Spring 2022, CMAC/ISS/VMS 290-S

Author: Isabella Wang

Final Project: A Home Away from Home

As a junior, about to become a senior, I’ve been reflecting upon my years at Duke and the impact I will have left on campus by the time I graduate, no matter how big or how small it is. One key reason I took this class was so I could find new ways to express myself artistically since most of my classes have been in the science and engineering fields, which value accuracy and formulas and calculations over the freedom of expression and the formulation of opinions. I realized that there was a common thread behind the things that I chose to involve myself in. I always sought out opportunities to experience new cultures and cultivate a better international student life experience on campus. After my first presentation on Nam June Paik’s Electronic Superhighway, I started considering using a map as a medium to convey my message regarding Duke’s global community and the history of international students on campus, and step by step I developed what has now become my final project.

One of my favourite works from this semester is still our first reading, “The Medium is the Message” by Marshall McLuhan. I think it was a great introduction into the class, and I really liked his point about a medium being an “extension of ourselves”, a way to help us convey an idea by using materials (whether physical or virtual) to help us broaden the scope of our association with the concept. I am a super hands-on learner, and I think there is great value in using physical models or technology when trying to explain a concept. The use of physical definitely something that I wanted to further explore in my final project. Another topic that we explored that really spoke to me was our module on critical making and new media art, particularly the “Electronic Civil Disobedience” reading by the Critical Art Ensemble, and the “Wage Islands” artwork by Ekene Ijeoma that we discussed during the module. I liked the comparison of traditional civil disobedience and electronic civil disobedience that the reading makes. From my understanding, traditional civil disobedience involves people who are all very politically inclined. Electronic civil disobedience, however, may involve an audience or consumers (for example, NFTs) that are not necessarily looking to be involved politically. I enjoyed thinking about how everyday people can use their own means to critique the world around them and have the freedom to formulate their own opinions, without the pressure of being affiliated with a political group, although that may be difficult at times nowadays. In all of the artist works we looked into, I especially liked the “Wage Islands” piece because it was so simple yet effective. By using a physical model, it was extremely easy to draw a comparison from apartment space to cost, so easy that I can still remember the main message behind the piece even though we discussed it months ago. I also really liked Ekene Ijeoma’s use of the liquid to both hide and reveal, I thought it was very elegantly clever. For my final project, I was inspired to think more deeply about what I wanted to critique in my own surroundings and be as specific as possible.

For my final project, I initially wanted to do a large-scale statistical analysis on the history of international students at Duke. I wanted to collect data on the number of undergraduate international students at Duke on a holistic level and analyze how it has changed over time. I also wanted to break it down and look at the data for each continent, because I had heard from my coworkers at International House that Duke has been struggling with recruiting students from Africa recently and I was curious about the data from other locations. This was all data I could gather from looking at statistics from Duke Visa Services, which publishes information on the number of international students at Duke from every country around the world every year. However, as I got further into my project, I realized that a mere data analysis would not really satisfy the message I wanted to convey with the project. I wanted to critique how the treatment of international students has changed over the years. Therefore, I started to draw upon resources at Duke Archives and I reached out to a few of the librarians.

Ms. Amy McDonald provided me a few sources, which I used for my video pieces. I wanted the video information to be concise but also interesting and use a “show-not-tell” perspective, displaying not just a summary of the timeline of international student involvement at Duke, but including anecdotes and examples to get my point across. I decided to make a physical map to add user interaction into my project and to help solidify the message by allowing the user to scroll through the clips and choose which ones they would like to view first. I also really wanted to learn how to connect the Arduino to Max/MSP because I’ve used the Arduino many times for class projects in my biomedical engineering courses, and the idea of using it in a different context was very appealing. In order to honor my initial idea behind the project, I decided to still include a smaller data section, which shows the changes in the total undergraduate international students enrolled from 1999 to 2020.

