What's in a data portrait? Artists look to selfies, tunafish sandwiches, relationship advice, and more for the answer
Your tweets, your Instagrams, your Facebook status updates, your search history—it’s all a part of your data portrait. And right now, by reading this article, you just added another piece of information to it.
In her new book The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (published by The MIT Press), digital media scholar Judith Donath defines data portraits as “depictions of people made by visualizing data by and about them.” Like any other type of portraiture, data portraits are the essence of their subjects. This special type of portraiture draws on anything that can be collected, from selfies, to personal memories, to wish lists. Here are 10 data portraits that turn portraitists into Google searchers, memory collectors, and cutting-edge designers.
Started by Moritz Stefaner, Nadav Hochman, and Lev Manovich, Selfiecity is a project that collected 640 selfies each from New York, Bangkok, Berlin, São Paulo, and Moscow. The visualizations—or imageplots, as project coordinator and CUNY professor Manovich calls them—create images of the data, collected from five cities chosen for their population density. The results of the six-month-long project provide some illuminating details on what makes the ideal selfie, the criteria for which included head tilts, gender, and framing. Among Manovich’s findings: selfies are largely taken by women, Moscow residents aren’t very happy selfie-takers, and women tend to tilt their heads in more extreme ways in their selfies.
Wrap: Portrait of Eva Hesse
Rather than painting odes to his artist friends’ work, New York-based Conceptual artist Mel Bochner made a series of drawings on paper that use text to allude to Minimalist and Land art. In this homage to Eva Hesse—currently on view as part of “Mel Bochner: Strong Language,” the Jewish Museum’s aptly titled exhibition of Bochner’s text-based work—the word “WRAP” and its synonyms create the shape of a circle, a form found in Hesse’s sculptures from the mid-1960s.
The Rhythm of Salience
For this group portrait, Donath visualized a conversation between eight people and studied their interests. The people depicted here are shown through words, with phrases that are most important to each individual appearing in a bigger typeface. Each word or phrase is colored according to the person who said it. Through the visualization, an individual’s words become telling about their personality and interests. Mark’s visualization, for example, reveals that he is interested in discovery, a word that appears in a bold purple font above his other words. On the other hand, he’d also like some coffee.
French conceptual photographer Christian Boltanski, known for his blurred photographs of unknown people, goes in search of memories he never had—a past that was lost to World War II, when his family had to go into hiding. For Reflexion, Boltanski’s photographs, collected here as a way of creating a portrait of his past, are put on thin, cloth-like fabric and then placed under lights that make them appear to disappear. The fabric is hung from human-sized metallic objects that resemble shower curtains, which allude to the disturbing atmosphere of concentration camps. Like Boltanski’s memories, the images on the fabric seem fragile, as if constantly threatened by the white light of the lamps.
Ben Durham’s ongoing drawing series Text Portraits is the result of a painstaking process—Durham sifts through police reports from Lexington, Kentucky (the town where Durham was born and raised) on a daily basis, searching for arrests of people he knew from high school. After finding mugshots of his former schoolmates, Durham draws his subjects using text—his own scrawled memories of them—to create hazy, haunting, photograph-like images of his classmates-turned-crooks.
Artificial Biological Clock
Revital Cohen and Tuur Van Balen’s Artificial Biological Clock brings together an owner and her machine. Based on data taken from its owner’s therapist, doctor, and bank manager, Cohen and Van Balen’s machine tells her when it is best to have a child, reminding her that fertility only lasts for a short period of time—or at least as society would have it, anyway.
Boston-based artist Kelly Sherman compiles wish lists found on the Internet for Wish Lists, a series of prints that matches a list of items with the list-maker’s name. Each wish list hints at the sexes, ages, and interests of their subjects without ever actually showing their image—a Cookin’ Fun Interactive Kitchen implies that Tara is a young and imaginative child; Jim asked for a gift certificate to Barnes & Noble and a Norelco razor, so he might be a middle-aged male bookworm.
For Good Relationships, British designers David McCandless and Kathryn Ariel Kay combed through relationship guides on 25 different websites, picking out the most popular pieces of advice and color-coding them according to an emotion associated with each one. This data portrait of a loose online community shows that relationship experts prioritize fun and communication over sex—phrases labeled as “sexy” and colored in orange appear surprisingly tiny in a sea of primarily gray and pink phrases, labeled “wise” and “loving,” respectively.
Andy Warhol’s all-American Campbell’s soup lunch—the same one he had every day for 20 years—is now famous for being one of the quirkier parts of art history. Little known, however, is that Fluxus artist Alison Knowles also had the same lunch every day, although in her case, her preferred meal was a tunafish sandwich, with either soup or buttermilk on the side. After Knowles’s friend Philip Corner pointed out her repetitive lunch selection, Knowles turned her meal into art, first into a word score, then into a performance in which the audience gets to eat the same meal as she did. The performance, titled Identical Lunch, uses Knowles’s meal as a stand-in for herself, allowing the audience take on her likeness by eating the meal.
Chinese conceptual artist Song Dong’s Waste Not, installed at MoMA in 2009, gathers together a multitude of objects belonging to his mother—soap bars, a record player, a sofa, tubes of toothpaste, and many more personal ephemera. Rather than having his mother sit for a portrait, Dong uses her possessions as evidence of her existence.