AN INTERVIEW BY MATTHEW SPENCER

Conducted in November 2014

An edited version was published on the Asymptote Blog
Matthew's website can be found here


Matthew Spencer (MS) | Sher Chew (SC) | Berny Tan (BT)


MSWere there other contenders to Jules Verne?

SC The ‘loose’ parameters that Berny and I had set to aid us in selecting the book turned out to be rather counterproductive. There were no other contenders, because we had unwittingly rejected all options through our process of elimination. We stumbled upon The Mysterious Island at a juncture where we were contemplating abandoning the search completely.

BT We didn't approach this project wanting to tackle any specific author or narrative. We went around the bookstore looking for something that fit the parameters that we were developing as we were searching. The Mysterious Island was the last book that we picked up at the end of a 2-hour search, and we really chose it regardless of the author and not with any real desire to read it. The fact that Jules Verne relies on a lot of pseudo-science, which lends itself to our diagrammatic approach, was more of a happy coincidence than anything else.

MS: Has diagramming the novel changed the way that you visualize the novel while reading? Not only in the sense that you’re looking for elements to diagram, but also how you imagine the book as you’re reading it. Does this happen with other fiction your read?

SC: Reading is hardly ever a visual experience for me; not in a tangible sense, anyway. When I read I usually just experience abstracted flashes of color. Nothing is completely embodied. Diagramming the novel (and other texts) actually aids me in seeing and better engaging with the content.

BT: We gave a talk about this project recently, and someone asked us if we were enjoying the book. I said, “We're not enjoying the book, but we're enjoying the project.” At this point, I'm reading the novel with the explicit goal of trying to formulate a diagram, or rather with the hope that something, even a sentence, would strike me as diagrammatic. If I were to verbalize what is happening in my mind as I read it, it's almost as if flashes of a graph, table, illustration, or set of data forms vaguely and then quickly disintegrate as I eliminate each option. Simultaneously, I’m visualizing the characters on top of a mountain, in their cavern, on the beach, hunting animals… Of course, sometimes it’s a complete blank.

 With this project, I am deliberately searching for data sets or latent systems, but not so with other fiction. In fact, when reading fiction, I find myself craving the sensation of being lost in a narrative rather than trying to construct a meta-narrative. However, I have previously read texts where I would feel some connection to a diagrammatic potential. Prior to Isle-to-Isle, I've used the visual language of diagrams to interpret T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land and Roland Barthes's A Lover's Discourse. With these two examples, what I felt was really something very implicit and inherent. For Isle-to-Isle, the medium of data visualization was decided upon before the actual reading of the text, which sometimes makes it difficult for me to force a system onto or out of the text. 

MS: Have you thought about reversing the process, i.e. generating text narratives based on your diagrams? I’m thinking about the question in two different ways. The first would be just to hand some of these graphs to a writer and have her intuitively construct a narrative to fit your data. The second way is more automated but already happens to a certain degree in journalism, with algorithms using GIS data to generate earthquake and weather reports. Is that something you've considered?

SC This is an interesting proposition and actually highlights one of my favorite aspects of the project – visual, conceptual and material heterogeneity. As this is a personal project, neither of us have any obligation to ‘correctly’ represent the information by any means, which gives us a lot of freedom to experiment. This idiosyncrasy in output provides different entry points by which others access the narrative, subverting the pedagogical tendencies of graphs and maps. Berny especially has been quite adept in using different materials to physically build her diagrams.

 In relation to the first scenario, the mercurial nature in which we communicate the data we have gathered/identified creates incongruity that would be difficult for a writer to synthesize. Due to the ambiguity of language and the changeable nature of words, subjective interpretation is an inherent by-product of the analysis of qualitative information; for as John Berger says, “we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.” This is not so much of a predicament as it is exciting. The aforementioned writer when faced with our highly inaccurate diagrams might intuitively fabricate a narrative that far surpasses the original.

 Generating the diagrams algorithmically would facilitate uniformity in visual output and greater statistical/quantitative accuracy. However, as a means of storytelling, this is hardly effective. In the hopes of maintaining objectivity, I had initially wanted all my diagrams to have a consistent style. In retrospect, I am glad I was unsuccessful; the affective quality that exists as a result of our digression in the representation and reception of the text would probably have been compromised as a result.

BT I haven’t thought about this reverse process, but I’ve considered an extension of this project that relates a little to what you’re saying. I would love to do a final infographic that analyses all of my own diagrams across the 50 weeks. In that sense, I would be trying to discover a narrative within my creations – what could the diagrams say about this period in my life, or how my relationship with the novel changed over time? How was I responding to Sher’s ideas? On the other hand, our aesthetics change so much from week to week that I suspect that I wouldn’t be able to put together a cohesive narrative, or even assess any kind of pattern.

