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Artist Uses Data Visualization to Amplify 20th Century Consumer Culture  

3-DComputer science, synthetic materials, and big data. Sounds like science fiction. However, in reality, it is a novel approach to creating 3-D interactive art generated by data. While the concept of using images to understand data has been around for centuries (e.g., maps, graphs and charts), technology has greatly accelerated its use. Today, through graphic depictions that stimulate and encourage viewer engagement, data visualization is a tool used in art, computer science, animation, and digital humanities for effective communication of complex ideas.

Courtney StarrettNo one understands this better than Courtney Starrett, an assistant professor of fine and digital art in the College of Communication and the Arts. Known for her work in visual design, computer science, and statistical analysis, Starrett turns complex data sets into dazzling works of art.

Imagine a time machine that transports you back to an era where TV dinners and Betty Crocker reigned supreme. For her exhibition called “Layered Chiffon,” Professor Starrett captured the history of mid-20th century American consumer culture through data materialization. Starrett describes data materialization as the practice of taking large amounts of messy information and turning it into a compelling story. The result is an interactive, data driven art exhibit, which allows viewers the chance to explore the history of processed foods, synthetic materials, gender roles, and consumer marketing and vintage advertising of the 1940s and 50s. “My work extends beyond the novelty of using a computer for creating art pieces. It combines computer science, social issues, and technology. I feel Layered Chiffon represents a new direction for my creative practice,” said Starrett.

Translating reports and databases into a format that resonates with human beings is one of the main purposes of data visualization. And, instead of utilizing a typical spreadsheet to display data, Starrett knew there had to be a more effective way to depict the extensive information. Her solution was to use giant data sets to make 3-D artwork that is socially minded yet playful.

Green Mold

Green mold being made.

With the use of a 3-D printer, Starrett brought her exhibition to life by manufacturing custom silicone Bundt, Jell-O like molds, which participants press to activate information. Each mold was later hand-finished and cast. Sensors detect the pressure of the viewer interacting with the form and activate a video assigned to the object. Each synthetic mold has a unique video that is associated with the data input of the design. When each rubber figure is pressed, the assigned video displays a story on a large computer screen, and when the viewer touches two forms at a time, a different video opens up, allowing the user to navigate the videos creating a custom viewing experience. “I wanted to use visual forms, shapes and bright colors, instead of just listing data,” she said.

Starrett further explained that by combining sculptural art forms with storytelling through animation and film, Layered Chiffon is an example of how studio art connects with computer science and history.

final product

Final product.

Outside the studio, Professor Starrett has gained a reputation as an expert in the data visualization field. Recognized for her work as a Digital Humanities Fellow, Starrett has presented her research internationally and has exhibited her art pieces across the U.S. and throughout Europe. In the classroom, Starrett believes that 3-D design not only can be applied to any academic discipline, but it also can ignite the creativity of students. Students learn to work with and analyze complex data sets while creating compelling visual representations and interactive experiences.

Thanks to a University Research Council award, Professor Starrett will not only continue her scholarly work in the field of data visualization, but also bridge the gap between art and computer science. The stipend and research grant is one of the most longstanding and competitive sources of faculty development at Seton Hall. To be considered for awards, faculty submit research proposals that are judged by a panel of faculty experts, including senior faculty and previous award winners. This year’s honorees received 13 awards, selected from 36 submissions. Starrett’s award covers nearly four months of research, with the goal of creating new projects and supporting current exhibitions, such as Layered Chiffon. Deirdre Yates, Dean of the College of Communication and the Arts, expressed excitement for the support Professor Starrett has received, stating, “We are so grateful for this generous University funding. This grant will assist Professor Starrett not only with her professional development, but will bring innovation to the Art program as well. We are very proud of the wonderful work Professor Starrett does for our College and beyond.”

When asked what the award meant to her, Starrett smiled and said she plans to promote her findings through workshops and lectures, leading to the installation of her groundbreaking exhibition at Seton Hall.

“The interest in research involving computing, design, and visual art is steadily increasing and being used across the country. Through data visualization, I hope to connect art, humanities, and computer science.”

Categories: Arts and Culture

For more information, please contact:

  • Danielle Clements
  • (973) 275-4831
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