New Hood Downtown exhibit illuminates data visualization

Exhibit featuring German artist Ingo Günther’s "World Processor" is open until May 28.

by Arunav Jain | 4/7/17 1:05am

Spring term often spearheads change at Dartmouth: warmer winds, lush green trees and a walkable Green. While most of these changes have yet to be observed this year, one transformation has been promptly executed: the Hood Downtown at 53 Main Street now showcases the work of a new artist for the Hanover community to enjoy.

Third in a series of international artists, German artist Ingo Günther’s ongoing project “World Processor” is currently featured in the exhibition space and will remain on display until May 28.

The exhibit is an installation composed of illuminated globes, each serving as a visual representation of different quantitative data. While the Hood Downtown only displays 50 globes, Günther’s actual collection currently contains just under 400 globes.

The word “currently” is key here, since even that tally does not do justice to the sheer breadth of Günther’s ambitious project. Having formally begun the project in 1989, Günther has made around 1,000 globes to date, some of which have even been destroyed.

In “World Processor,” Günther interprets data from a variety of sources, including the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. One globe, for example, puts one of the central indicators in the UN’s Human Development Index to creative use.

Aptly titled “Life Expectancy,” Günther synthesizes national, regional and global life expectancy figures, imaginatively playing around with the numbers on the globe.

“Life Expectancy” is only one example — many of the globes manifest broad, complex data in inventive yet accurate ways. A focal aim of the exhibition therefore appears to be to represent information that is convenient to comprehend visually but difficult to grasp in the form of numbers, charts and graphs.

While this attribute of the installation connects to the Hood’s mission as a teaching museum, Günther’s work and the goals of Hood Downtown have a deeper connection according to Katherine Hart and Juliette Bianco, co-curators of the exhibition. Hart noted that Günther’s globes allowed for data visualization that was “consumable.”

“He plays around a lot with our sense of what a normal map means — relationships between nations and countries — he undoes that a bit,” Hart said. “He is able to play around with the idea of what a globe represents.”

The somewhat provocative nature of Günther’s manipulation of data, or more specifically the way he projects that onto a globe, has already attracted academic interest.

Dartmouth environmental studies visiting professor Terry Tempest Williams brought her class “Writing Our Way Home: The Writing that Sustains Us” to the exhibition for a workshop, during which a few of her students challenged the ways in which Günther had chosen to represent data.

“I think our intention was that [the globes] intersect so many different types of subjects that we see connected to our curriculum,” Hart said. “We thought a number of people would come in and engage with them and not just be neutral about them.”

Bianco echoed Hart’s thoughts regarding the importance of the artworks’ propensity to make the audience question their validity, drawing a connection between art and debate.

“Part of teaching is dialogue and connecting with ideas that may be different — connecting to something you might have thought about or might not have thought about it.” Bianco said. “And we thought this work in particular would be a great tool for dialogue on any myriad of topics across the curriculum.”

The exhibition’s amalgam of statistics and art was a highlight for Gabrielle Bozarth ’17, who appreciated the communicative aspects of the work.

“Visualizing data is an important tool as we try to communicate information and this exhibit showed me how art often is the best visual communicator, and challenges the limits of statistics,” Bozarth said.

The interrogative quality of “World Processor,” however, is not limited to Günther’s maneuvering of objective data to invoke unique, subjective responses from viewers. It extends to question the significance of the globe itself as a Western symbol of control and dominance.

“There is a sort of conversation about what the globe symbolizes and how it is and has been used as a symbol of power and control.” Bianco said. “How does the exhibition then either subvert and/or reinforce this symbol and that power?”

Günther’s initiative to explore the objectivity we naturally associate with data and figures through “World Processor” is undoubtedly constructive, and in today’s world, an even more pertinent one.