The digital prints in my most recent collection, Finding Poetry are intensely mediated representations of poems by astrophysicist Rebecca Elson. Using the process described below, I search for each poem one word at a time on the Internet, and data about this search generates the intricate patterns that appear to smear across the surface as they draw out information about each line of poetry.
In generating the images, I consider a given text and interpret it through the lens of a contemporary experience. In keeping with the underlying structure of my chosen media, my interpretation is highly procedural. These pieces are labored over as spreadsheets, text files, and thousands of lines of computer code. They require far more keystrokes than brushstrokes, and they start as flowcharts, not sketches. Shape, tonal variation, and illusions of depth within the surfaces are built exclusively from fine, dark, straight lines. However, from this highly ordered starting point, my intention is to produce works that are physical, tactile, and more nuanced than conventional screen-based graphics.
The results are at once completely accurate and wholly abstracted embodiments of Elson’s poetry. The images are conceived and generated using a completely logical, mathematical set of rules, and their drawing is fully automated. Data is represented using a consistent set of parameters throughout, and the entire data set for a given piece of text is included within each image. In this way the prints are completely rational, methodical data visualizations, even as the starting points and structure of the project resist utility.
Rebecca Elson tied her scholarly knowledge of science to a subtle, substantive understanding of the human condition. Her poetry is both the functional starting point for this project and a significant source of inspiration for my art making broadly.
The data used for this project was collected by a web crawler I designed to search for text, one word at a time, on the Internet. The crawler begins at a website I choose, and travels in a linear fashion, moving from one link to the next, collecting information about the sites it lands on along the way. As it travels, the crawler looks for the words of a given text. It searches the content of each website for a particular word, counting its steps until that word is found. Once a word is found, it continues on with the next word in the sequence. The information is collected in a spreadsheet, and serves as the raw data for my drawings.
Searches for long strings of text often fail, and less common words can take several thousand tries to find. For each text, I begin with a thematically relevant Google search, and begin my web crawler at the first twenty-five web sites it returns. The first search to find a complete text is used to generate my print. For this exhibition, source texts are poems by astrophysicist Rebecca Elson. They are titled with the Google search term and a line or title from the poem, such that Helium: Girl With a Red Balloon represents a search for the poem “Girl With a Red Balloon” that started with a Google query for the word helium.
As data is being collected, I write a set of algorithms for drawing. I establish systematic rules for how numbers will be expressed in relation to each other. In general, data I collect will determine the shape, scale, and repetition of forms in the finished drawing. The forms are built entirely out of fine, straight, solid, lines, and any perceived roundness, fill, tonal gradients, or implied depth is a result of a dense build-up of small, discrete elements. I then encode the algorithms in the Java-based programming language Processing, revising the program to match the intended scale, aesthetic, and line quality for the project. After running the collected data through this custom drawing program a first time, I calibrate it to accommodate the specific sizes and shapes that the data produces.
Once I am confident that the program is calibrated to generate an appropriately scaled drawing, I run it a final time, collecting carefully labeled vector files for each word. I import these files into Photoshop, and arrange the words in order. While I can make small corrections in color and placement, my editing capabilities are limited at this point, as even small changes can compromise the integrity of the line work. Finished prints are made on a high-quality digital printer. For this exhibition, I chose cold-press cotton rag for its tactile qualities and associations with traditional printmaking.
I am indebted to The Center for Research Computing at the University of Notre Dame for assistance in programming the web crawler designed for this project. I am also grateful to my studio assistant, Millsaps College student Corey Menozzi, who made tremendous contributions to the data-management portions of my drawing programs.
Text for this project was sourced from Rebecca Elson, A Responsibility to Awe (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2001).