MSNow that you’re roughly halfway through, how has your approach changed toward the project?

SC When we started the project, I used to work on the diagrams at the beginning of the week. However, at about 24–25 weeks in, I now read the 10 pages an hour or two before the time to submit. I find that my capacity to problem-solve is better within a shorter time frame. Although, I must admit, when the diagrams don’t appear by midnight on Sunday, it’s usually my fault.

BT In the first few weeks, I was approaching the narrative like an average reader. I really wanted to experience the story first and foremost, and then generate the diagram later. This was something that set my approach apart from Sher’s initially; she was mining data from the outset. I do still want to follow the story now that I’m invested in it, but I’m finding it difficult to maintain the empathy that I once had for the characters. I don’t think this is because of the project, but because of certain issues of power and colonisation that have emerged in the narrative, and with which I’m growing increasingly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I still use those emotions to drive my generation of the diagrams.

 To be honest, I don’t think I went into Isle-to-Isle with any expectations. I half-knew that anything could happen, and I think it really shows in my diagrams. One week I might spend half-an-hour sketching something on graph paper, another week I’m embroidering, and another week I’m doing a mega-diagram comprised of twenty smaller diagrams. I don’t put too much pressure on myself to create something amazing every week. So it’s quite difficult to say that my approach has morphed from one thing to another, since there are so many factors that could affect me each week – how busy or stressed I am, what artwork or design style is stuck in my head, what Sher did the previous week, whether or not I feel like designing something purely descriptive or illustrative, etc.

MSCould you select a graph from later on in the project and describe how it was made? Maybe you can contrast that with some of your earlier graphs.

SC It was during the 17th week of Isle-to-Isle that I began to view the project as more than a design exercise. That week, I had attended the MoMa PS1 Art Book Fair and had purchased a book from Sternberg Press entitled Speculative Drawing by Armen Avanessian and Andreas Topfer. Reading it put me on a different thought trajectory altogether. I decided to draw my diagram freehand, something that I had avoided doing despite Berny’s encouragement to do so in earlier weeks. My motivations for rendering the diagram in this way are articulated within the surrounding text around the drawings (done in blue ink and watercolor). This diagram illustrates how “design… has the potential to be a powerful conduit for speculative dreaming – cultivating a more organic process of thought.” Instead of being preoccupied with systemizing the data or the accuracy of representation. I explore the potentials of the text as catalyst for new ideas, experimenting with non-digital media in an attempt to liberate my methods and preconceived notions of how to visualize and interact with information.

BT My diagram from Week 22 was the most structurally ambitious, even though I probably spent a longer time on my embroidered diagram from Week 16. I had a lot of emotions reading those ten pages – the characters’ base had been invaded by apes, and they ended up killing all of the apes except one, whom they trained to be their servant. It just seemed really disgusting to me and too reminiscent of the indiscriminate, holier-than-thou attitude of white colonists, and particularly hypocritical considering they were supposed to be abolitionists! So I broke down the conflict between man and ape into a 10-stage system that mirrors colonial attitudes. I visualized each stage with a mini-diagram using only lines and geometric shapes, to attempt to convey a very essential type of cruelty and power struggle.

 Again, it’s difficult to pit a later graph against an earlier graph, because my approach differs from week to week. I used the same technique of sketches on graph paper in Weeks 1, 6, and 23. But I would definitely compare my diagram from Week 22 to the one from Week 8. It also tackles the issues of power dynamics and colonisation, as the characters climb to the top of a mountain and manage to survey, map, and lay claim to the island. In this case, I discuss how knowledge – represented by a line circumscribing a previously undefined mass – can be an important element of control. I’m fairly sure that I’ll keep returning to these themes as we progress, devising different (but not necessarily better) methods of visualization. I don’t think the point of our project is to get better, or to evolve. It is really to experiment.

MSDo you see this project as an “interesting experiment,” something that's served its purpose but is relatively limited in its application? Or is this something that's more scalable, where elements of the project can be integrated in your own future design practice or the design practices of others?

SC I think at the back of our minds, Berny and I always had bigger aspirations for the project. We believe in its potential to take on a more consummate form and have toyed around with compiling our collective diagrams into a book or exhibition. Given the changeable nature of the project, we are trying not to confine ourselves to any concrete assumptions about the final output and will wait until all 50 diagrams are done before deciding what direction to take.

 This project has been an extremely humbling experience for me, forcing me to rethink and confront certain biases within my own design practice. It has opened my mind to the endless approaches toward qualitative information and how to manifest it. I gradually weaned myself off a self-imposed stipulation of specificity that caused me so much grief at the start of the project. The issue of ‘subjectivity,’ which I had initially considered to be an impairment in my processing of the information, I now view as an illuminating tool, a way to ‘embody new perspectives’ within the text.

