Critical Visualization Event at GC, CUNY on June 9, 2016

Unflattening and Enacting Visualization



A one-day workshop on critical visualization
The Graduate Center, CUNY, New York City
June 9, 2016

Update June 8: about 60 people registered for the event, everything looking fantastic. live stream will be available here (low-tech, distributed responsibility stream). Welcome!


Visualization has developed strongly over the last fifteen years. One driving force is the increased access to large (and often live) digital data sets whether it be voting demographics, blood sugar values, digitalized book collections, social media photos, eye-tracking information, movement of taxis across a map or sensor-based environmental data. It is not that sheer numbers or statistics are not useful, but visualization provides a way of “making sense” of data when we are concerned with very large and complex materials. The growth of visualization has been helped by new display technologies, the growth of geographically based information, and the emergence of new production tools and platforms for delivery. As Lauren Klein points out, visualization has a long arc, and is now in what may be called a “golden age” (Klein 2014).

The workshop Unflattening and Enacting Visualization engages with visualization critically and in terms of imagining and making visualizations with a focus on unpacking visualization practices, critiquing/imagining visualization regimes/concepts, and exploring visualizations beyond the visual (as well as what does not get visualized). Among other things, this requires taking humanistic knowledge, design, computation, experimental work, multiple modalities and the materiality of visualizations seriously. The workshop brings together designers, media scholars, philosophers, computer scientists, historians, artists, science studies scholars, visualization experts, demographers, literary scholars and digital humanists.

Everyone is very welcome to register and participate (see below for registration information). Make sure to take part in what promises to be an intense, unpredictable and meaningful conversation!

Background and Positioning of the Workshop

Visualization can be seen as a mechanism to make sense of the world through invoking large data sets, sensory technology, complex questions and a need to create actionable information. The Broad Institute Data Visualization Initiative states that “Effective visualization makes complex data clear” (ref). Visualizations are often presented in this way – as unmediated and actionable translations of data or received by their intended audiences at face value. In her study of urban dashboards (visualizations of “city data”), Shannon Mattern asks: “What ideals of “openness” and “accountability” and “participation” are represented by the sterilized quasi-transparency of the dashboard?” (ref). Visualizations can seem “flat” in several senses of the word, which also makes visualization practices and regimes an intriguing study object. There is a material and sensory flatness of a visual representation on a (single) screen device. Data structures and the output of algorithmic processes get flattened in the visual representation. Multiple possible perspectives on a phenomenon or data set often get compressed or encoded into one perspective. Some perspectives never get enacted because the data does not suggest such views. And who makes visualizations for whom? What data and data sets do not get visualized (and why)? There is a quantitative logic that suggests certain modes of engagement – e.g. comparison – but not others. Visual representations of large infrastructural or architectural projects can be flat in the sense of making other concepts impossible. And while visualizations almost inherently seem active and actionable, they are often not. Natalie Jeremijenko says that “What I’ve moved from is the idea that understanding and representing data effectively is a good thing, I now care less about that. What I really care about now is how that informs action” (ref).

Visualization can be a wonderful tool and the above observations are not meant to indicate that visualization is not useful or that we can choose not to engage with visualizations. Rather the argument is that we need to attend critically to visualization in addressing these and other issues, and that to some degree, such critical work can inform the imagining of new visualizations and visualization regimes. Moreover, visualization (in its broadest, multi-sensory, multiplex, active sense) can help us approach key intellectual challenges. In fields such as digital humanities, visualization is a central tool or methodology, but one that often flattens rather than unflattens (see Sousanis’ work for an elaborate discussion of ‘unflattening’), and one that does not question the deep assumptions that comes with network diagrams, google maps-based depictions or presentation software. What if visualization is not (only) about presenting or representing information or data, but is part of a context which is about enacting knowledge, making narratives, layering and contesting worldviews, doing “live” interpretative work and intervening in the world?

