Running the Numbers – Austin Museum of Art

“Running the Numbers” is an exhibit that opened this weekend at the Austin Museum of Art, of Seattle-based artist Chris Jordan who produces artistic visualizations of the data of American consumption and waste. All of his works reproduce or reflect canonical works from art history or use a variety of familiar aesthetic techniques, to produce arresting pieces of beauty. However, this was a sobering and uncomfortable viewing, revolving strangely less upon the physical works themselves, the blown-up photographs and digital mosaics, than upon his visualization techniques, political conceptualization and in particular, the grim data presented.

The piece “Ben Franklin” (2007), a digital mosaic composed of small hundred dollar bills totaling 125, 000 (representing $12.5 million) created the pixilated image of Benjamin Franklin. The work was a visualization of the amount of money spent on the war in Iraq every hour from 2003 to 2008. It was a very large image (as were many of the political and environmentally oriented artworks) and in front of the piece sat a bench. Contextually what struck me the most about these works was the behavior that they inspired in the viewers. This was the first art exhibit that I attended with the audience spending more time reading the signage than gazing upon the pieces themselves. There was almost a sense of shame and nervous sobriety as the crowd milled about, glancing in furtive awe at the works. At the same time however, the atmosphere grew to resemble a quiet town hall, as viewers found themselves sitting on benches in from of these pieces and opening up into thought provoked discussions. These conversations were not so much about the artist, or even his aesthetic execution or material, but about the concepts that he was trying to drive home. Two individuals sat in front of the “Ben Franklin” work sharing an intimate discussion of the war, with personal experiences and regrets . I had to walk gingerly around them to gain a look at the artwork’s signage, their presence providing almost a layer of community performance art, protected by the meditative, free speech zone of the provided bench.

The ownership of the object in question was not clearly stated, but the exhibition was organized and distributed by the Museum of Art at Washing State University. As the piece was a digital photograph blown up to dramatic scale, the object’s condition was not in considerable danger by being exhibited as a digital master copy resided elsewhere. There was a difference in the information about each object between the signage, consisting predominantly of data, and the brochure describing the pieces’ artistic contributions: their composition, visual techniques, and which famous pieces they were nods to. A third informative layer was exemplified by the cell phone audio guide, which was found next to environmental pieces and provided information on how to keep Austin green and beautiful or asked what the role of artists in a green world was. These three forms did not contest each other, but each served different purposes: describing standard fields of information, providing historical and subjective assessments and offering relevant tie-ins with the audience and meaningful community opportunities.

As for any noticeable bias, the political views expressed by the artist were consistently backed up by the accompanying literature, promotional materials and audio guides. This is not entirely surprising, as the artist is alive and was engaged in the exhibition of his ideas. There were no critical or alternative views presented, no refuting of his statistics or techniques by the museum or curators. While greater detail on the source of the data would be appreciated, counter-arguments might be unnecessary as his critiques of American waste, consumerism and military spending are already generally debated and suppressed through the influence of corporate interests upon the media and public policy. The exhibit contained no comment on this political context and gave little depth or explanation as to “how we got here” other than providing benches in front of these large-scale, stunning works of terrible beauty.