty and students to contribute to this exhibit? And what if no one is interested? We had no idea if 0 or 100 people would submit their work. Essentially, we were entering the process blind.

Collaboration is a fantastic and necessary thing, producing an end product that is more diverse, more exhaustive, and ultimately stronger. The downside, of course, is that we didn’t know what the visualizations were going to look like, how big they would be, how many we would receive, how they would fit into the space physically and aesthetically, or any details that would allow us to make detailed preliminary plans or designs for the space until we physically had the visualizations in front of us. However, we have some experience in designing exhibits “backwards” (see here and here) so saw no real reason for alarm. Fortunately, the objects and visualizations that we received were outstanding. They exceeded our expectations and not only showcase the amazing research going on at Kent State, but also highlight that art does not have to be intentional. Art and beauty can be found everywhere.

During this process, we felt that the researchers themselves should have a voice in the exhibit beyond their data and visualizations. In science and research, the people themselves are often overshadowed by their work and hidden from the public eye. So we created an audio tour using CultureSpots where each researcher recorded (in their own voice!) a few minutes of audio explaining their visualization and the process behind it. It works in a way that not only allows the listener to learn more about the visualization, but also connects the pieces and the exhibit as a whole to real people who do real work, and who may be right down the hall or in the next building over.

As Cori and I worked on the exhibit, we decided that the MuseLab should in some way have a submission in the exhibit. Beauty of Data is a process-oriented exhibit created in a process-oriented space (the MuseLab). Thus, it would only make sense for us to be represented. Exhibit elements are our data – it’s what we do. We analyze the mix of qualitative and quantitative variables that are our elements and put them together to create larger meaning that ultimately informs the viewer, in the form of an exhibit, about something in our own individual or collective worlds. We realized: the collected disparate elements of this exhibit are our data; Beauty of Data itself is our visualization.

But how do we execute such a thing without seemingly take credit for others’ work or, to be frank, come off as pretentious dolts? Fortunately, the idea for a timelapse video came pretty quickly, and we were still early enough in the project that we could capture the entirety of tearing down the previous exhibit, Museality, as well as the installation of Beauty of Data.

Take a few minutes to watch our visualization—a timelapse video of the entire installation process, posted above. What you see is the end of one exhibit and beginning of another, sped up in a way that almost makes it seem easy. But watch again and you will realize it was anything but. If you watch closely you can see where and when we had to make adjustments on the fly as we learned more about what our exhibit would be, or fixed mistakes and changed designs as we learned more about what we were able to do. If we had captured images 24 hours a day, you would see, for example, mounted visualizations come crashing to the ground, irreparably bending corners and ripping paper (to our scientist-artists: nothing expensive or irreplaceable, I assure you). These near catastrophic events are hinted at as visualizations are placed in the exhibit and then disappear, only to reappear a few frames later in slightly a different configuration. You may notice that Cori disappears from the process towards the end and is replaced with new faces, evidence of time passing as Cori graduated and new student workers filled her role. If you look really closely, you will even notice that I put on a few pounds throughout the installation, evidence of the winter and holiday months that passed. And then at the end: A thumbs up! We did it. Months of work condensed into two and a half minutes. Please mentally insert your own philosophical musings on life, time, and the tendency of each to speed up and slow down at alarming and worrisome rates here.

Beauty of Data is ultimately more than an exhibit. It’s a plea. Stop what you are doing. Look around you. You don’t have to go to an art museum to see art (although, please go to an art museum too, they’re great). There can be—and is—beauty everywhere you look. Data is just a jumping off point. Take a moment to think and explore and be inspired, but most importantly, look around. But don’t forget to look at the exhibit too!

We hope you enjoy it.