The one-day workshop “Unflattening and Enacting Visualization” brings together a number of exceptional individuals to tackle these and other questions around critical-creative visualization. Some conversations will be focused on actual visualizations and others will focus on what does not get visualized and why. The workshop seeks to take visualization, artistic and algorithmic practice seriously and acknowledges the critical sensitivity and creative power that are part of such work. It also takes seriously humanistic knowledge about visual expressions, performance, history and how categories such as race, class and gender are encoded in materials we often take for granted.

Registration and Venue

The workshop will take place at the Graduate Center, City University New York, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York City. We will use one of the best spaces available at the Graduate Center: the Skylight Room on the ninth floor (Room 9100).

There is no cost for the event, but registered participants are expected to turn up or cancel their reservation no later than a week before the event. There is limited seating. Registration has now closed.

The deadline for registration is June 3, 2016.

See below for the program. The day will start at 09:30 am and end at 5:00 pm. There will Swedish pastries offered and some arrangements for lunch will be made.

Sponsorship and Support

The workshop is sponsored by Umeå University (through Patrik Svensson’s chair and through the project Multiple Screens as Material) and by the Futures Initiative, CUNY and carried out in collaboration with GC Digital Initiatives and the Advanced Research Collaboratory at the Graduate Center, CUNY.

Curatorship and Organization

The workshop is curated by Patrik Svensson, Umeå University in close collaboration with the Futures Initiative, CUNY, and the Advisory Board. The Advisory Board consists of Lauren Klein, Shannon Mattern, Ted Byfield and Erica Robles-Anderson.

Asynchronous Perspectives

Four people (so far) invited to the event – who were not able to come in person or participate live – were asked to participate in very brief, skype interviews. The intention is to interweave material from these interviews into the event and also to make at least parts of the interviews available online after the event. The interviewees (in the order they were interviewed):

Giorgia Lupi (Information designer. Co-founder and design director at Accurat)

Barry Smith (Professor, Director of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Studies, London)

Mimi Onuoha (Brooklyn-based artist and researcher, Data & Society Research Institute Fellow, Adjunct Faculty for ITP, NYU)

Carter Emmart (Director of Astrovisualization at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History).

giorgiainterview barryskypeinterview mimiinterview carterinterview

Invited Participants (all confirmed)

This list will be updated until early June. Participants who register for the event may be asked to contribute (as invited participants).

Ben Rubin [website]
Associate Professor of Design
Director, Center for Data Arts
The New School

Benjamin M. Schmidt [website]
Assistant Professor of History
Northeastern University

Catherine D’Ignazio [website]
Assistant Professor of Data Visualization and Civic Media, Emerson College
Research Affiliate at the MIT Media Lab

Christopher Johanson [website]
Assistant Professor, Department of Classics
UC Los Angeles

Chris Weaver (Skype) [website]
Associate Professor, School of Computer Science
University of Oklahoma

Daniel Fallman [website]
Digital design strategist at Fjord/Accenture, New York City
Professor of Informatics, Umeå University, Sweden

Emily Fuhrman [website]
Graduate student in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University
Freelance data visualization designer and developer based in Brooklyn

Erica Robles-Anderson [website]
Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication
New York University

Gabby Resch [website]
PhD Candidate, Faculty of Information
University of Toronto

Johanna Drucker (Skype) [website]
Martin and Bernard Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies
UC Los Angeles

Kelli Moore [website]
Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication
New York University

Laila Shereen Sakr (VJ Um Amel) [website]
Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies
UC Santa Barbara

Lauren Klein [website]
Assistant Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication
Georgia Tech

Lisa Tagliaferri [website]
PhD Candidate in Comparative Literature
Web Developer Fellow for HASTAC@CUNY and the Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, City University New York

Mark Hansen [website]
Professor of Journalism
Director of the David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

Martha Poon [website]
Data & Society Research Institute Fellow
Visiting scholar, Department of Anthropology
The New School

Meg Studer [website]
Lecturer, Program of Landscape Architecture
Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York
Founder, Siteations Studio

Micki Kaufman [website]
Director Information Systems, MLA
Graduate student in US History, Graduate Center, CUNY

Natalie Jeremijenko (R2D2) [website]
Associate Professor of Art and Art Education
New York University

