Photography, visualizations, art and identity: “seeing” people in data

As all of you know February is Black History Month.

And as many of you know, I am an avid reader and lover of data visualizations and art, it has become my pandemic passion in addition to baking bread and meditation sessions. This is one of my latest book acquisitions and has intersections with Black History Month here in Canada and data collection & data visualization, what we do here in CDOB: Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition.

The pioneering American activist and sociologist hand-drew infographics showing and representing the progress of Americans of African descent since the abolition of slavery in that country, a scant 35 years before. As a sociologist, he conducted research employing various ways to assemble data including in-person interviews, community data collection using standardized forms, and research into State taxation and household records. The variables that Du Bois visualized include family income, occupations, taxable property and mobility. These data visualizations and accompanying photographs from across the United States formed an exhibition of 500 photographs as well as charts and other maps that were collected for the Paris Exposition in 1900.

This is one of the earliest examples of the use of colour and infographics for knowledge transmission. While mapping and other forms of visualization were the predominant way to “see” information for centuries, the rise of photography as a way to standardize and itemize information was a revolution for statistical data collection. This torrent of data collection led to the demand for new ways to present complex data, a similar problem faced by us today. This was over 120 years ago! Adding yet another reason to celebrate DuBois: as a pioneer in data visualization.

But what does this have to do with Black History Month in Canada? Du Bois wasn’t Canadian but he did enter and stay in Canada as a visitor. Yes, its a stretch.

In 1905, Du Bois, then a professor at Atlanta University gathered 29 men from 14 states in Buffalo, New York to discuss the “accommodationist” stance that they claimed that Booker T. Washington advocated. These men were public leaders and intellectuals who were interested in making a stronger community, a stronger country. They sought a place to retreat to in order to think, debate and plan.

From Buffalo, they then travelled to the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario near Niagara Falls, spending a week in Canada.

According to Du Bois’ own writings at the time, the group sought a “quiet place outside the city near the water where we can be to ourselves, hold conferences together” and have access to recreation; the Erie Beach Hotel in Ontario was their destination.

I agree that the Canadian side of Niagara Falls is much nicer than the American side.

Photographs of these infographics can be found in the Library of Congress link below. No known information is available on the photographers of these works that were taken at the 1900 Paris Exposition.

Du Bois’ hand-drawn charts, maps and graphs represented the achievements and economic conditions of African Americans in radically inventive forms, long before such data visualization was commonly used in social research.

From the publisher.

From the Paris 1900 collection that can be found here: Library of Congress

The message from the Minister of Health that can be read here recognizes the significant and unique challenges faced by Black Canadians.

A Story of Film: A New Generation

I was more than impressed by this documentary of recent film made by Mark Cousins available on demand. This is international in its scope and certainly is epic for what it attempts to survey. Films from Korea to India to Chile are featured with an eye to how filmic visualizations have appeared on screens from 2010-2020 including the effects of Covid on such things as on-demand and streaming content. I was pleased to add a few new films to my “must watch” list for my holidays including Baby Driver, Moonlight and Vengeance.


The Dante Project

Edward Watson

I watched the stream of this ballet and I was very impressed. I don’t know a lot about the technical aspects of dance but I was utterly enthralled by the motion of these dancers along with the music of Thomas Ades. The production of the stream was impressive and while I do love going to the theatre, seeing this on my own couch with a blanket and slippers has a lot of appeal.

The art by Tacita Dean was really intriguing! Her inverted mountainous landscape was fantastic as the backdrop of the inferno and the dancers wore chalky grey and black that, as the dancers would embrace, let out these ghostly clouds. It was really awesome. There were hints not only of Botticelli in her visualization but to her earlier chalk work. The use of Dean’s street photograph from what looks like Los Angeles dominated by a massive tree. Like her chalk drawings, Dean has visualized trees in her work, including photographing Majesty, one of the largest oak trees in England.

The street visualization is rendered as a photographic negative, dominated by a Jacaranda tree (I had to look it up). The tree evidently blooms purple in the summer. This as a negative would show up as a surreal green. This is the backdrop to this Act where Dante sees his own and Beatrice’s history unfold. And while her art was static for each of the first two Acts, the third is a film of ever shifting celestial orbs. The production was really breathtaking!

For more about the production itself:

The artist as detective

I am watching The Trouble With Harry, directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

The main character, outside of the dead Harry, is Sam Marlowe (SAM Spade, Philip MARLOWE), an artist who acts like a detective. Based on a 1950 novel by Jack Trevor Story who, interestingly, also wrote Sexton Blake stories who was originally based on Sherlock Holmes, the archetype of “detective” for many. Saul Steinberg’s opening sequence is excellent!

