I’m starting a new project. It is a little weird, I realize some might not think of it as digital humanities (DH) but I do (more on that in a future update). Over the next few months, maybe longer maybe shorter, I am going to be uses quilts to represent the use of color in Lucan’s Bellum Civile (BC), and the affordances of physical data visualizations more generally. For those not familiar the BC is a Latin epic war poem, also known as the Pharsalia, written between 61 and 65 AD. But this project is less specifically about the BC than it is an exploration of new ways of interacting with data. This is a case study, and since this is a text I studied in grad school it is one I feel comfortable playing with. (I’ve also previously visualized the colors of this text in comparison with its contemporary works as well as earlier examples of epic war poems – but that is a conversation for another day.)
I am doing this because I love data. And I love to think of new ways we can interact with data and foster deeper relationships to our data. As a librarian, I also think there could be a lot of potential in these types of projects to encourage more critical work with data and for teaching data literacy. But I don’t know this for sure, hence this exploration.
Another big factor for this project is that I don’t currently within the academy. While I really want to pursue personal research projects, that is not something that there is space for within my job. I spent some time thinking about what types of projects I want to do, would be motivated to keep working on without any external deadlines, and that wouldn’t drain me if I could only work on them over weekends and in the evenings. This combination of my love of crafts, especially fiber/textile-based crafts, and research seems to fit the bill.
I want to document this work publicly and regularly because this is a new space for me, and the few conversations I’ve had about it with my peers have surfaced so many amazing resources, articles, and other projects that I did not know about but will be immensely helpful for my thinking around these questions. By posting my work in progress I hope to get this feedback as I am designing and working on my project so that I have time to integrate into the work itself. As this is an experiment, if this is ever to be published in a more traditional sense, having my challenges and decision-making already documented will help me demonstrate the process and not just the finished product.
Now for some more “academic” thoughts on this project.
I have been thinking of this category of work as “embodied data” – that is data that has been made physical in a variety of ways, like embroidery, weaving, sculpture, and so many countless other ways. This has also been described as “data materialization” (Gollihue and Xiong-Gum 2020; Knight 2018). By making data physical I think these types of projects are literally making abstract concepts tangible, and thus allows views (or users or whatever other term you gravitate towards) to connect to the ideas in a deeper way. One project that successfully takes advantages of the affordances of making data physical are Humprey Yang’s TikToks that use piles rice to visualize amounts of money and show just how large various billionaire’s net worths are.
And that is some of the beauty of embodied data visualizations, they are happening inside AND outside academia, sometimes by people who might not consider themselves as working with data or producing visualizations. For example, the trend of crocheting temperature blankets, or knitting shawls representing the time men spoke in city council meetings.
These projects turn the concept of who gets to do data work on its head. But I don’t want to ignore the work that is happening within the academy/or academic adjacent spaces. There are many projects I want to spend some more time thinking about and through. I am sure this list is just a beginning, and I always welcome recommendations of where I should be looking!
- Dataweaving: Textiles as Data Materialization (Gollihue and Xiong-Gum 2020)
- Material Data Visualization as Feminist Praxis (Knight 2018)
- A Haptic Experience of Personal Data (Rajko, Wernimont, and Rajko 2017)
- The Physical Visualization of Information (Vande Moere and Patel 2009)
- Wampum as Hypertext (Haas 2008)
- Crafting a COVID Visualization (Briney 2022)
- Crossing into Datavis (Gibney 2022)
This is just the beginning. I would like to spend the next month working on the following:
Finalize the work on my actual dataset. There is a little more work I need to do on my actual dataset before I can start thinking of translating it into a quilt. I have gathered all the references to color in the poem but would like to record what thing is actually being described in each instance.
Once I am happy with my dataset, because it probably will never be “done,” I would like to start thinking about the main design elements of the quilt. I already have a few ideas, but I’ll wait to share what that all looks like until my next update.
While all this is happening, I am going to be spending some time thinking about DH and what technologies “count” and how/when DH isn’t digital. Very related to that line of thinking is thinking about gender, labor, and technology skills and why we tend to value a very specific skill set in academic work.
And because I love a list of action items and deliverables:
- Get my dataset to a point where I feel comfortable analyzing it
- Start work on preliminary designs of the quilt and identify ways I can encode different facets of data in the visualization
- Write a short piece in my next report on DH, gender, and technology.
Thank you all for listening and joining this journey with me. Until next time!
Briney, Kristin. 2022. “Crafting a COVID Visualization: How I Processed Pandemic Anxiety and Grief with Yarn, Nightingale.” Nightingale, January. https://nightingaledvs.com/crafting-a-covid-visualization/.
Gibney, Danièle. 2022. “Crossing into Datavis.” Nightingale, January. https://nightingaledvs.com/crossing-into-datavis/.
Gollihue, Krystin, and Mai Nou Xiong-Gum. 2020. “Dataweaving: Textiles as Data Materialization.” 25.1, August. https://kairos.technorhetoric.net/25.1/disputatio/gollihue-xiong-gum/index.html.
Haas, Angela M. 2008. “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 19 (4): 77–100. https://doi.org/10.1353/ail.2008.0005.
Knight, Kim Brillante. 2018. “Danger, Jane Roe! Material Data Visualization as Feminist Praxis.” In Bodies of Information: Intersectional Feminism and Digital Humanities. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota Press. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled-4e08b137-aec5-49a4-83c0-38258425f145/section/7b65b317-f23a-4f6a-a04a-70f266af7c4e#ch01.
Rajko, Jessica J., Jacqueline Wernimont, and Stjepan Rajko. 2017. “The Living Net: A Haptic Experience of Personal Data.” In Proceedings of the 2017 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 449–52. Denver Colorado USA: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/3027063.3050432.
Vande Moere, Andrew, and Stephanie Patel. 2009. “The Physical Visualization of Information: Designing Data Sculptures in an Educational Context.” In Visual Information Communication, edited by Mao Lin Huang, Quang Vinh Nguyen, and Kang Zhang, 1–23. Boston, MA: Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0312-9_1.