Learning from Lombardi

Ben Fry
Ben Fry
Apr 15, 2016 · 10 min read

This was originally prepared in 2009 for a panel assembled by Alice Rawsthorn at Experimenta in Lisbon, Portugal. I found myself thinking about it again last week with the release of the Panama Papers, and decided to re-post it here.

I first became familiar with Mark Lombardi’s work in April 2000 while in the midst of finishing my master’s thesis at the MIT Media Lab. Lombardi began as a painter who was also deeply interested in research, with a natural bent toward reading and absorbing large amounts of information. In 1994, he began to create drawings such as this one to depict the complex narratives he would uncover through his curiosity about anything from failed banks to corruption in government to organized crime.

Gallerist Deven Golden describes how Lombardi began creating these works:

[He was] talking to a friend of his, a lawyer, in California. Mark was telling him about a couple of banks that had closed in Texas, and the lawyer said, “Yeah, and because of that, these Savings and Loans closed in California.” And his friend proceeded to tell him how a series of byzantine corporate connections tied the various financial institutions together. It was very convoluted, and so Mark made some notes — he obviously was predisposed to thinking about this sort of thing. As Mark told it to me, it was kind of like how some artists . . . do the New York Times crossword puzzle in their studios to help them clear their minds. Anyway, every couple of days, after going over his notes and diagrams, he would call his friend back and ask him more questions, which would lead him to make more diagrams. Then, one day, after what I understood to be a couple of months of working on these diagrams to “relax,” Mark had this “aha!” moment . . . The diagrams were more visually interesting than his paintings. And, perhaps just as importantly, they pulled together everything Mark was interested in — drawing, social/commercial interactions and their hierarchies, and politics — into a single pursuit.

Lombardi had not originally planned for his sketches to become actual artworks; instead they were intended as a means for him to work out the connections for himself, while preparing to perhaps write stories or articles about them. In the years that followed, the images grew into sophisticated networks that told an exceptionally detailed story.

This is an early sketch for one of his works. The sketch itself is informative in understanding his thinking process, and the early messiness involved in assembling such a story.

George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens. 1979–90

This piece is titled “George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens. 1979–90.” In it, Lombardi created a drawing that depicts a story about George W. Bush, before he was governor of Texas, much less the President. In those days, he received $4.7 million from about 50 different family members to start an energy company. The company did poorly, posting enormous losses, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Further down the line, this company was eventually sold to individuals with connections to the Bush family, with George W. himself receiving millions of dollars in stock in spite of the venture’s obvious failure. The head-scratching story is difficult to believe—but even harder to tell if you have to rely only on words in a newspaper article instead of an image such as this one.

George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens. 1979–90 (detail)

The actual piece is 4 feet wide and 2 feet tall; here we have a detail of one small section. Lombardi’s image lays bare the complexity of the story, making it accessible even to an audience with neither the inclination nor the mental capacity to understand such a mess.

In his artist statement for a show in the late ‘90s, Mark described his work as follows:

In 1994 I began a series of drawings I refer to as “narrative structures.” Most were executed in graphite or pen and ink on paper. Some are quite large, measuring up to 5 x 12 feet.

I call them “narrative structures” because each consists of a network of lines and notations which are meant to convey a story, typically about a recent event of interest to me, like the collapse of a large international bank, trading company, or investment house. One of my goals is to explore the interaction of political, social and economic forces in contemporary affairs. …

World Finance Corporation, Miami, ca. 1970–84

Working from syndicated news items and other published accounts, I begin each drawing by compiling large amounts of information about a specific bank, financial group or set of individuals. After a careful review of the literature I then condense the essential points into an assortment of notations and other brief statements of fact, out of which an image begins to emerge.

My purpose throughout is to interpret the material by juxtaposing and assembling the notations into a unified, coherent whole. In some cases I use a set of stacked, parallel lines to establish a time frame. Hierarchical relationships, the flow of money and other key details are then indicated by a system of radiating arrows, broken lines and so forth. Some of the drawings consist of two different layers of information — one denoted in black, the other, red. Black represents the essential elements of the story while the major lawsuits, criminal indictments or other legal actions taken against the parties are shown in red. Every statement of fact and connection depicted in the work is true and based on information culled entirely from the public record.

Seen above, “World Finance Corporation, Miami, ca. 1970–84” is part of a series of works that relate the story of a global banking conglomerate thought to have a role in the Colombian drug trade and money laundering of drug money.

Here is a detail of the fourth version in that series, which measured 60 inches across and 30 inches tall.

Chicago Outfit and Satellite Regimes ca. 1931–83 (1998, approx. 96 x 48 in)

In another drawing, Lombardi created a timeline, moving left to right, covering fifty years of organized crime in Chicago. Starting with Al Capone at the left, it follows the network of his associates and how their activities evolved from bootlegging to racketeering and gambling, and also as they expanded their reach into other major cities with more gambling, prostitution, and money laundering.

