Picture Storytelling and movements in Data Visualisation

Monday morning is too early for such assaults of inspiration. Over muesli, I discover this fascinating article which speaks of the area which is constantly in my thoughts – the link between storytelling, language, information – and pictures. The mysterious relationship which has led me to travel across the Atlantic twice to work with artists who communicate through unusual visual storytelling forms – firstly, to the large scale visual theatre company Bread and Puppet Theatre and then, to the toy theatre revivalists, Great Small Works.

But what is this fascination really about, because it goes far deeper than a desire to make a type of theatre. I, for one, have never seen myself as a theatre maker, and find that world fairly alien. I am a person who is interested in language and communication, and how to most effectively tap into the realms of imagination and fantasy within the human psyche in order to enliven, inspire, and perhaps achieve all manner of other things of which we presently know nothing but which we may one day in the future.

So why this fascination with visual storytelling? Perhaps I could just quote data-visualiser Alex Lundry at this point:
Vision is our most dominant sense. It takes up 50% of our brain’s resources. And despite the visual nature of text, pictures are actually a superior and more efficient delivery mechanism for information. In neurology, this is called the ‘pictorial superiority effect’ […] If I present information to you orally, you’ll probably only remember about 10% 72 hours after exposure, but if I add a picture, recall soars to 65%. So we are hard-wired to find visualization more compelling than a spreadsheet, a speech of a memo.

Rather than being interested in theatre, I am interested in information and ideas – how were these things transmitted between people a very long time ago, how are they transmitted now, how is this changing, and what does this change mean. Returning to the aforementioned article on the excellent website Brain Pickings, the author discusses data visualisation – the act of translating data into pictures, graphs, diagrams, maps – a communication method which is becoming increasingly popular not only in the fields of commerce and business but also those of literature, the arts and even ecology. Take, for example, London artist Stephanie Posavec’s project Writing Without Wordsin which she translates works of literature into visual form through a range of pattern-creating processes. Below, for example, is a visual representation of part one of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, a chart-like formation mirroring the organisation of chapters, paragraphs, sentences and words, with the colours representing eleven overriding themes of the book including ‘travel’, ‘work and survival’ and ‘sketches of regional life’. ImageIt seems that we are increasingly recognising the power of the picture. Not just in art galleries, not on walls, not in fairytale illustrations, but at the heart of the way that we communicate information to each other.

But it’s when you look back through history that it gets really interesting. In the 13th Century, for example, the following figure was painted representing the main characters and institutions of the Christian salvation history, via the common symbology of the tree:

ImageThe Tree of the Two Advents, Joaquim of Fiore, 1202

And a delving into medieval alchemical etchings reveals a world of arcane theology beliefs represented through mysterious visual maps:


Are we perhaps coming full circle? Are we returning to a visual age? Anyone who uses Facebook will see clearly that the predominant method of idea communication, of late, is through photographs (often with crass, inaccurate and hugely biased verbal captions, it should be added). Pictures have power. If, according to Alex Lundry, information absorbtion increases by 55% when accompanied by a visual component, the implication is that our education system could be radically overhauled, shifting from a verbally-based to a pictorally-based one. The greater implication is that the written word might one day renounce its throne in our culture, stepping down to share responsibilities with the languge of the visual. In the meantime, I’ll head down to the studio and carry on making strange little picture storytelling contraptions involving cranks and recycled duvet covers and coffee stirrers.


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