Graphiques Dégénérés: An Exhibition of Datavis Failures

Graphiques Dégénérés/Degenerate Graphics is an exhibition of failed datavis, inspired by #d3brokeandmadeart, that took place at La Chambre Blanche in Québec City, Québec, Canada, organized by La Chambre Blanche, 04h11 and Chris Viau.

Micah Stubbs

Data visualization is the art of turning data into meaningful graphics. But sometimes, this process doesn’t go as planned. When it fails in style, the results can be surprisingly beautiful. I come from an art background, so I asked myself the question: can we present datavis failures in an art gallery and treat it as a form of Glitch art? That’s what we did. And it was fun.

It all started from an idea mentioned on the #d3brokeandmadeart D3 Slack channel. We curated some of the best datavis failures, printed them, pinned them on the wall of an arts center and organized a VisQuébec meetup for the opening.

VisQuebec meetup at exhibition opening

I started by presenting the concept. First, the venue. As François Vallée describes it:

La Chambre Blanche is dedicated to the experimentation of visual and digital arts, in particular practices exploring new technologies within an international network of exchanges and residencies. This laboratory is built around research, creation, production, documentation training and broadcasting.

I have collaborated with La Chambre Blanche since 1998 and together we organize the VisQuébec meetup, so it was natural to host the exhibition there.

I then described what we mean when we talk about a datavis failure.

The data visualization process can be illustrated as a pipeline from data to graphics (and then interactivity), going through a lot of steps, like data transform, visual abstraction, graphical transform, etc. At each of these steps some code can go rogue.

I like to see failures from multiple datavis practitioners because it tells a lot about their process. For example, Moritz Stefaner is well known for his design skills, always pushing the boundaries of data representation. So here is what happens when he fails:

Moritz Stefaner

A projector was beaming this live rendering of Moritz’s Processing code on the wall. What was he trying to do?

I wanted to demonstrate that the “hexagonal” structures bees build are actually just squeezed circles, so the hex structure is really just an emergent property of the fact they are tightly packed together when building and some basic geometry. So, I thought, I’ll just build a couple of “wheels” with one particle in the center, a set of particles — all connected in a ringwise fashion by springs, and also connected to the center node. If those would all gravitate to the center, and repel each other, I should get a nice squeezing behavior, right?

After this introduction, I had the pleasure to introduce Micah Stubbs, who helped organize the show and was visiting from the Bay Area.

He talked about #d3brokeandmadeart, @accidental__aRt, and ways to share code, modify it and share it, especially when it fails. Here are some links he mentioned:

Micah Stubbs’s Blocks 
Graph community clustering on bl.ocks
Graph community clustering on Blockbuilder
Animated fractal pie chart by Curran Kelleher
Museum of Pretty Bug
Glitch_art reddit: dedicated to the art of databending
Bad Samples
Datavis failures selection

I then told the story of some of the prints that were exhibited.

For example, this is a map of oceans surface temperature. But I needed a projection that would better show the poles, which is problematic with mercator. So I tried a mercator transverse. And failed.

Chris Viau

This one from Kai Chang represents the Molniya satellites trajectories in a variant of this same projection.

Kai Chang

I like how this one from FFunction looks like an old polaroid of a matrix printer attempt at drawing a map.


This one is different. It’s from a generative artist: Etienne Saint-Amant. He is also an expert in scientific visualization, but I wanted to show that being data-driven was not the point of this particular exhibition. The question here is: what will a generative artists consider to be an error and not a happy accident? Datavis designers usually have a very specific goal. So anything that goes against it, even if visually interesting, is a problem. But an artist has a whole creative space opened for deciding what is junk and what will become art. On this piece, the algorithm was run too deep, rendering some chaotic layering of over-detailed textures in a somewhat confused composition. Which is nice.

Étienne Saint-Amant

The exhibition was a success. I really think it’s a concept that is easy to implement and that deserves to happen again. If you want to give it a try, we would be glad to help you organize one in your own city.

Here is the complete video of the meetup. My part is in French and Micah’s part is in English. Have fun!