Narrative Data

“Once the numbers get large enough the data can say anything”

Matthew DiClemente is a print-based artist and designer who currently lives and works in Pittsburgh, PA. He has a BFA in printmaking from West Virginia University and an MFA in print media from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and has participated in numerous residencies, lectures, and workshops pertaining to print, print theory, and design—most notably, a silkscreen lecture and demonstration at the Flint Institute of Arts and an appointment as visiting critic for 3D Foundations at Marywood University in Scranton, PA. DiClemente has been awarded a fellowship at the Ox-Bow School of Art and residences at the Glen Arbor Art Association and, recently, the Distillery 6 Arts Residency in Pittsburgh. His work has appeared in national and international exhibits, including at the International Print Center New York; the Lessedra Art Gallery in Bulgaria; the Artcomplex Center of Tokyo; the Texas Tech University School of Art; the Truman Art Gallery at Indiana State University; and the Madison-Morgan Cultural Center in Madison, GA.

DiClemente’s current work concerns the authenticity and trustworthiness of data. Since the beginning of 2011, he has been conducting “collaborations” with Google Images search results and data collected from the web; he then generates images using software and scripts, including Python, Gephi, R, Rhinoceros, and Excel.

To create the images that appear in this issue of Creative Nonfiction, DiClemente first converted various elements of individual essays—such as sentence length, proximity of key words, and frequency of individual letters and numerals—into quantifiable data. Each of the resulting illustrations is a creative representation of this data, a way of viewing information about the composition of the piece it accompanies. For instance, the bar code-style graphic accompanying the first essay, “Collective Forgetting,” maps the occurrences of the words the, Smithsonian, and crisis. The cover illustration compares the frequency of each letter of the alphabet and the numerals zero through nine in all five of the featured essays.

What’s your creative process usually like?

I think my methods are a little different from the typical “artist” stereotype; I’m pretty process-oriented. I start with a final idea, or a problem, and try to figure out the best way to get from A to B. Sometimes it’s fun to run some posters, but for the most part it is a way to better understand the world around me and to talk about what I’ve learned with other people. For me, making art is problem solving.

What influenced you to start developing images that balance the representation of data with artistic interpretation?

The initial investigation started as part of another project where I wanted to generate abstract 3D vessels from Google Image Search Results. Along the way I became fascinated by the 2D “sketches” I was producing. They were working quite well, and there was something about them that required more investigation and attention.

Was there an artist or piece of art that initially inspired your work?

Maybe Donald Judd, or the Minimalists, or an inside joke with my friend Mary VanWassenhove about a tour we took together. I don’t really remember; like most things the origin has been lost to history.

Have you ever created commissioned pieces before now? How does the process vary, if at all, from your usual artistic progression?

I’ve made many commissioned pieces in formats ranging from complex 3D objects, like an 8ft. long, scale, almost-functional Play-Doh Fun Factory, to simpler things like stickers, shirts, and posters. Coming from a print background, the process doesn’t vary much between working for myself or others. I always need a solid idea and project parameters before preparing my materials. The most difficult aspect of commissioned work is being able to ask all the right questions so the finished project looks exactly the way both parties envision it should—it’s basically a question of staying on the same page.

Do you have a favorite essay in this issue? What stuck out to you about that essay?

All of the articles were interesting and touched on things I find interesting. I’ve worked in a museum for the past 3 years, so “Collective Forgetting” really struck a chord. It is nice to give people a behind-the-scenes look, especially at such an important institution like the Smithsonian. Many people don’t realize the trials and tribulations museums face on a daily basis.

What challenges did you face interpreting literary works as visual art? Did you find a particular essay more challenging than the others?

The most challenging part was the cover. I made a script to count all of the letters A-Z and numbers 0-9—thirty-six data points in all—and graphed the contents of each article. When I layered each graph on top of the other I was surprised at the similar character distributions, the lack of variance. I recompiled everything and kept coming up with the same results. I started getting nervous because from the beginning I wanted to make this image for the cover. In the end, I got an image I was mostly satisfied with.

I need to thank Seth Clark, the art director; he was a huge help in preparing the images for print.

How did you decide what data to represent for each piece? And then, how do you decide what shape a graph will take?

Creative Nonfiction pretty much gave me free rein to make what I needed to, but I knew wanted to use a variety of visualization methods. I read the essays and tried to pair each with a graph style that best fit the piece.

