Through Art, Data Gets Humanized

Walking through an art museum, you’re likely to see paintings, drawings and sculptures depicting important events in history, intriguing people and breathtaking landscapes.

But Carrie Roy thinks more subversive sculptures drawn from real-world data should be added to the mix, including pieces showcasing contaminated water wells and a faux block representing cow manure.

Carrie Roy
Carrie Roy

Working at the intersections of art and computation, Roy, an alumna of WID’s Living Environments Laboratory group and UW-Madison’s Humanities Research Bridge, creates art that offers alternative data and information experiences.

The result?

Pieces that are not only visually stimulating, but also provide a wealth of information.

“My work explores how we relate to data and information — in a hopefully very human, tangible, visceral way,” she says.

While Roy’s work is not new to WID, her techniques and methods of data visualization continue to push boundaries. In two of her most recent series, Roy explores the use of sculpture with the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) and the Dictionary for American Regional English (DARE). Though the data provided by each group is very different, the inspiration to collaborate is the same: to explore new ways to communicate and experience information in ways that resonate with people of all ages and backgrounds.

Bringing Beauty to Important Issues

Kate Golden
Kate Golden

Kate Golden is no stranger to data visualization. As WCIJ’s multimedia director, she has created award-winning interactive graphs, maps and charts that accompany her stories on Wisconsin’s environment. Despite the complexity of working with data, Golden says she’s drawn to the simplicity of Roy’s pieces and how they make the implications of the data that much more powerful.

Cow sculpture photo from Carrie Roy
Photo of the sculpture “One Day in Brown County.” On average, .5 cows occupy every acre in Brown County Wisconsin, producing the sculpture platform’s volume worth of manure in one day. Photo courtesy of Carrie Roy.

“I have a boatload of descriptive stats floating around in my brain that I find outrageous. But they can pass by pretty quickly in a story, even if I stick them in a chart myself,” Golden says. “I like how Carrie has isolated a single idea in a way that allows me to think about it for a while. Its abstractness gives me the freedom to ponder the implications and make up my mind because its message is not hitting me over the head.”

Two messages Roy brought to life from Golden’s work are One Day in Brown County and Well Water 2:1, both highlighting the environmental impacts of agriculture.

According to Golden, Brown County has the largest “cow to cropland ratio” in Wisconsin, totaling a half-cow per acre of land in the county. As a result, the county also boasts the highest “manure to cropland ratio,” which Golden says is suspected to be the source of high rates of estrogen found in the environment and ground water. In One Day in Brown County, Roy visualizes these statistics, creating a life-size wooden structure of half of a cow, standing on a platform that portrays the volume of manure produced by a single cow in one day.

Well sculpture photo from Carrie Roy
One in three wells in the state of Wisconsin is contaminated with detectable levels of pesticide or herbicide, as depicted in the sculpture “Well Water 2:1.”

Well Water 2:1 tells a similar story, visualizing the levels of pesticide contamination in Wisconsin’s groundwater wells.  A four-foot tower made mostly of birdseye maple, with the middle third made of black walnut, represents the statistic that one third of Wisconsin well water is contaminated by detectable levels of pesticides.

What is interesting about these pieces is that, while they represent troubling issues affecting Wisconsin’s environment and citizens, Roy has managed to create two truly beautiful sculptures. When asked if this detracts from the data’s original message, Golden says it’s a compelling way to share the data with people who might not otherwise know about it.

“The art and the data visualizations really have the same purpose — to get people to care about what’s happening around them,” Golden says. “They just take different tacks.”

What’s in a Word?

“Bubbler” versus “drinking fountain. “Soda” versus “pop.” “Y’all” versus “you guys.”

For some, the debate surrounding local vernacular can be fierce.

Joan Houston Hall
Joan Houston Hall
Bittern sculpture photo from Carrie Roy
Seventy alternative names for the common bittern adorn this sculpture of birds-eye maple and walnut.

It is these regional differences in American English that the Dictionary for American Regional English (DARE), housed in UW-Madison’s Department of English, investigates and analyzes. Today, DARE is composed of six print volumes and one digital edition that serves as a record of words and phrases used across the United States.

DARE uses data visualization to represent linguistic differences across states, but after seeing Roy’s Victorian Eyes exhibit, Chief Editor Joan Houston Hall says she knew the group’s data visualization could be approached differently.

Each of the sculptures in this series represents a word and each of its regional variations. Choosing the words had less to do with an intended message and more with what would make a more interesting piece. “Bittern” and “blue jay” were easy choices for Hall and DARE’s Digital Text Specialist Julie Schnebly, simply because of the range of responses given for each term.

Photo of jay sculpture from Carrie Roy
Roy’s sculpture of a Blue Jay, incorporating 10 American regional terms for the animal.

When analyzing large amounts of data, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers. After working with Roy on the information analysis and visualization, Schnebly says the experience reminded her of the importance of human connection in understanding data.

“Anyone not familiar with the project would have a lot of trouble running straight numbers,” said Schnebly. “To make any conclusions about someone’s regional speech from that sort of process, for now, requires a human being.”

A human being, and perhaps a little creativity.

Bridget Ryan