“Time passes”: temporality made material.

In the last decade, important articles by Lev Manovich (2010) and Johanna Drucker (2011), among others, have called attention to the constructed parameters of visualizations of information, including the tendency to reduce and spatialize data detrimentally (Manovich) and to accept the implicit arguments of a data document uncritically (Drucker), without recognizing the assumptions or biases brought to the image by makers and viewers alike. A closer examination of a particular data document, discussed by Giuliano and Heitman in their 2019 “Difficult Heritage and the Complexities of Indigenous Data,” allows a further consideration of what questions might be asked of visualisation in the current moment and how visualisation might be held even more accountable for its effects.

Giuliano and Heitman point out that an important “buffalo hide document” in the Smithsonian known as  “Lone Dog’s Winter Count (Yanktonais Nakota)” and dated 1870 would be better labeled “Yanktonai (Ihanktonwana/Hunkpatina) Band of the Great Sioux Nation, . . .  Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Compiled by Shunka Ishnala (Lone Dog),” and dated 1800-1871. Among the other corrected understandings of what and how the document represents information, they demonstrate that the work is not, as colonial-centric cataloguing has assumed, “a singular data; rather it is a plurality of data points that the Museum elected to present as a singular artifact” (11), collected not by a single author but by communal action and participation over time. While the article does not emphasize this aspect of the piece, Winter Counts still function in certain communities as mean of representing temporality and thus constitute an active practice of data visualisation that might importantly be considered in present discussions of how to plot data over time.1

The example raises questions for Manovich’s and Drucker’s discussions, in particular.  In its concentration of broad temporal periods into single data points displayed in a spiral, does the Yanktonai document participate in Manovich’s definition of “infovis,” as based on “two key principles . . . data reduction and privileging of spatial variables . . .  [that] give infovis its unique identity – the identity which remained remarkably consistent for almost 300 years” but that began to give way to newer methods in the 1990s? Manovich (almost?) exclusively uses European and Anglo-American examples to make his claims.  What would the inclusion of this document do for his historical argument or to his suggestion of a somatic predisposition to the “mapping of most important data dimensions into spatial variables” which infovis now might profitably leave behind?

In turn, Drucker asks the reader to reimagine their understanding of temporality and the concomitant mapping of time in data visualization as a direct result of what she understands to be the basic principles of humanities: “first, that the humanities are committed to the concept of knowledge as interpretation, and, second, that the apprehension of the phenomena of the physical, social, cultural world is through constructed and constitutive acts.”  While she doesn’t explicitly ground her discussion of temporal understanding in European metaphysical and phenomenological philosophies of time, her examples strikingly invoke Western genre and psychological terms (the novel, the individual, the biological family unit), even as she seeks to complicate traditional methods of temporal thinking and plotting.  The Yanktonai document suggests that temporality can be marked equally productively, not by including “subjective information” from individual time experiences in its graphical rendering, but as the potential representations of cultural differences or contact zones housed within a document.   Giuliano and Heitman explicate the particular means and purpose of temporal data mapping in the Yanktonai example, but elide its representation of how time passing is understood in relation to their focus on the document’s correspondence with Common Era (Christian) calendar years.2 What does the choice of spiral tell us about understandings of temporality in the Yanktonai communities of that era?  Is this a composite graphic representation or production of multiple intersecting cultural ideologies of time, much as the authors show the Curtis prints of the Piikani Nation of the Blackfoot Confederacy to be?

Finally, does the material or “ground” of data visualization matter and, if so, how? 3 Certainly the choice of buffalo hide for the plotting field of the document is culturally significant, but does it also dictate something about how this data is specifically mapped and why it takes this form?  Notably, the spiral begins on the axis created by the buffalo’s spine visible on the skin.  Is this a deliberate choice of a horizontal axis for the anchoring of the spiral, a recognition of the buffalo’s own movement through space and time as a standing, grazing, running—living—being that thus embodies time passing itself in its positioning? If not, what does this mean for the possibilities of simultaneous mapping on multiple axes as a different, richer form of employing spacial variables than is recognized by Manovich in his championing of emergent forms of visualization (i.e. direct representation) over what he suggests should be now seen as residual historical conventions? Once one acknowledges Guiliano’s and Heitman’s fundamental point that the Yanktonai document marks “a plurality of data points” and that such a data representation functions as a current example of data visualisation, one can begin to explore how such documents also challenge the inherent notions that both the Manovich and Drucker articles dismantle, and furthermore reveal ones they continue to deploy.

1.Burke, C. E. (2007a). Waniyetu wo´wapi: An introduction to the Lakota winter count tradition.In C. S. Greene & R. Thornton (Eds.), The year the stars fell: Lakota winter counts at the Smithsonian (pp. 1–11). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.]

2. Jenny Tone-Pah-Hote (2004, http://www.ipevolunteers.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Lakota-Winter-Count-Additional-Information.pdf) describes the episode of time depicted as the time from first snowfall to first snowfall, citing James Howard, “Yanktonai Ethnohistory and the John K. Bear Winter Count,” Plains Anthropologist 21 no. 73 pt. 2, (1976), 2.]

3. For another example of making meaning out of the material ground on which data points are placed, see Jeannie Wilkening@jvwilkening “When 6 months of being stuck at home and delays on my actual hydrology projects turn into a craft project – finally finished knitting 125 years of California precipitation data into a blanket!” https://twitter.com/jvwilkening/status/1307735629497729029]

Articles cited:

Johanna Drucker, “Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display,” Digital Humanities Quarterly. 2011.5.1

Jennifer Guiliano and Carolyn Heitman, “Difficult Heritage and the Complexities of Indigenous Data,” Journal of Cultural Analytics. August 13, 2019.

Lev Manovich, “What is Visualisation?” (2010) http://manovich.net/content/04-projects/064-what-is-visualization/61_article_2010.pdf