Mediated: Expressing hard data and theory through art and information visualisation

Illustration courtesy Asvajit Boyle

Saskia Fernando Gallery in Colombo, Sri Lanka running till the 15th of September an art exhibition I was invited to curate. Titled Mediated, it’s a project that essentially seeks to create greater awareness around and engagement with aspects of post-war Sri Lanka’s ideational, constitutional, economic, social and religious challenges.

If around in the city, please go take a look (directions here). There’s also a dedicated exhibition website, but the interactive experience of engaging with the art in the gallery does not translate via the web.

As I’ve noted in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue,

Thank you for coming to, reading about and engaging with Mediated. That’s frankly the most important message I want to communicate at the outset.

The space for and seed of Mediated began with Saskia and Harshi. Without them, and their trust in the process and I, this exhibition would not exist. A thought-provoking and pleasing aesthetic, a painting that gives pause to disengagement or artistic endeavour that illumines a deeper context is to the credit of the artist. The artists in turn worked with source material from four of the most interesting minds I know, who for this exhibition and at my invitation, produced seed content that was original, innovative and if you really studied them, creatively disruptive. No mean feat.

To curate Mediated was daunting. I am far more familiar with the curation of ideas through the tens of thousands of comments I have moderated for Groundviews and the management of spaces, mostly online, that have helped individuals and institutions ideate responses to tough issues like horrible human rights violations, systemic violence post-war, religious tensions and the quality of democracy. These are not issues many feel are potent enough to merit serious engagement, or conversely, are too esoteric. Mediated is an attempt to address this deficit of a broader critical engagement by those who can afford to do so.

The exhibition pairs four subject matter experts with three artists and a professional architect. Each of the subject matter experts are widely published, but have never worked with artists or for that matter, recognised art as a medium through which to communicate their ideas. Each of the artists are well known, but have never focussed on the hard issues presented to them and in the manner they were asked to. The one architect involved had never worked before on the representation of power relations in a State through a plan drawing.

Mediated is a result of this pairing and creative collaboration. The exhibition embraces my own enduring interest in the representation of challenging ideas through visual forms, almost always more interesting than using text alone. This is increasingly called information visualisation, and it’s a growing field of expertise in its own right. The exhibition was also an experiment in pairing original thought with creative expression – making an informed guess as to which combination of individuals would result in the most thought-provoking art. Mediated is really a work in progress. What you see on display is a dashboard, the proverbial tip of an iceberg. If you choose to read into the art, and in some cases, literally read what is embedded in the art, you’ll find pathways to learn more. Even from a distance however, you really can’t escape an aesthetic deeply shaped by the content it is derived from. How, and how far you choose to engage remains a personal choice. The idea was to foster interest in vital issues, not generate greater resistance.

From conception to appreciation, the exhibition will not address those unable to see the art by virtue of, among other things, their economic standing, identity, location or learning. But it was never meant to address the masses. The subversive element to Mediated stems precisely from an aesthetic that is hopefully, to most who will frequent the gallery, pleasing. Like that famous photo from Vietnam of the naked girl child running away from napalm, an aesthetic carries its own power to question, unsettle and critique. Through the art of Mediated and its source material, I hope you are compelled to ask why, and perhaps, as George Bernard Shaw would venture to suggest, see things that never were and ask why not.

I believe the answers, and there isn’t just one, will enrich us all.

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