My intended audience is the general Duke population, but particularly those who are either unfamiliar with the international student population or curious about how identities they consider themselves us fit into the Duke community. For example, having grown up in a Chinese household, it was very enlightening to learn about the first Asian students at Duke, and it made me feel more at home here knowing that many that have come before me and Duke has made an impact on the education of thousands of Asian students in the past. Although the road was not smooth, it is very inspiring to see the progress we have made in recognizing Asian identities around campus and advocating for the voices of Asian students. I hope that every Duke student that views my work may take away from it that everyone has had a unique path to Duke, and everyone will go their separate ways after they graduate. It is important to understand that the assumptions we draw about people may not define them, the place people come from does not dictate their values, and the concept of home is not always simple. However, many “foreigners” or “aliens” have come to Duke and made a home here nonetheless. I believe that everyone deserves to build a community here and make Duke a home away from home, and everyone plays a part in that. The way the institution views the value of international students has changed in the past few decades, and the amount of support they lend to departments like International House has also changed. These things have monumental effects on how the rest of the Duke population perceives international students, and I do believe that more education and transparency on the history of international students will allow the general Duke population to be more open-minded to befriending and learning from people of various cultures.

I think my project explores critical making by delivering my message through various mediums: electronic circuitry, laser cutting on wood, and Max/MSP virtual software. As we have discussed in class, a medium itself can convey a lot about what the creator is trying to imply. In my piece, my physical representation of the map represents the scope of the data and provides a more memorable design and structure to the project. The project also critiques an aspect of the social life at Duke through an artistic lens and allows me to extend my ability to share with others my own interpretation of the data and history, which we have defined as being a crucial part of critical making and the thought process that goes behind coming up with a project idea. I also think it conveys a critique through the physical realization of an artwork and has helped me think more critically about the topic as well as the artist, which we’ve discussed as being a part of the process of critical making. I do not think that my project offers a very new lens about critical making and what it can do, but it has given me a very new perspective on visual arts. I always thought that my interest in engineering prevents me from dedicating a lot of time towards creativity and art, but I think this project and the concept of critical making has changed my mind. I can see how my experience in Arduino and circuitry and laser cutting has been able to contribute towards expressing my message in a way that I have never associated with art before.

Please see this link for images and videos from my final project process, along with my final Max patch!

Please see this link for my final project presentation slides.

Art Presentation: ECHOES by EPOCH x LACMA

Click here to enter the exhibition.

Click here to view the list of artist works in ECHOES and read their descriptions.

Click here to read how artist Peter Wu+ discusses the genesis of EPOCH, how he collaborates with artists to digitize and display their work, and his approach to NFTs.

Click here to read the introduction to the exhibition from LACMA Art & Technology Lab’s Program Director, Joel Ferree.

Isabella Wang Midterm

Timestamp: 53 minutes and 20 seconds!

Thanks all for taking the time to watch + your feedback 🙂



Feedback for Noelle and Molly have been left on their midterm posts.

My feedback for Pierre (sorry I couldn’t find the midterm post):

Hi Pierre!

Wow! It is really cool to see that a big portion of your project is already functional! Congrats 🙂 It was really satisfying watching the little ball bump into one another and eventually fall, and I agree with Quran that your project idea is really interesting and has a lot of great potential. I especially liked how you are taking a critique of NFT’s that is very abstract and representing it in a way that is very physical and visually-striking and gets your message across well.

While you were talking about your piece, I could think of two suggestions:

  1. Since you already have a Max patch working, you could consider adding a little bit of audio to your piece, in some way that connects to how the balls are falling so you can take advantage of the setup you already have in Max. I was envisioning perhaps a small boink or noise whenever a ball moves for the first time (is knocked into), and maybe you can have it get increasingly louder as we approach the point where every ball has been affected by one ball moving. This is just one idea, the audio could be implemented however you think best represents your message!
  2. If wrapping an NFT around each ball is too difficult, you could have the balls be different colors and once every ball has been shifted from its initial position, the bottom of the box could transform/melt into a giant picture of one NFT to emphasize the fact that a lot of NFT’s are essentially the same image.

Great project overall, I’m excited to see the final product!!


Data Visualization as Critical Making


Examples of Data Visualization, made with Canva

Visuals like these have become a part of our everyday lives. If you clicked into the most recent COVID-19 article, chances are it will have some sort of data visualization of the number of people sick, how that compares to the past month, and what percentage have already been vaccinated.

