Floor Charts on the Floor Screen

I’ve already posted a more precise transcript of my talk, “Visualization as Argument,” over on my personal website. As I mentioned there, the talk is adapted from an essay-in-progress about the theoretical work of some of the earliest, unrecognized data visualization designers in the United States, who happened to be pioneering educators and also women. (Not unrelated).

What’s not really emphasized in those remarks— which, after all, were composed well before I set foot in Umeå—is the extraordinary confluence between the historical context for the images that I discussed, and the space in which I presented them at HUMlab-X.

Photo by Patrik Svensson via Twitter

What you see here is a photo of the image at the center of my talk—a visualization by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894) of the significant events of the seventeenth century—projected on HUMlab-X’s giant floor screen. I’ll say, anecdotally, that the floor screen was the single most talked-about component of the wide range of presentation technologies available to us. Patrik Svensson has already mentioned Anne Balsamo’s remark, upon seeing the AIDS Quilt Touch project displayed on the floor screen, that it was the first time she’d ever been able to see the entire digital quilt large enough to also be able to identify detail. Todd Presner, speaking remotely via Skype, commented that he could only imagine the effect of his “thick maps” displayed in such scale. Zephyr Frank took audible delight in speaking while walking on his objects of study. Etc.

In this, the era of smart phones and iPads, we sometimes forget about the pleasures of scale—not to mention its pedagogical value. Elizabeth Peabody, however, did not. In the 1850s, Peabody packed her bags—along with a fabric roll the length of a living room rug—in order to ride the rails, promoting her visualization work (although she did not describe it as such) in cities as far north as Rochester, NY; as far west as Louisville, KY; and as far south as Richmond, VA. The fabric roll contained a floor-sized version of one of the charts in the textbooks she sought to sell. According to Bruce Rhonda, Peabody would unfurl the “mural chart” (as she called them) on the floor, and, not unlike the environment of HUMlab-X, would invite would-be textbook adopters to sit around the chart to “study the relationships among dates and events.”

A visualization of significant events of the seventeenth-century as they relate to the history of the United States, from Elizabeth Peabody’s Chronological History of the United States, arranged with plates on Bem’s principle (1856).

For Peabody, the floor chart was a valuable marketing ploy; anyone who encountered the chart couldn’t help but register its visual impact. But it also took a physical toll—and not just from the effort required to lug the chart from town to town. Writing to a friend in 1850, Peabody revealed:

“Just now I am aching from the fatigue of making Charts for the Schools who will take the book… Every school must have a mural chart—& there is but one way of making them (until they can be made by ten thousands) & that is by stencilling… I can do one a day. But I must sell them cheap… To day I worked 15 hours—only sitting down to take my meals—& so I have done all week—so much fatigue stupefies one—but as soon as it is adopted in a few towns I shall be able to hire someone to do this drudgery for me.”

Here, then, we have evidence not only of the knowledge work, but also of the actual physical labor involved in producing the charts.

In my larger project, I have more to say about the physical aspects of Peabody’s knowledge work, as well as of digital knowledge work today. So here, instead, I’ll return once again to the floor screen, in order to document an additional effect engendered (so to speak) by its particular presentation mode—

I’d been thinking about how Peabody’s charts, in their abstraction, anticipate the modernist grid, and in this way, offer an alternate genealogy of twentieth-century art. In fact, most people, when they first encounter the charts, comment that they look like a Mondrian. But projected on the floor screen, a different reference point quickly emerges: the quilt. (And at the conference, Brian Johnsrud noticed this as well).

In fact, the history of quilting shares much with Peabody’s visualization work. For one, quilting, like education, has long been considered women’s work, and therefore excised (until relatively recently) from the standard histories we tell about the emergence of modernist art and design. For another, quilting, like visualization in general—and like Peabody’s visualization work in particular— involves an act of translation. And as Walter Benjamin has famously observed, this act expresses the ideas of the translator as much as it does the original source.

There’s more to say in this regard as well. For now, though, I’ll note only that in the particular context of the nineteenth-century United States, as well as in the context of data visualization as it’s currently theorized, typology looms large.

In the context of the conference, however, one thing became abundantly clear: Peabody’s floor charts, projected on the floor screen, did not merely serve to illustrate an understudied genre of knowledge production, as I’d initially intended. The charts on the screen, rather, exposed an array of what Svensson describes as the “conditions for knowledge production.” I returned home reminded, with all of my body, of the physical labor of knowledge work. And I returned home reinvigorated to expose the contexts that determine—indeed that, at times, overdetermine—that work’s critical reception, its cultural valuation, and its creative use.