FRIEZE, 2020


Written in response to Italo Calvino's series of essays entitled 'Six Memos for the Next Millenium' this article was written in response to the theme of 'visibility', one of the six categories Calvino's text is split into. Penned by a statisician and a novelist, 'Graphic Content' speaks of the functional art of graphs, pie charts and diagrams that have proliferated the media throughout 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Helen Dewitt and Andrew Gelman first introduce the reader to a statement from Alberto Cairo asserting the status of data visualisation as a 'functional art'. Exploring Cairo's work further as a taster of what is to come in the article we realise Cairo pioneered the vision of graphic, functional art to offer a first-hand look at at the revolution in visual communication and find within it similarities between the relationship of visualisation and art and  journalism and literature. A journalist can borrow tools and techniques from literature, and be inspiredby great fiction writing, but she will never allow her stories to become literature.That notion applies to visualisation, which is, above all, a functional art.

Dewitt and Gelmen assert that it is often the more challenging visualisations that are the most appealing. This suggests that active reader participation is a key part of the visualisation experience particularly in the midst of a global pandemic images and visualisations are often better understood than technical, written information. The key image of the last year has been the 'flatten the curve' graph. Versions of this graph have been widely circulated, showing the relation between healthcare resources and two curves: one the likely rate at which the virus would spread without social distancing or other control measures; the other, the flattened curve. There have been criticisms of this graph in that it is oversimplified but it did make vividly clear the impacts adhering to social distancing regulations and the nation's contingency on behaviours and policy.

When it is a matter of life and death, understanding data is an urgent matter. What we need is for the public to become critical and exacting readers capable of being moved to urgency by the visual narrative of expectation and surprise.

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