Visualization with a conscience

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“The #MeToo movement is so powerful because of the multitude of voices,” says Liss LaFleur, a media and performance artist who teaches New Media Art at the University of North Texas. “There’s no individual voice that overpowers another. The masses are the influential voice.”

LaFleur is one of three resident artists creating spectacular visualizations through the NCSU Libraries’ Immersive Scholars program this fall. She’s using data about sexual harassment and assault gathered through the #MeToo hashtag to make a digital work of art that visually draws upon both her mother’s work in stained glass and Florence Nightingale’s coxcomb diagrams—themselves early innovations in data visualization from a pioneering feminist.

“I’m interested in looking at how those voices are being distributed internationally through social media and thinking about how I could use that data to inspire empowerment and create a space for reflection,” she adds.

LaFleur will give a free, public talk on Tuesday, Sept. 18 at 10:00 a.m. in the Teaching and Visualization Lab at the Hunt Library.

She has represented stories around gender concepts in similar ways before, including humming Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” through a 3D-printed replica of her own mouth and projecting it on the Manhattan Bridge. But in the project at the Libraries, it’s the hashtag that enables meaningful, large-scale storytelling.

During her residency, LaFleur has formed a student cohort to help compile data. She hopes that work will lead to conversations about surveillance and tracking one’s online activity, as well as how the same data can tell different stories when processed with different applications. Because feminism and data visualization together is such a new field, she’s interested in nurturing this awareness within the NC State student body. The Libraries, to her mind, is the perfect site for this work.

The NCSU Libraries’ Immersive Scholars program is part of a $414,000 project grant awarded to NC State by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation last year. The grant project, entitled “Visualizing Digital Scholarship in Libraries and Learning Spaces,” continues the Libraries’ pioneering work with large-scale, research visualization technologies and supports the advancement of tools and techniques for developing and sharing such visual content for research.

Artists, scholars, and creative technologists submitted project proposals to an open call in January for a four-to-six-week residency. Two of the three eventual residents have been chosen. Their projects will use data creatively, in collaboration with librarians, to produce immersive scholarly visual content for one or more of the large-scale digital walls in the Hunt Library—including the Art Wall, the iPearl Immersion Theater, the Commons Wall, and the Visualization Wall.

For the Libraries, the program offers a way to move large-scale visualization forward as a still-emerging research field. For the resident artists, it’s a unique opportunity to tell the stories hidden in big data.

“I think a lot about academic spaces, who gets to use those spaces and what they’re used for,” LaFleur says. “The library, as a space, is an interesting part of this project—that this is happening in a library and not in an museum or a gallery. I got really excited learning about the multiple spaces available at Hunt that I could shoot visuals to. This is a work of fine art, but it’s also in the library, and it’s going through these phases of collecting data and analyzing data and talking about feminism in relation to data and how these visuals illuminate all of that.”