Th_s Lan_ Is Yo_r L_nd

Th_s Lan_ Is Yo_r L_nd

(click to view the piece)

Th_s Lan_ Is Yo_r L_nd” is a data art piece about children living in poverty in the United States. It is a web-based interactive choropleth map, encouraging users to explore child poverty statistics from the Census Bureau’s Small Area Income & Poverty Estimate data for US counties in 2012. Interaction with the map adjusts playback of the popular US folk song “This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie, intermittently muting playback of the song proportionally to the percentage of children living in poverty in that county.

I remember first hearing “This Land Is Your Land” in an elementary school music class. I was probably about six years old at the time, living in a county where currently one out of three children grow up in poverty. I’ve always loved the song. In working out the idea for this piece, I sought to communicate how many of the children in the wealthiest nation in the world are systematically excluded from our nation’s opportunities and prosperity.

The choropleth map is based on Mike Bostock’s great choropleth example. It uses the D3 and TopoJSON JavaScript libraries, and the HTML5 audio element/API. Some simple data processing was done with Perl.

“1986″

Karl Ward (collaboration with Rodrigo Derteano), acrylic ink on mirror, February 23, 2014

Karl Ward (collaboration with Rodrigo Derteano), acrylic ink on mirror, February 23, 2014

“1986″ is a data art piece on the topic of cocaine. This project is a remix of Rodrigo Derteano’s earlier work, which was created from a search for the appearance of the word “cocaine” in New York Times article titles from 1900 to 2014. In this data set, the year 1986 was the single year that had the most occurrences of the word in article titles, which led me to zoom in on that year and present its data in a focused light. It was arguably the year when popular consciousness of the risks of cocaine abuse became broadly evident, also considered by some to be the year that the crack epidemic began, and frequently cited as a milestone year for the so-called “war on drugs.”

Derteano’s original work had presented the word cocaine and the adjacent word or words. “1986″ presents just the adjacent words, using his original visualization as its guide. The word cocaine is absent, as if it has already been ingested. This plays on the double-take effect of this piece–the audience is likely to have already figured out its subject before getting any of the detail. And observation of its tiny, handwritten detail practically requires that you get your face very close to the mirror. The words written on the mirror are:

                       as a
                       on boat
                       ring
       eating
                       corruption
    smuggling
                       crackdown
treatment for
                       is found
                       smuggler's
                       tests
                       customers
                       set
                       use
                       is confiscated
                       use
                       are still
                       brought
                       'factory'
                       may
                       but not
                       charges
                       case
                       charges
                       habit
                       case
                       seized
                       charges
                       problem
                       ring

                       sites
      tons of
                       is even
                       is even
                       is even
                       ring
                       lab
                       will
                       raids
                       peril
                       draws
                       'minimal'

                       use
                       killed
                       trade
                       use
                       users
                       ring
        about
         much
        using
         find
                       seized
                       abuse

These words were handwritten using a dip pen and fine 100 nib, dipped into white pigmented acrylic ink. The mirror is part of a shabbat candle set–I definitely did not take the mirror from Kanye’s house, as some colleagues have insinuated. Inspiration for the piece came of course from Rodrigo Derteano, but also in part from a conversation with the perennially influential Jon Wasserman. “1986,” and Derteano’s original piece, were projects created for the NYU ITP Data Art class led by Jer Thorp.

Central Questions

Maybe it’s because I was on a late train out of NYC on Saturday night, carrying lots of drunk kids back to Jersey, but I had a hard time paying attention to Roger Fry’s An Essay in Aesthetics.  Let’s see if I can find the interesting parts, or at least the parts that resonated with me.

Fry’s central questions are:

  • what is art, actually?
  • is it worthwhile?
  • if it is worthwhile, why, exactly?

Warren Zevon, the great songwriter and eccentric, once said that songwriting has love for an idea at its core; specifically, that a songwriter falls in love with idea, and endeavors to capture some aspect of that idea and communicate it to the future.  Of all the definitions of art I’ve seen, it’s the one that resonates the best with me, even if it doesn’t withstand a lot of scrutiny.

I don’t buy many of Fry’s assertions: children do imitate what they see; some people find art in nature; lines on paper do not have any association with musculature for me; graphic arts are not objectively superior to written arts; and so on.  His aim appears to be noble, to understand art through the lens of graphic art, and to break it down into parts and hypothesize why those parts work in service of the whole.  But it’s all a bit too fanciful for me, unprovable hypotheses built on practically untestable assertions.

For as long as art has existed, or at least for the last century, artists have explored the notion of what constitutes art.  It has been perpetually fertile ground.  It remains difficult to draw those lines around the definition of art.  Having a guideline that resonates with you, like Zevon’s definition or Fry’s, is probably a good place to start.  But remember that it will always be a guide, never a map.

Endtimes

Endtimes

Lyrics

Spending minutes like seconds
Spending dollars like dimes
I’m tired of running
Tired of falling behind
I’m staring at the sea
I’m staring at the sun
Am I the one who is shaking
Or is it everyone?

Let it go, it’s out of your control
Where it all stops nobody knows
When I wake up every morning
Only one thing is clear:
The future’s uncertain
And the end is always near

Let the good times roll

So let the endtimes roll
Where the wheels stop nobody knows
Today, tonight, tomorrow,
The only thing that is clear
The future’s uncertain
And the end is always near
The future’s uncertain
And the end is always near
The future’s uncertain
And the end is always here

Notes

I’ve got some favorite blues lyrics. Here’s one, from Ol’ Dirty Bastard: “Baby you know I’ll take care of you / ‘Cause you say you got my baby and I know it ain’t true.” Here’s another, from Jim Morrison and The Doors: “Well I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer / The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

“Endtimes” is a song inspired by that Doors lyric, which I wanted to turn on its head a bit–the far side of revelry, instead. Other influences might include:

I wrote this song at ITP, on the “ITP Guitar,” as my first project in our “Five in Five” project marathon. This demo was recorded at The Pink Ark, my basement studio. The vocals and acoustic guitar were recorded live, the lead guitars were overdubbed. I realize that the sound and style of this hearken back to my Ninth Street Mission days.

The cover image is a shot of La Perla and Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery in San Juan, Puerto Rico, taken in 2008 while visiting Castillo San Felipe del Morro. La Perla is a rough neighborhood with a reputation for debauchery and violent drug trading. The picture has something of that race to the endtimes, maybe.

Superabound