 I always thought that prerequisites of ‘good design’ were responsibility, resolution and functionality. However, my measure of that success for that utilitarian agenda has extended into something more ambiguous. Design is equally as effective if it can become a catalyst for new ideas through a process of inspiration and speculation rather than indoctrination. 

BTI don't know if this will have any practical application on a larger scale, but I certainly feel that the project implies a degree of openness and possibility about both reading classics and visualizing data. These are acts that are understood to be very academic in their own ways, and we're overturning those expectations by insisting on our very personal interpretations of the text. I don't think the point of this project is to say that we should apply diagrams to literature, but that we can expand what it means to read and interpret a text or a set of data.

I will probably not have what you call a design practice. Sher is primarily a designer, while I am and will be juggling multiple roles in the visual arts. Designing is just something I do on the side, and I do integrate design elements into my art. I have been exploring this idea of designing diagrams about things you wouldn't really think to represent in diagrams, like my emotions and memories, but this is the first time that I've really used a suite of diagrams as a representation of an ongoing, malleable experience. 

What I'm really absorbing from this project is that it gives me the outlet to create while relieving the pressure to create. This is something that will probably be important to me down the road, as I balance different responsibilities. I'll likely come up with different "assignments" for myself in order to keep creating without necessarily pursuing a full-blown art practice, and even better if I can find a collaborator like Sher, to whom I can be accountable. The other thing about this kind of project is that I don't have to be the artist that is looking to create a new Gesamtkunstwerk. I don't know if my diagrams are art, and I don't know what they'll look like at Week 48, 49, 50, but I know that I'll still be making something at Week 48, 49, 50. I find this structure much more liberating than if I had an infinite amount of time to work in a studio.

 

AN INTERVIEW BY SAL SEAH

Conducted in December 2014

Unpublished
Sal's website can be found here


Sal Seah (SS) | Sher Chew (SC) | Berny Tan (BT)


SSFirst, a little backstory. How did you guys decide to work together, and how did this (very) specific idea come about? Also, why the decision to look to a singular source (for such a prolonged period of time) to create your own material? 

SCI wanted to learn how to collaborate with other people, because it was a life skill that I believed that I lacked. Working with Berny seemed like the perfect starting point because she is far more efficient and responsible than I am, which gives me an inexplicable sense of security. We had both dealt with qualitative information in our personal work but in different ways. We wanted to work on a project where we would have creative autonomy, yet still maintain a reciprocal relationship. The singular source was to maintain commonality, providing a baseline by which to make work. 

BT Sher and I had crossed paths a few times, both in Singapore and in New York. I found out that she had started doing information design when she shared her projects on Facebook, and it really resonated with my own artistic explorations of the visual language of diagrams. But I feel like the first time we truly connected over our shared interest in data visualisation was when she came to my senior open studios and saw the work that I had produced. We had a really intense and engaging conversation about my work and how it related to and differed from her own.

 A couple weeks later, we met up to discuss the possibility of a collaboration. I think any discussion of a collaboration begins with the identification of overlapping interests, and we thought about how we had both done visualizations of literature. Over the course of dinner, we decided that it would be interesting to see what would happen if two people with similar interests but different approaches tried to visualize the exact same source material. If I remember correctly, we brought in the other elements of the project, such as the year-long time frame and the web element, because they were aspects that we hadn't yet fully explored in our own work. We also wanted to be able to do a substantial project without it feeling massive. Breaking it down into regular small parts just seemed the most logical thing.

SSHow do you guys manage to read 10 pages of this novel, then process it AND create a diagram every week on top of your real-world commitments? Where do you draw your energy from, what are your rituals, and what do you hold sacred?

SC My real-world commitments are what fuel me to generate my diagram on a weekly basis. I work better under duress, so having a limited amount of time to create the diagram forces me to think harder and faster. I have tried giving myself a looser time frame, but that’s actually slowed the process more. Call it masochistic, but I think I enjoy the self-imposed deadline and the liberty to disregard it.

BT It's certainly tough, but I never view it as a chore. It's a challenge, but never a chore. This project is basically a creative and intellectual exercise for me; it's what constitutes my art practice right now. Sometimes, if I have too much to do, or if I'm just too worn out to get my diagram out on time, I choose a really simple idea or technique, or we post our diagrams late. So there's always this degree of leeway, but I'm also committed to generating each diagram.

 Regarding rituals, I don't really have a pattern, but try to focus on my instinct. It needs to feel fundamentally true to my reading experience. What really strikes me about that set of 10 pages, whether diagrammatically, emotionally, or intellectually? For example, some incidents in it do rile me up or really bother me, and I become obsessed with trying to represent it fully in order to bring out themes that I don't think Jules Verne intended, but rather took for granted. If nothing sticks out when I first read it, I just read it again and again until something grabs me. Some weeks, I struggle so much that I come up with the idea within an hour or two of our official deadline (midnight on Sunday).