Marlowe is a painter who feels unappreciated and comments that his work would sell better in Manhattan. His calm style of elicitation reveals the reality of the situation that the characters find themselves in and he even sketches a realistic funerary portrait of Harry when he initially finds him. This visualization is composed much like a mug shot with a tight frame on the face.

My point here is that in 1950 a character who is introduced initially as a canvas painter, an artist, an abstract expressionist artist, is easily acceptable as the “detective” by the audience. This shows how artists were seen not as bohemian eccentrics; rather, the artist is here visualized as someone who easily “solves” the case and has access to hidden truth.

And I missed it at first but here is Hitchcock’s cameo as he walks by the very out of place rich guy who is interested in Marlowe’s paintings.

The poet, the artist, the sleuth—whoever sharpens our perception tends to be anti- social; rarely “well-adjusted,” he cannot go along with currents and trends. Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967)

Bibliographies: Breathing Books

I spent a wonderful day at the Nordik on Wednesday. The snow lightly fell on my head but disappeared before it hit the steam of the hot pools. I practised tummo and other breathing techniques in both the heat and the cold. It was blissful.

With the COVID pandemic breathing became, for me, like Heidegger’s hammer: paid attention to only when broken. Graham Harman’s work is on point here and in a lecture he once talked about how no one misses an object like oxygen or the chair that you are sitting on unless something happens to it. If the chair that you are sitting on disappears, you become aware of it. As working from home set in, I began to focus my attention on my breath and attention on my mind as a healthy mental habit.

As is my routine, I looked to expertise on breathing, reading as much as I could and watching videos and learning sessions. I will blog on this more later but the Netflix series called Headspace was really good! It makes mediation very accessible.

I began to track my meditation sessions in Oak (iOS). My habit is now 188 days in a row that I stacked (more on this later) in order to make it that way. I spend 30-60 minutes a day in both meditation and breathing, finding myself wanting to spend more time than that occupied solely with the present.

Here is a screenshot of my iBook collection of breathing books and a few personal growth “mind mastery” type books. Wim Hof is a popularized form of Tummo breathing but is easily accessible. He has guided breathing sessions that I use often. His cold therapy is challenging but each time I shower, I finish with cold water. It certainly does wake me up!

Learning to breathe properly is the key. Moving away from shallow breathing in the chest and into diaphragmatic breathing. This is a technique that I learned in yoga class decades ago. One easy Buteyko technique to ensure that you learn proper breathing from the start is placing your hands befind your head. Yes, just put your hands behind your head and breathe. Either through your nose or mouth, you will find that it is difficult to breathe the wrong way. As I felt the right way to breathe, into the diaphragm, I recall this while I am breathing during the day to ensure that I am on track. And I am also drinking more water.

Dante, Tacita Dean and ballet streaming on my big screen? Mkay.

I was reading this interview with British artist Tacita Dean where she discussed her role in the set design of the Royal Ballet production of The Dante Project. It turns out that they are streaming the production!

I am very much looking forward to seeing the set design by Dean, one of my favorite contemporary artists as her art transitions as the “place” upon which this visualization of the Commedia occurs. Her art is the frame of the theatrical performance which isn’t that strange when you think about set design and its historical traditions. Beginning with chalk as a medium (which always makes me think about Dean’s work on Twombly), Dean’s visualizations have certainly changed in both medium and method over her career as I gather will be shown in this ballet – from chalk at the Gates of Hell to film and the arrival of the light in Paradise. Her philosophical point about the typological differences between medium and technology seem to me to be a key feature of her Aristotelian methodology. And while Hal Foster may decry this as bad news, perhaps I am more sympathetic since I concur more with Dean’s approach to visualization and the encyclopedic tradition.

So one new addition on my lists of things to do over the holidays is to enjoy this production. I didn’t get a chance to write about it but the BCBallet show Garden that was at the NAC a few weeks ago was really great and, much like seeing the production of Blindness, gave me much needed access to the arts! Now my only issue is to find the right evening to stream 3 hours of Dante!

And I am learning that I need to write less and use my visualizations in this blog.

James Hyman’s The Battle for Realism

I have been looking forward to reading The Battle for Realism and I finally decided to, at the least, start it the evening before my vacation since it deserves my attention. One of the ‘verticals” that I read in is Cold War history, one area in my graduate studies, this with Brian Loring Villa. As an aside, I have come to realize that this was an “academization” of earlier attraction / allure (Garcia again) to the fictional “spy” characters as portrayed in both novels and motion media that I shared with my older brothers and my father. Who knew that all those late nights trying to stay up to midnight to watch James Bond movies on television with my dad would play out like this? FYI – this was pre-videotape / NetFlix for those who don’t understand what I just wrote.