Due to the rise of big data and improvements in computational power, graphs and charts like these are no longer time-consuming to produce, because we can have machines perform most of the tedious tasks for us. Therefore, they have become the new standard. Just like “pics or it didn’t happen”, if you want to tell someone that something is true or if you want someone to understand how important an issue is, you should have the numbers to back it up. As a society, we have been trained by graphs and charts to develop trust in numbers and statistics and understand the severity of something by how it compares to a reference point. For example, when the NOAA and NASA report annual global temperatures, they focus not on the temperature itself but on how they compare to the 20th-century average.

However, the way that numbers are presented can be more nuanced than we realize. If somebody told you that back in 1991, 215 out of every 100,000 cancer patients passed away, but in 2019, 146 out of every 100,000 cancer patients passed away, would you have a good feel for what that means? What if they told you that the overall cancer death rate has dropped by about a third from 1991 to 2019? Or, if they added that this means we have averted about 3.5 million deaths due to cancer during that time period? Immediately, you have a much better understanding of the significant progress cancer research has made.

Here is another example, this time from the CDC:

Source: “When Data Visualization Really Isn’t Useful (and When It Is)” by Christopher Berry, May 11, 2021 on Old Street Solutions

At first glance, it seems to make sense. The states in darker colors are the states that have the most reported cases of COVID-19. Instinctively, we understand that the darker a color is, the higher the number it represents. However, if you look closely, the coloring is all out of order. States that have no reported cases are in a darker shade than states that have 1 to 100 cases. States that have the most cases (10,001 or more) are in a light yellow. It is also very difficult to distinguish states that have no cases and states that have 101 to 1,000 cases, because they are in a similar shade of orange. This is a good example of how data can be 100% accurate, but still lead the audience to the wrong conclusion because of a simple mismatch of colors.

I think data visualizations are examples of critical making and new media because they harness technology to extend our ability to share with others our own interpretations of data. They transform numbers into something that humans can interact with. Without visualization and interpretation, data is unintelligible and therefore meaningless. However, like in the example above, we must think critically about how best to present the information to an audience that wants to glean the most out of a visual from just a quick glance. Misleading information that produces the wrong conclusion is worse than no information. Also, not every correlation is meaningful, and not everything that data proves is logical. For example, hot weather may increase ice cream sales and the risk of sunburn, which statistically correlates ice cream sales to the risk of sunburn, but we realize that this cannot be logistically true.

Source: Data Viz Project

With the growth of big data and artificial intelligence, we will only have increasingly more data points to tamper with. Data visualizations encourage us to rethink what critical making means in 2022, because the message is entirely within the medium. Traditional bar graphs and pie charts are suitable for very specific data interpretations, allowing us to see simple trends and percentages. Less conventional data visualization methods have gained popularity in the last few years, due to their ability to convey meaning in ways that traditional statistical charts can no longer compete with. Alluvial diagrams represent changes in the composition of something over time. Hive plots highlight how well something can satisfy a set of criteria. Radial histograms make it easy to display more data bars without overwhelming the reader. However, each form also comes with its own disadvantages. It takes thoughtful implementation to ensure that the form of visualization does not get in the way of interpreting the data, and complements the message it is intended to convey.

Source: “The Unwelcomed” project on ALHADAQA by Mohamad Waked

Data visualizations can also be a part of nonviolent-yet-disruptive protests, similar to electronic civil disobedience, because numbers help to justify and raise morale for activism. Websites such as the Pew Research Center and ProPublica routinely employ data visualizations to unveil important findings on social issues such as gun violence and environmental pollution. You also have independent data visualization designers such as Mohamad Waked, who started his own data visualization lab. One of his projects was an online interactive story based on the number of migrants and refugees that have passed away while crossing borders. His data visualization map helps to put into perspective the significance of the issue around the world.

Although data visualizations are not usually thought of as an art form, I would argue that it can be very powerful because it has the potential to tell true stories with a single visual. Just as a poet chooses their rhyme scheme and meter, a data visualization designer carefully chooses the form of visualization that enables their data to speak for itself. Misunderstanding can lead to false insights and poor decision-making, all under the assumption that it was backed by real data.

Isabella Wang, Feb. 7 2022

VMS 290S Spring 2022

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