SSWhat are your fears as creators and how do you respond to those? 

SCI don’t consider myself a creator as much as a respondent. Perhaps the distinctions are marginal, but I do not feel as if I am creating, so much as repurposing existing information into a new form.

BT Within the context of the project, I'm worried that I'm being too easy on myself as much as I'm worried about being too ambitious and then falling short of that ambition. It depends on the material for the week. But the great thing about Isle-to-Isle and the brevity of 10 pages/week is that I get to relieve the pressure creating the best and fullest representation of the material. Even if one week isn't as good as another, it's still a good indication of either my connection or lack thereof to the material, or external circumstances that influenced my reading of the novel (which is still a part of our reading experiences).

 Broadly speaking, I fear that I won't keep up the momentum of creating. Even though I'll be working in the arts, I am concerned that I won't be able to keep up even some semblance of a practice. I think this project, with a low-impact yet long-term commitment, reinforces how I can continue creating while balancing it with all my other responsibilities.

SSI'm also curious to hear your thoughts on putting your own work out there. 

SC It was a little daunting at first, given that mining for data out of fragments of narrative means that neither the information gathered nor the diagrams made is entirely comprehensive. I have had to let go of many preconceived biases and a pathological need to resolve everything. Things became a lot easier when I stopped thinking in terms of absolutes.

BTI'm don't have strong feelings about this one way or the other, probably because I made a decision after I finished junior college (JC) to start a blog where I would post every "creative endeavor," no matter how trivial. Even if it was a silly doodle or just one photo, I wanted to hold myself accountable to the process of creating and documenting creation. I do find that after going through art school, I've become much more particular about the presentation of my artwork online. With Isle-to-Isle, however, it's pretty much a given that some of my diagrams won't be as good as they could be, and since that's within the parameters of the project, it doesn't bother me.

SSHow do you guys go about forging community for yourselves?

SCWeekly updates about the project on our personal social media channels is probably as far as we have gone in sharing the project with our friends. We made a Facebook page so that people could see the process behind the final product and as a way for friends to keep track how the project was progressing. Unfortunately, I think much more of the ‘forging’ has landed in Berny’s hands because I am no longer engaged with most of my social media.  

BT By collaborating with people who have similar interests, much like with this project! In all seriousness, I find that I connect best with people one-on-one. There's all sorts of psychological baggage about group settings that I won't get into here, but it honestly feels rejuvenating to be able to engage with an person on a really deep and personal level. My community right now is really a support system made up of these individual buttresses.

 For example, I think Sher and I are very different people with very different personalities and interests, but somehow we've forged a very meaningful friendship, which was built on the foundation of Isle-to-Isle and which is reflected in the processes and outcomes of this project. Crucially, our partnership means we have to be accountable to someone other than ourselves, which is always a great motivator. Community does emerge out of shared experiences; I think back to how close I was and still am with my JC art classmates because of our two years together making art in the same physical space.

 I'm in a weird intermediate phase of my life, where I'm only planning to be in New York for another half a year before moving back to Singapore. It's quite difficult to think about forging a community in a state of impermanence. I think it was really important for me to continue my friendships with people back in Singapore, and to also start forging connections with acquaintances who share similar aspirations, or even similar roots (in Singapore or in Asia). I would say that I'm laying the groundwork for a future community or group of communities that I hope will continue to grow and interweave.

SSWhat's next? Project-wise, and in life? 

SCProject-wise, Berny and I have been toying around with the idea of the book. The stylistic incongruence of the diagrams might be a nice visual accompaniment to the text. I do not believe that the site is the best way to highlight the relationships between diagram and text. Although I will admit that this impediment has influenced the design of the diagrams to some degree. I think that, having the work culminate in a physical embodiment will lend something to the way the work can be experienced. 

BT We still have about half of Isle-to-Isle to go, and I think it's just going to get more and more interesting each week. The novel is a slow-burning one, but it's building up to a big reveal, which will hopefully mean a change of pace. Sher and I have been vaguely talking about trying to get word of our project out there, and also thinking about applying for grants so that we could design a book or present an exhibition based on the project. At the end of the project, I do want to design an overarching diagram that analyses all our (or at least my) diagrams that were generated for the project. I'm actually concerned about whether the end of Isle-to-Isle will leave a void in my life! I hope I'll be able to fill that void with another collaborative project.

 As mentioned, I'll be leaving New York mid-next year for Singapore. In the meantime, I'm really trying to absorb as much out of New York as I can by doing a number of arts-related internships, before I go back home to get a real, paying job (probably in an art museum).