Nick Sousanis (Skype) [website]
Postdoctoral fellow
University of Calgary

Nina McCurdy [website]
Graduate Student in Computer Science: Graphics & Visualization Track
University of Utah

Nishant Shah [website]
Professor, Leuphana University

Patrick Simon [website]
Director of Research at Institut National d’Etudes Demographiques,
ARC Distinguished Visiting Fellow

Shannon Mattern [website]
Associate Professor of Media Studies
The New School

Ted Byfield [website]
Independent researcher and writer
New York City

Yanni Loukissas [website]
Assistant professor of Digital Media
Georgia Tech

Zach Horton [website]
UC Santa Barbara

Zack Lischer-Katz [website]
PhD Candidate, School of Communication & Information
Rutgers University


We hope to create excellent conditions for an informal, intense and diverse dialogue on the topic of visualization, broadly conceived, with a particular focus on the critical reading and potential of visualization technologies.

The format will be experimental with a mix of modalities, session types and ways to participate. For example, there will be a number of brief video interviews interspersed in the program.


Patrik Svensson at


The program may still change (but not a great deal)! There is ample time built in for discussion and dialogue.

09:00 Registration and coffee

09:30 Introduction
Cathy Davidson and Patrik Svensson

09:40 A Conversation about Visualization
Patrik Svensson (introduction)
Ted Byfield
Catherine D’Ignazio
Emily Fuhrman
Mark Hansen
Erica Robles-Anderson
(and everyone)

11:00 Short Break (Swedish cookies supplied)

11:10 Christopher Weaver: “Coordinating Views and Amplifying Data”

11:20 Experienced Reflections on Visualization
Lisa Tagliaferri: “Network Visualizations across Domains”
Chris Johanson: “Enacting Archaeology”
Nina McCurdy: “Making Poemage”
Ingrid Burrington and Martha Poon: “Untitled”
Ben Rubin: “Performing Data at MoMA”
Micki Kaufman: “Distance Reading Kissinger”

12:30 Lunch

1:15 Rethinking from Concept to Gallery: A Performance of #Gaza Visual Narrative by a Cyborg
Laila Shereen Sakr (VJ Um Amel)

1:45 What doesn’t get visualized, shouldn’t be visualized, should be visualized but isn’t?
Lauren Klein
Johanna Drucker
Kelli Moore
Benjamin Schmidt
Patrick Simon
Martha Poon

3:00 Break (Swedish pastries, coffee, tea)

3:30 Pair Conversations on Visualizing
Layers, Frames, Complexities
Nick Sousanis
Yanni Loukissas

Across Modalities and Scales
Meg Studer
Zach Horton

Data Physicalization and Visual Epistemologies
Gabby Resch
Zack Lischer-Katz

Daniel Fallman
Shannon Mattern

4:35 Beyond Visualization
Nishant Shah
Natalie Jeremijenko

End of Day!

References and Suggested Readings

This is work in progress. Feel free to suggest (freely available and online) additional readings or resources.

Asokarajan, Bharathi, Abbas, June, Huskey, Sam and Weaver, Chris. “Pixel-oriented Visualization for Analyzing Classical Latin Texts”. InfoVis 2015.

Bratton, Benjamin H. 2009. “Suspicious Images, Latent Interfaces (w/ Natalie Jeremijenko)”. Situated Technologies.

Byfield, Ted. 2015. “White Flight: Complexity, Optics, and Visualization as Evasion”, humanities + digital: Visual Interpretation Conference, Hyperstudio, MIT.

Dalton, Craig and Thatcher, Jim. 2014. “What does a critical data studies look like, and why do we care? Seven points for a critical approach to ‘big data’”. Society & Space.

D’Ignazio, Catherine. 2015. “What would feminist data visualization look like?”. MIT Center for Civic Media.

Drucker, Johanna. 2011. “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display”, Digital Humanities Quarterly, 2011, 5.1.

Drucker, Johanna. 2015. “Should Humanists Visualize Knowledge?”. Lecture at the Humanities Center, Lehigh University.

