Vanessa Van Obberghen: Emotional data

Awash in data, how do we remember the meaning and the feeling behind the information


In the Anthropocene, within which our “information society” is nestled, information visualization is seen as key to cracking the code with the problem of Big Data. The issue, we are told, is that there are too many likes, too many advertisement clicks, too many searches, too many flu viruses, in the end, too many ones and zeros—and not enough creative ways to utilize the information, be it for altruistic or nefarious reasons. Artists have been working with data visualization since, one could argue, inhabiting the Lascaux Caves, and certainly since the Conceptual turn of the 1970s.

In 2015, here in Portland, Oregon upon the floor and walls of the modestly sized and substantially relevant Worksound International, we can view an exhibition of works by Vanessa Van Obberghen that leap from the sterile information aesthetic to entangle data with the ever subjective emotions of humans.

Van Obberghen’s exhibition is titled idealSTATE and consists of four low-contrast black and white photographs printed on aluminum, three 3D images displayed on digital tablets, and several graph-like sculptures slightly elevated from the floor. The works are not individually titled and rely on one and other to fully deliver their impact. The elements are so discrete they require close inspection to pass the eerie allure of the image’s surface and design to reach the scope of what’s on display.

From Vanessa Van Obberghen's "idealSTATE" at Worksound International.

From Vanessa Van Obberghen’s “idealSTATE” at Worksound International/Photo: Ashley Gifford.

The works that catch the eye first are the 3D images. Here, high contrast, black and white images of small white figures emerge from a gray ocean on a gray horizon. The three figures are small antique ivory sculptures that Van Obberghen has photographed. They date to the era of the Belgian Congo and contain a high level of detail upon the woven braids of African woman’s hair. Here the artist isolates them within a digital world, devoid of any other data than themselves.

The floor works of data visualization are key to clearing the fog of this maze of an exhibition. The bases of these works are a gridded drafting film that has been fixed to black and white poster boards, upon which black, white, yellow, and red map pins have been used to lay out various statistics or schemes dealing with racial diversity. At times what is being shared is clear, such as one that is labeled, “core cities of Africa-American population %.” Cities such as Austin, Denver, and Portland, which are below the national average, are illustrated with white pins, while cities above— Cleveland, Indianapolis, Kansas City—are represented by black pins. Other pieces have no text to explain their context, but with the pin color to race or relationship laid out—yellow=Asian, red=Hispanic—we can read these graphs as showing the deep self-segregation that happens within our “information society” and its desire to partition knowledge.

From Vanessa Van Obberghen's "idealSTATE" at Worksound International.

From Vanessa Van Obberghen’s “idealSTATE” at Worksound International/Photo: Ashley Gifford.

Van Obberghen’s graphs do not sit neatly within the media theorist Lev Manovich’s definition of data visualization, which he terms “anti-sublime” in opposition to Romantic artists working to share the grand, the dynamic, the heavenly. For Manovich data visualization artists are working to bring the data down to Earth, to make manageable the issues of Big Data. Van Obberghen aims to share the malevolent side of data, its easily manipulative character, an unreliable, un-representable frenemy whose intentions are never clear and subject to outside influence.

Van Obberghen is a multimedia artist born in Seoul and currently based in Antwerp. Much of her past work has been deeply influenced by her years of traveling and living in Dakar, Senegal. As such she has created installations and curated exhibitions examining transcultural exchange and has a long standing project digging into the ideas and legacy of the Afrocentric anthropologist, physicist, and politician Cheikh Anta Diop.

Photography is always a key presence in Van Obberghen’s work and idealSTATE is no exception. If the graphs are the informational key to unlocking the issues of racism within the exhibition, then the black and white images on the walls provide the show’s emotional vitality.

From Vanessa Van Obberghen's "idealSTATE" at Worksound International.

From Vanessa Van Obberghen’s “idealSTATE” at Worksound International/Photo: Ashley Gifford.

The four intensely gray toned photographs show no human body, but human presence is felt within the built environments they present, with the viewer’s face and clothing color tinting the matte silvery surface of the aluminum upon which the photos are printed. To really examine the images, viewers must move their bodies so the light can shift over the work, revealing more details.

Side by side are two images of living plants—one of palm trees just off of a manicured lawn and the other a huge grouping of potted ferns and trees within an indoor space. The exotic palms and commonplace ferns have been both been domesticated, and it’s unclear if any freedom remains for these plants, which are simply decor in a design.

From opposite sides of the room, two other images resonate back and forth. One photograph taken in some sort of science exhibit shows two mushrooms, one labeled “poisonous,” the other, “deadly.” On the other side of the gallery, an image of a huge Japanese flag is suspended from an octagonal light in the ceiling of a domed room. The red is stripped away but the sun symbol represented in that now-gray circle is clear. The history between Japan and Korea is mired in racism and revisionist history that continues to this day. As recently as 2005 a UN report on racism and xenophobia noted the intense racism in Japan and the government’s willful disregard of the problem, an all too deadly and poisonous situation.

Van Obberghen’s idealSTATE is a timely exhibition, landing amidst a Presidential campaign which always includes overstated facts and figures pulled from the glut of data policy wonks wonk from. New to this years campaign trail are the #blacklivesmatter and #dontshoot activist and organizers who have been turning out to campaign events to ensure that issues of racial and economic privilege are a part of the national dialog this Presidential cycle. Like the data visualization of “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” flag that flew outside of the NAACP offices in the 1930’s, these activist and to a more sublet degree Van Obberghen’s exhibition, are armed with a horrific data set that when utilized in an emotionally political visual tactic can yield a higher form of information aesthetics. For Van Obberghen this is not only an issue of the United States, but by drawing in data points regarding racial diversity in US cities and pairing that with trinkets of the Belgian Congo and the Japanese flag, she points to the global issues of racial supremacy the world over.

Vanessa Van Obberghen’s idealSTATE is on view at Worksound International, 820 SE Alder in Portland, through November 21. Hours are 4-7 pm Fridays and 2-6 pm Saturdays.

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