Data Visualization as Data Materialization

As cultural rhetoricians, science and technology scholars, and makers, we see a gap in these understandings of what is digital and what is data visualization: There is an overdetermination of the digital screen in the processing and representation of data. There is a preference for electronic or screen-based data visualizations over those that can be touched when there are various possibilities for data visualizations off screen. For example, Nathalie Miebach’s (2011) Art Made of Storms developed data visualizations by translating and coding information about weather into material objects and sonic compositions. These examples—along with what Angela Haas (2007) and Annette Markham (2013) have already argued—challenge data visualization’s coupling with and framing within the screen. Additionally, these examples also follow the principles of new media that have been articulated by Lev Manovich (2001) and Janet Murray (2011), wherein data is collected, transcoded, and produced into a kind of representation. This shows that data visualizations can still adhere to the principles of new media, yet not be limited to new media itself.

The arbitrary division between new and old media privileges visualization over embodiment.

Of course, computers offer high-power processing abilities and possibilities, especially with processing incredibly large amounts of data. But processing computer data omits the materialities of gathering data. In our examples, computer processing needlework on to the screen misses a record of the fibers, the frays, the mistakes, the illusions, and the appropriations that we make to respond to the situations. As makers and researchers, we and our relatives use our fingers and hands to weave together and materialize data (Haas, 2007).

We are constantly engaging in acts of numerical representation, modularity, transcoding, and immediate collection and analysis of data (Manovich, 2013). We are collecting data and inscribing it into our materials, teaching our audiences what to pay attention to through color and form; we are reading code and computing algorithms to produce some representation. We are following procedural patterns and creating material experiences that store information and allow for the user to move through that information (Murray, 2011).

Textile production has shown us how much data we gather, analyze, and represent through simple acts of stitching and looping.

As information is aggregated, analyzed, and represented through visual means, it transfers more than just its original data set. It accumulates traces of the relationships that people and things build with it, in time becoming increasingly more material and meaning-full.