At Paul Robeson Galleries Exhibit, Data Serves as Inspiration for Art

By Madeline Orton
Arts Correspondent

The instantly recognizable is not what it appears, and the seemingly abstract becomes the familiar, as artists call attention to the way representation of data shapes its meaning. It’s one of the latest exhibitions at Rutgers Newark’s Paul Robeson Galleries, called Datascapes.

“The artists in this exhibition have taken the idea that all data can be translated into different formats and it does represent somebody’s ideas or the ideas of a particular entity,” says Director and Curator of the Paul Robeson Galleries Anonda Bell. “There’s no such thing as neutral data.”

“What you see in this show is, how artists are taking this information and putting it back out there with their own kind of bias or framing onto it,” explains artist Dahlia Elsayed.

The show includes maps, a timeline, flow charts, floor plans, and more abstract forms of data representation.

“You think you know what a map is, and you think the information you’re being presented on a map is standard information without bias or without any kind of political agenda, and, as we know, that’s not the case,” says Bell.

“Some of them are very obvious,” she says of the various kinds of data representations on display. “You know a map. And then there are other types of data, such as the work by Manuel Acevedo where he’s taken data, and then he’s translated it so many times through his own filters and processing that it becomes something that reads as an abstraction. So there are many different ways that data can be processed.”

With more representational works, riffing on iconic forms of data representation also allows artists to give new meaning to visuals that viewers are already familiar with.

“I have people all the time look at my work and say, ‘I know exactly where that is,’” says Elsayed, “And all of it is imaginary. So that’s really interesting, too, to think about how suggestive visual form can be when it’s in a map-like setting. People automatically have a connection to it.”

It’s that connection to information visualization, and the trust that goes with it, that Elsayed and her fellow artists in the exhibition aim to challenge.

“I think that there’s as many ways to represent the information as there are artists and their own styles,” Elsayed says.

Bell hopes the exhibit inspires as well as educates, pointing out that data, newspaper articles, and maps are great starting points for anyone looking to create their own works of art.