From the cover flap: The author proposes that realism in Europe during the early Cold War years occupied a radical vanguard position and stood in opposition to the competing claims made for American abstract expressionism. He examines two distinct visions of realism—social realism and Modernist realism—and explores their political implications and ideological significance.

One recent work that intersects diplomatic and art history that led me to Hyman is Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crises of Man. While Greif discusses literature and not visualization, it is the same space for me. Clement Greenberg’s work on abstract expressionism is of relevence as is the social realism of Continental artists. I finished Greif as I began work on Peggy Guggenheim so it is still fresh in my mind.

Working Philip Guston and Cy Twombly in here was difficult but very intellectually rewarding. Hint - it was in Rome, not Venice.

Greif writes about Saul Bellow’s 1944 Dangling Man (Ibn Sina – floating man – knowledge by presence- al-insan al-muta’alliq) and Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man as works of literature that exemplify this “crises” stemming from the awesome destructive nature of the bomb and the insignificance of man in the face of science. The bomb and Auschwitz showed us ourselves better than art could. But this was what art was supposed to do best?

So from what I gather, Hyman is writing about how realism manifested itself in British painting both by British artists such as Bacon, Freud and Coldstream but also artists in Britain and how both of these groups interacted with the streams of thought from outside within this Cold War rubric of bipolarity. This also includes how British artists retained their Britishness but under the umbrella of American preponderance of power. I am reminded here of the All Too Human exhibit that I saw at at the Tate in early 2018. More on this later, I *think* that the Slade school plays in here with Coldstream.

So without too much ado before I write the entire article – my larger argument is that art was now political not because of the power of art as propaganda as Greenberg and others portrayed it or how they saw how they could utilize it, seeing its power both in the New Deal but also for mass mobilization in Cold War Europe and by the Soviet Union, but it was a pragmatic turn – art could no longer hold itself to as a tool of truth and or beauty so its absorption into the particular mode of liberal capitalism promoted diplomatically by the US in Europe enabled its critical use as a diplomatic tool against the Soviet bloc. New Deal collectivism became the novus homo abstract expressionist auteur which later was visualized as cowboys in American and Italian film, samurais in Japan.

Science threatened that specific key element of the visual art storyline in the late 1940s just as photography threatened key elements of studio canvas paintings in the 19th century. Others modalities of visualization such as impressionism in the 19th century and abstraction were highlighted, leaving realism to the technology of the lens rather than the brush. Movies would later occupy much of this visual cultural space of propaganda, shifting the narratives of legitimacy for the brush elsewhere. I’ll stop here since it is already too disconnected and isn’t assembled properly.

At some point I will actually write this piece on Rauschenberg and Twombly in Rome and the Cold War but I will just leave this here to remind myself.

Data Vulnerabilities

Statistics Canada data servers have been offline for a few days. At first there was some confusion since I assumed it was something on my end but a note was put up at the STC site saying that it was due to an “overabundance” of caution. I have been following the Log4J vulnerability, called Log4Shell. Not confirmed but since AWS and other cloud servers are on the list in Github so is this what they are cautious about?

GitHub Log4Shell patch – Cyberreason and LunaSec mitigation.

GitHub list of impact on manufacturers and components.

Microsoft Security Blog

What I’m Watching this week

The Great British Bake Off – I binged every season of this show that I could find during the first year of the pandemic. This is really good tv where skilled craftspeople are challenged and supported in a really enjoyable way.

Star Trek : Discovery Season 4 – Not the strongest start to the season but any time that gravity is involved, so is time. Im hoping the writers add something new to this rather overdone “let’s change time” storyline.

Dexter Season 9 – I just started watching episode 1 of season 9 of Dexter. I did enjoy this show when it was on a few years back. I’m hoping that this will be a “must watch” in my weekly rotation.

OMG I hate American Survivor. I much prefer the Australian show but hate-watch this show with friends. I cannot stand the entire cast and the show itself is off the rails.

However, last week we had pizza from Pizza Nerds and we were all very pleased!

Blade Runner Black Lotus. I have only seen two episodes but this Japanese-American anime builds on the franchise. I re-watched both Ridley Scott’s and Villeneuve’s before I started. I can’ even count how many times that I have watched the original. The original movie is embedded in the symbology of media culture. The Blade Runner universe is vast so I look forward to the rest of this series.

Another animated series that is ongoing that expands on the Star Wars universe. Star Wars : The Bad Batch was a good series so I am giving this one a shot too.

Murder Island. This was only six episodes where 4 teams of amateurs work with actual police to solve a murder written by Ian Rankin. I binged this last week during the first snow of the season. Its a good concept since most people think that they are Sherlock, Poirot and Ms.Marple rolled into one. Spoiler alert – they aren’t.