For example, for “Collective Forgetting” I chose a barcode style. Barcodes keep track of things, and the Smithsonian has a bunch of things to keep track of. For “What Fish Oil Pills Are Hiding,” I tried to produce something that referenced the innards of a pill capsule, or maybe something cellular in nature.

What similarities do you see between the creation of written works and visual representations?

I don’t see any distinction. Each is a way for an author or artists to tell a story.

Most people wouldn’t think of graphs as works of art. What is it you see about this medium that other people may not?

I was very fortunate that my undergraduate professor, Joe Lupo, at West Virginia University, placed an emphasis on conceptual art making. There wasn’t much struggle transitioning between the worlds of “high” and “low” art, no predefined hierarchy; as long as you could give the how and why something was art, you were in the clear. As a result, I never wondered whether the graphs I was creating were art or not. I knew what I had to make and I made it. Graphs and especially info-graphics are everywhere.

What do you hope viewers will gain or understand from your work? What kind of interpretation are you hoping for?

I want people to have the confidence to walk up to one of my pieces, look at the context clues, and be able to fill in the blanks to define their own story. I’m going to point viewers in a direction, and I just want them to go as far as they can.

Of your own work, what’s your favorite piece? Why?

My favorite piece of my own creation is a series of screen-prints I made on black velvet depicting half of a great performance artist duo. I met them both while on a residency in Michigan. Their performances were really beautiful, powerful, and humorous. The duo dressed as a semi-androgynous cowboy and cowgirl, and adopted false names, Beau and Lil. They played the part so well it took a while for everyone to catch on. I thought they were just ranchers-turned-painters from Texas. Beau was gracious enough to pose for some photos, and I turned out the prints. The prints were very successful, but in addition to that, every time I look at them I remember the friends and adventures during that summer.

What is the significance of your claim that you’re not producing images but representing interpretable data?

To me, images are passive, existing on a plane, or in space. Just existing. Data seems to have a little more vigor. In other words, I’m not showing you something I made—I’m broadcasting “important” information. Numbers are always important; they have been quantified and are still mysterious. Data is scary. It has been demonized and, in some cases, not without merit. I bet if you asked my grandmother right now what she thinks about “data” her reaction wouldn’t be to hang it on the refrigerator.

It seems like it would be difficult to fuse the “passivity” of images with the “vigorous” quality of data (to use your own words). How did you find this aesthetic?

My data pieces definitely contain elements of both. Too much of one and not enough of the other results in nothing more than a quick read. My aim is to create a piece that lasts a few seconds longer.

Are there art forms or artists you wish more people knew about?

Printmaking, its history, and where we are today. It is our democratic voice as well as an instrument of subversion and dissent. It has always been that way; we have freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the Constitution.

As far as artists, one of my favorites is Cory Arcangel. I think he is a good example of someone who had a deep love of something—in this case something super-nerdy—and made it happen. And continues to do so.

You mentioned printmaking in relation to freedom of speech. Will you talk a little more about the place of prints in democratic dialogue?

The democratizing power of the multiple: It is much easier to disseminate information if more copies are available. For example, with the invention of movable-type presses, books became more widely available to everyone, not just the upper class. The ramifications of this can be seen throughout history: in the unprecedented distribution of knowledge that powered the Renaissance; in Martin Luther and his theses during the Reformation; in political cartoonists/satirists like William Hogarth; and in the underground and counterculture zines of more recent times. As a result, today we have social media services, like Twitter and Facebook, taking credit for organizing revolutions in Africa and the Middle East. There is even a holiday, Day of the Imprisoned Writer (November 15), to draw attention to the number of writers who have been imprisoned or killed for their subversive writings.

How do you balance what you call “pure data” and your own bias in your work?

My bias is going to be there regardless, so I just don’t worry about it. I have a story to tell. I’m not a statistician or a proper scientist; the best I can do is not cheat the data. In the end it’s just like a magic show—you only see what I want you to see, and only when I want you to see it.

I heard, and have admittedly stolen, a quote on NPR once that pretty much sums everything up:  “Once the numbers get large enough the data can say anything.”

About the Author

Jamie L. Beaudoin

Jamie is a former Editorial Assistant at Creative Nonfiction.

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