Blog Post

Deep Visualization: The (Slightly Longer and Scholarly) Cocktail Pitch*

Hello HASTAC! 

HATSAC.  The art historian in me imagines this.  A bad pun, I know, but I make it to make a point.  Monet's "Haystacks" series is enough to excite any art historian.  The paintings are classically Impressionist and are representative of all the vitality and innovation that marked the Impressionist's approach as outside existing boundaries.

The point?  For the digital media and visualization scholar in me, the work and discussion coming out of HASTAC are equally exciting, equally innovative and equally about opening boundaries.  Of course, the analogy isn't 1:1, but one I thought worth sharing nonetheless.

Needless to say, I am excited about joining and contributing to the HASTAC community.  And since it is just that -- a community -- I want to use the the rest of this blog ramble to briefly introduce myself and my interests.

So, Hello.  I am Tara Zepel and I am a 5th year PhD candidate in Art History & New Media at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD).  I always feel a bit deceptive saying this because what I do is really more of a design-orientated art now or future.  You see, I do data visualization.   But instead of solely thinking about it from a functional or tool-based perspective, I think about it in terms of its social, cultural and aesthetic potential.   Over the last five or so years, a handful of scholars and researchers have called for the need to consider these aspects of data visualization, but few have taken this insistence beyond a project-based example or article-length exploration.   

My dissertation project, tentatively titled Deep Visualization, aims to do just this -- dig deeply into the layered functions of data representation.  Specifically, it offer an in-depth analysis of current visualization projects to show how they can function not only as tools of insight, but also as interfaces that design our everyday interactions with data. 

Apart from my dissertation life, I am passionate about collaborative learning and teaching writing to undergraduates.  I think am drawn to the technology and the sciences, partially because I have a very open definition of artistic media, but also because I find I am always more invigorated and productive in my scholarship when I exchange ideas with other people.  As for the teaching writing, I work for the Culture Art and Technology program at UCSD and try to bring a bit of this collaborative energy to the classroom.  Writing is, after all, about exchanging ideas and communication.

I believe I may have exceeded my "slightly longer" pitch length, so I will say goodnight with this.  I am very much looking forward to getting to know more of you and continuing to build our community.

- Tara


* I'm referencing Ian Bogost's "Cocktail Party Test"  blogpost  here.  I am sure many of you have read it, but if you haven't, it's worth a look.



Hi Tara -- I came to the conference you organized a few years back at UCSD, and it's wonderful to see where your research has been going since then! I came on this by scanning around for people working with visual arts, especially as I try to think about HASTAC over the coming year.

The way you describe your research sounds really interesting. I have to admit, though, that my interest in digital media is much more in the social and cultural repercussions than in a precise tech knowledge, so I'm having some trouble imagining precisely what data visualization (and its aesthetic potential) might mean. I would love to see more about this!



Hi Holiday,

Nice to cross paths again!  The way I'm using the term "aesthetic" here is in a very contemporary and broad sense, quite similar ot what Anthony Dunne has called an "aesthetics of use" (Hertzian Tales, 1999).  This is an aesthetics that focuses less on how a designed object looks and more on how it behaves or makes us behave if often very social, political, and poetic ways.  So, the short answer is, that by using the term aesthetic potential,  I am also interested in the cultural and social implications (more along the lines of potential than repercussions) of data vizualization.  I'm especially interested in this at a time when data vizualization is acknowledged as including the social and the aesthetic, and is no longer for the experts but also "for the people" (Danziger, 2008).

To give you a visual, here's an example of a recent visualization put out by the NYTimes that I think really embodies a lot of what my research is trying to get at.  It really pushes the limits of what we think visualization does and can do.


One Race, Every Medalist Ever (Queally and Roberts, 2012)


Hopefully, this gives a bit more clarification.  I'm still working on the cocktail pitch though, so really appreciate the feedback.  I'd love to hear more about what you're up to.  Is it still Morocco?  Let's touch base via email soon.






Hi Tara, 

Your dissertation project on Deep Visualization is very fascinating, especially what you mention about looking at our interaction with data shaped by particular interfaces. I have been working on how abstraction and modularity came into the history of the evolvement of database management systems, the semantic quirks around it and their cultural ramifications. And I cannot agree more with you that at different levels/layers of interfaces, the visualization of data changes and so one must dig into them - hence, deep visualization matters a lot. Your dissertation, from what i understand, is of course much broader spanning across a number of different data representations - some of them around making Big Data comprehensible or manageable  i suppose -- all this speculation to suggest that i am curious. Would be wonderful to know more about your project. Are you looking across a number of data visualization projects, and comparing and contrasting them?

-- rahul    



Hi Rahul,

I am looking at several case examples, but also trying to look more broadly and theoratically at the current state of visualizaiton practices as a whole.  Many of these more theoretical points certainly have a lot in common with database environments.  I'd love to hear more about your interest in "database management systems as interfaces." 

And since you're at UCSB, you should definitely talk to a friend of mine, Jeremy Douglass.  We worked in the same lab here at UCSD when he was a post-doc and now he's a professor up your way.