Drucker, Johanna and Svensson, Patrik. 2016. “The Why and How of Middleware”. Digital Humanities Quarterly. 10.2 (2016).

Dörk, Marian, Feng, Patrick, Collins,Christopher and Carpendale, Sheelagh. 2013. “Critical InfoVis: Exploring the Politics of Visualization”. alt.chi 2013: Extended Abstracts of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, pages 2189-2198, May 2013.

Horton, Zach. 2013. “Collapsing Scale: Nanotechnology and Geoengineering as Speculative Media” in Shaping EmergingTechnologies: Governance, Innovation, Discourse. IOS Press.

Horton, Zach. 2015. “Pentacon 6: The History of the Cold War in a Camera System”. Online publication/blog entry.

Klein, Lauren. 2014. “The Long Arc of Visual Display”. CUNY Graduate Center talk, April 10, 2014.

Klein, Lauren. 2014. “Visualization as Argument”. Transcription of talk at the Genres of Scholarly Knowledge Production conference, Umeå, December 2014.

Loukissas, Yanni Alexander and Mindell, David. 2014.“Visual Apollo: A Graphical Exploration of Computer-Human Relationships”. Design Issues, Volume 30, Number 2 Spring 2014.

Manovich, Lev. 2011. “Visualization Methods for Media Studies”.

Manovich, Lev. 2002. “Data Visualization as New Abstraction and Anti-Sublime”.

Mattern, Shannon. 2013. “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure: The New Wave of Urban Data Science”. Places, November 2013.

Mattern, Shannon. 2015. “Mission Control: A History of the Urban Dashboard”. Places, March 2015.

McCurdy, Nina, Lein, Julie, Coles, Katharine, and Meyer, Mirah. 2016. “Poemage: Visualizing the Sonic Topology of a Poem”. IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics (Proceedings of InfoVis 2015), pages 439-448, January 2016.

Moore, Kelli. “Visualizing Domestic Violence: A Digital Archive of Evidence Photography in Legal Observationand Popular Media”. Thinking Gender Papers, University of California.

Poon, Martha. 2007. “Scorecards as Devices for Consumer Credit: The case of Fair, Isaac & Company Incorporated”.In Market Devices. Eds. Michel Callon, Fabian Muniesa and Yuval Millo, Blackwell.

Poon, Martha. 2016. “Response to Tarleton Gillespie’s ‘The Relevance of Algorithms'”.

Robles-Anderson, Erica and Liboiron, Max. 2016. “Coupling Complexity: Ecological Cybernetics as a Resource for Nonrepresentational Moves to Action” in Sustainable Media: Critical Approaches to Media and Environment, Edited by N. Starosielski & J. Walker, Routledge, 2016.

Robles-Anderson, Erica and Svensson, Patrik. 2016. “‘One Damn Slide After Another’: PowerPoint at every Occasion for Speech”. Computational Culture. Issue 5 (2016).

Schmidt, Benjamin. 2012. “Words Alone: Dismantling Topic Models in the Humanities”. Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 2, No 1.

Shah, Nishant. 2015. “The Change Actor in the Digital Age”.

Simon, Patrick and Piché, Victor. 2011. “Accounting for ethnic and racial diversity: the challenge of enumeration”, Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 35 No. 8 August 2012 pp. 1357-1365.

Sousanis, Nick. 2015. Excerpt from Unflattening, Harvard University Press.

Stone, Maureen. 2009. “Information Visualization: Challenge for the Humanities”. CLIR Report.

Svensson, Patrik. 2015. “Presentation|Tech (III): Angled Screens”, Published on September 29, 2015.

Trotto, A. & Fallman, D. 2013. “Shaping the Absence: An Architectural Perspective for Interaction Design”, In the Proceedings of IASDR 2013, The 5th World Conference on Design Research, August 26-30, Tokyo, Japan.


Photo credit: The Futures Initiative, The Graduate Center, CUNY and Patrik Svensson. The photo shows Martha Hollander in conversation with Nina McCurdy (in/on the IPad) at the event – from the Q&A in the session “Experienced Reflections”.

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