Charts and tables are well and good, but the Chicago-based playwright Stuart Flack is curious about how to present numbers with a different set of tools: magic tricks, comedy sketches and juggling.
In a course that he taught as the UW Division of the Arts’ Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence this fall, Flack and a group of graduate students from across disciplines explored the intersection of data visualization and performance. A showcase of their experimental works, called “Data Vaudevilles,” is slated for 2 p.m. on Saturday in the H.F. DeLuca Forum in the Discovery Building, 330 N. Orchard St.
The seven students in the show will perform sketches or vignettes, each about five minutes or so in length, about topics ranging from income disparities in Chicago to eating disorders. One performance will involve the use of magic tricks to visualize data about Fortune 500 companies. Another will use LEGOs and stuffed animals to visualize data on migrant children that cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The use of stuffed animals to represent children … it makes those numbers memorable. And it makes them stick with you,” said Flack.
That gets to the heart of Flack’s mission with this fall’s residency: He wants people to rethink how to experience data. Flack believes it’s time to move beyond the Powerpoint — a tool he describes as “horrible and really, really boring, and a huge disservice to the importance of the data.”
“The idea is to make pieces that give us a way to feel the quantity,” said Flack. “They deliver it to us in a way that is memorable, and stays with us.”
The vaudeville theme was a natural fit for the show, said Flack, both because of the variety and brevity of performances, and also because of vaudeville’s informal nature. Flack said he wanted his students to have room to play with their performances.
“(Vaudeville) is very good at capturing a rough and ready kind of performance, instead of a formal kind of performance. This is an imaginative way of performing,” he said.
He also said that vaudevillian styles of street performance also make serious topics like immigration and public health more accessible.
“We use traditions that use levity, or a kind of ability to not scare us, that let us in,” he said.
Flack’s course, “Performing Information: Exploring Data through Live Performance,” featured a group of graduate students from disciplines ranging from music to public affairs engaging with data presentation. Flack said that the course involved lessons in a wide variety of street performance styles, including clowning, and examinations of topics from the anthropological history of data to the role of data in social discourse.
The group also looked to other examples of artists working to represent data through performance. A prominent one Flack points to is called “Of All the People in All the World,” an art project by the British production company Stan’s Cafe. The project involves performers representing the demographics and traits of various populations with piles of uncooked rice.
“Once you understand the vocabulary it’s using, the rice speaks to you,” said Flack. “That’s just an evocative, elegant thing.”
A major through line of the course was a sense of play and exploration in how to convey data through physicality, said Flack. That experimentation wasn't just for students, either: Flack said the course was a learning experience for him that will inform the various work he does in Chicago spanning policy, entrepreneurship and the arts.
For example, he said that after confirming his long-held hunch that physical objects are great vehicles for conveying statistics, he’ll be incorporating LEGOs into community presentations he does on air quality.
Flack said that Saturday’s performance may be fixated on stats, but is for a general audience.
“It will be something that kids will enjoy. It will be something that scientists will enjoy,” he said.