Many of the reviews of Mark’s work frequently reference “conspiracy,” though this seems a disservice brought by articles like this one that prominently feature conspiracy in their titles or as a central theme. A conspiracy theory usually implies the work of a naïve crank with an agenda, and a subjectivity that seems thankfully absent from Mark’s work. Lombardi himself made light of the notion, printing “Death-defying acts of Art and Conspiracy” on his business card. He thought it was a good icebreaker.

Bill Clinton, the Lippo Group, and China Ocean Shipping Co. a.k.a. COSCO-Little Rock-Jakarta-Hong Kong, ca. 1990s

I think we’re only beginning to appreciate why Lombardi’s work is important. Following his untimely passing in 2000, Lombardi’s work saw a resurgence as part of a traveling exhibition in 2003 that was curated by historian Robert Hobbs. In just three years, the audience had widened considerably from his earlier exhibitions in the ‘90s. Perhaps this was due in part to an increase in the awareness of “networks” of people. On one hand, the evening news in the United States had for two years been talking about “terrorist networks” and loose associations of individuals on a global scale. On the other, social networking by way of sites like MySpace and Friendster (this is 2003) had grown past their early adopter phase and become more common, so the idea of having one or two degrees of separation to a network of people was understood much more broadly. Even in the years since first writing this essay in 2009, there has been a remarkable proliferation of books and exhibitions about his work.

To provide some background, my own work is focused on visualization of complex data sets, whether the human genome, millions of words of text, or truly important things like showing which American baseball teams are over-paying for star players. But my assumption is that regardless of whether you think it’s relevant or not, working with ever-larger data sets will remain the domain of design for years to come, as we continue to be inundated with more sources of information, and proportionally fewer ways to handle and understand them.

In the past few years, data visualization has seen far more exposure amongst the design community. It’s a natural progression from the information design examples found in books by people like Edward Tufte, but data visualization also exists as an emerging aesthetic that relies on intricate diagrams and complex visual images. Every once in a while, a client even sends us images that follow this pattern, describing what they want us to create for them. But this nothing more than the pursuit of the visualization aesthetic, which is, of course, the opposite of design.


But that sort of complexity isn’t limited to high-gloss infographics. This is an image from the Wikipedia entry on social networks, and is typical of projects like it that deal with data similar to Lombardi’s. It is created by starting with a long list of names and links, and then running a piece of software to sort them into an image.

Here’s another social network visualization, clearly too complicated to understand, but typical in its overuse of elements.

And another using the same software, that depicts part of the Al Qaeda terrorist network. This one highlights the fact that even with fewer elements, you cannot magically create insight.

By relying too much on a computer algorithm to lay out the position of individual nodes in the network, we’re presented with what might be charitably considered a mess, or worse, that the image actually obfuscates the meaning of the data it depicts. This is a mixture of two things. First, that the creator gave up before they tried to really understand the information. And second, that they pushed no further because they were sated by the subjective beauty and intricacy of the image, even if meaningless. This map of the Internet made headlines in the ‘90s and was printed in Wired magazine, but offered little insight aside from “the Internet is made of lots of connections between lots of things” or simply “the Internet is complicated.”

In Lombardi’s case, even his early scribbles on a project are more informative, because they show a fundamentally human thought process, of trying to draw the story out of the mass of data he had collected. This is the opposite of many computational approaches that begin with a mass of data, followed by an often failed attempt to simplify it.

As part of the research for his drawings, Lombardi assembled some 14,000 index cards, which are now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each 3 x 5 inch card referenced a person or other entity. In too many computational approaches, it’s as if we’re looking at all 14,000 index cards at once. Having completed the research and data collection process, Mark knew that he must first synthesize that information into something useful. Too often, we try to make the machines synthesize for us, but in fact, synthesis — from the Greek and then Latin meaning to place together — is a fundamentally human task. It’s what separates us from Google.

Too much work in visualization, or even the more complicated end of information design, is just showing us the index cards. Would this ever be accepted in other fields? What writer would rely on the computer to organize their notes and produce a finished story? Fact of the matter is, understanding information is difficult. And the most difficult parts rely on the sort of thoughtfulness and focus that is the hallmark of Lombardi’s work.

Gerry Bull, Space Research Corporation, and Armscor of Pretoria, South Africa, c. 1972–80 (5th version), 1999, colored pencil and graphite on paper, approx 70 x 60 inches

Lombardi’s drawings walk the fine line of the informative and the aesthetic, but even more importantly, his projects give us an eye into the possibility of, and the depth to which we can understand, complicated information.

Ben Fry (Lisbon, 2009)

Ben Fry

Written by

Ben Fry

Founder @FathomInfo, co-founder @ProcessingOrg, lecturer @MIT, avoids having picture taken.