“At any rate, we must also show how the world really is.”
“There are always connections, you only have to want to find them.”
“The purpose of visualizations is insights, not pictures.”
International Competition of the Magazine ARCH+ and the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation
1. Societal processes are presently emerging that make a balancing of social inequalities ever more unlikely and that pose a serious danger that society will drift apart, both on the global and national level and on the regional and local level.
People are born into socio-spatial circumstances. Their chances in life vary in the extreme because of this “randomness”. In the interest of social integration and in accordance with democracy’s postulate of equality, modern societies embody the promise of an equalization of living circumstances. This is a guarantee for the political stability of a community. So it is not only permitted, but clearly necessary to ask about the fulfillment of this political desideratum. That means to ask what social reality actually looks like; to ask about the balance of a 30-year phase of neoliberal economy on a global level; to ask what effects deregulation and the privatization of state tasks and the restructuring of the social systems in Europe have had; and to ask how the unleashing of the global financial industry affects above all the economically weak.
Cities have always been the sites of migrants’ hopes for survival and the improvement of their situations, but they are also sites of organized defensiveness, inequality, and exclusion. The urbanization of world society is an accelerating process. In the 21st century, for the first time in the history of humankind, more people live in cities than in rural environments, with unpredictable and initially catastrophic consequences for both rural and urban areas. In the megalopolises of the Third World and emerging countries, the social conditions of 19th-century Europe are resurfacing in potentiated form. At the same time, these processes affect the “old” world by means of streams of capital, goods, and migrants, creating new imbalances and disadvantages there. Starting with the financial markets, a system of organized irresponsibility has spread that not only exacerbates social differences, but also consciously exploits them for private advantages.
We live in a time that must be newly surveyed – in social terms and as the basis for a new societal consensus. Coming back to “real things” is the precondition for this.
2. Today, the difficulty of empirically describing reality no longer lies in a lack of information, but, quite the contrary, in the constantly growing amount of data that make it difficult to draw an overall picture of society and to distinguish between what is important and what is unimportant. Today we have access to an unencompassable wealth of data, much of it automatically generated: statistics, personal data, photos, documents, etc. Hardly anything seems able to elude this universal visibility in the digital age. At the same time, the present is increasingly more opaque. There are precise data for more and more questions of detail, but it is getting harder to find orientation and gain an overview of the present; the quantitative description of phenomena is getting denser, but understanding of the underlying relations and processes seems to be vanishing. Considering that all societal activity depends on information, the wealth of data poses a real dilemma; we can indeed speak of a “digital opacity”. Automated processing with the aid of programs that autonomously view, order, and evaluate data in no way automatically creates transparency. A situation arises in which political activity is not empirically verifiable and is dissolved in politically exploitable contradictions.
Information design is more than a collection of data: information design uses data to create statements that provide insights into societal circumstances. Information design reveals connections behind the surface of the phenomena. Information design provides orientation. It creates a hierarchy of information based on relevance and content. It reduces complexity, thereby creating an overview.
Information design is not neutral. The shaping of information is influenced by the interest in knowledge. An enlightening, emancipatory information design reveals facts that are repressed, not spoken of, or forgotten, but that are nonetheless essential for understanding the present. And it thereby influences the perspective of societal activity. The image of the world we make for ourselves determines how we act.
On the basis of empirical material, data, and facts, visualizations of societal matters should be developed that cast light on the current problems of increasing social inequality, disadvantage, and exclusion. The depiction should thereby look behind the facts and clarify contexts: how do inequalities arise and what effects do they have? The depiction should make spatial and temporal circumstances visually graspable and trace the forces driving their development. To master this task, all techniques of visual depiction and pictorial media can be employed, but a coherent overall concept should be recognizable in the selection, transformation, and presentation of the information.
Possible thematic fields include:
ŸUrban processes/spatial transformations like urbanization, segregation, deterioration into slums, gentrification, pollution, desolation, destruction, the return of epidemics, spatial discriminations and exclusion, redlining, access to resources and services, forms of spatial control and governance, etc.
Global streams of financial capital, goods and raw materials, the outsourcing of production and of environmental burdens and their consequences, the destruction of local economies, human migratory movements, streams of migrants and how they are dealt with, etc.
The spatial localization and scale of viewing can be freely chosen; several scales and partial spaces can be tied together in the work. As relevant as the choice of a suitable theme and its research is the working method of implementing the research in visualization. The information must be plastically conveyed, independent of the viewer’s state of knowledge, and able to do without extensive explanation.
Learning from Otto Neurath
The task of the competition takes up the thread of the picture-pedagogical work of Otto Neurath. With his method of pictorial statistics, he developed effective forms of visually preparing data and implementing them in informational graphics that make it easier to grasp societal conditions and processes. For Otto Neurath – the co-founder of the Vienna Circle and central proponent of logical empiricism – statistics were a central source for the scientific description of society and the economy. But description was in no way his sole interest. The content gained from the data also conveyed the demand to participate in shaping the present and in securing an imaginable future. Neurath trusted the latent political message of numbers and made it his task to make them “speak” and to make them accessible to those they most concern.
In the twenty years in which it was elaborated – 1925 to 1945 – the Vienna Method of pictorial statistics went through numerous transformations and expansions, without abandoning its principles. This mutability manifested itself, first, in applicability to disparate thematic areas; second, in the expansion of its effective scope from the local to the global; third, in the internationalization of language and pictorial language (from the Vienna Method to ISOTYPE); and fourth, in the adaptation of the graphic signs to changing media, including the moving image of film. The clarity of the concept’s principles and its openness suggest that we concern ourselves again with Neurath’s approach to information design.
Today, more data are at our disposal than ever before; but precisely the growing plethora of data raises questions. How can meaningful information be extracted from the sea of data? How can one meet the desire for legibility, coherence, and orientation? What actual situations remain unobserved or under-illuminated, despite the wealth of data? Something else has developed: the spectrum of the digital processing of information permits animated depictions and interactive forms of communication. Viewers are involved in generating data and become potential co-designers of the information design. In the face of the demands placed today on interface design, the significance of Otto Neurath’s contribution to information design is clear. Material and technical means have meanwhile developed enormously. With this competition, we are seeking, not least, ways in which Neurath’s conception can be updated for today.