The Power of Small Multiples in Thailand
[This post has many images, so it may be slow to load. --lambert]
A blogging friend of mine* and I visited the Bangkok Art and Culture Center the other day (left), a contemporary art museum that's rather like the Guggenheim done right. (I mean, who really wants to look at objects while compensating for a sloping floor? My inner ear doesn't want to work that hard.) Snark aside, the BACC is a wonderful public space, visually, sonically, tactilely, and it has been increasingly adventurous in its programming; the current show is excellent. Here are some of the images and installations from Thai artists that I especially liked.
Oh, but first, the title: "The power of small multiples" is a data visualization technique invented, or at least named, by the designer Edward Tufte (more; and more):
At the heart of quantitative reasoning is a single question: Compared to what? Small multiple designs, multivariate and data bountiful, answer directly by visually enforcing comparisons of changes, of the differences among objects, of the scope of alternatives. For a wide range of problems in data presentation, small multiples are the best design solution.
For example, Eadweard Muybridge famously used small multiples to enable comparison of changes, solving the question of whether a trotting horse ever has all four feet off the ground (yes):
Here's an example of two small multiples at the BACC:
Different artists, different themes; same format; same idea. (At left, Thai remarks, often quite vivid, scratched into black ink print after print; at right, images of media production.) I suppose it's natural to feel that one has found the key to a second culture in that culture's material objects and spaces turned metaphorical -- what would be the key to America? -- and for me, the power of small multiples is the, or at least a key to Thai culture; how they organize and aggregate objects in space. Because (and besides this (slow to load)) consider:
|Wat Po||Sukhumvit soi 38||Peppers|
The temple mosaic at left is small multiples by definition; but the power of Sukhumvit soi 38 is a dynamic small multiple:
Before night fell and the dinner hour which lasts until four in the morning began, I watched a food cart vendor do set up. She and her helper brought the cart, the menus, and the ingredients: The meats, the vegetables, the sauces. Everything else was "small pieces loosely joined." A pickup truck came with bags of rice, which the vendors shouldered and took back to their carts. Propane tanks were delivered by motorbike. Sodas were delivered by another motorbike; ice by another. Even small change was a "small piece"; a man came up, my vendor handed him a bill, and he gave her back a neatly tied baggie of coins [arcane boomer reference].
Soi 38 embodies a gorgeous, dynamic commercial architecture, a model of stripped down, just-in-time relationships, and the food was astonishingly good. ... Elegant and very, very powerful. Imagine these transactions thrown out like a net over the entire city, and how fine the mesh would be!
So soi 38 is an aggregation of small multiples, the food carts; and each food cart is an aggregation of small multiples, fractally; as are the dishes they sell.
So, like it or not, that's my big insight for the day. You don't get more basic than religion and food, do you? And the BACC exhibit actually starts right out by walking us through small multiples at its entrance (in image at top right, the circular space with escalators up):
And one can't help but think of the societies of not just Thailand but ASEAN as a loop of ticking clocks all wired together, eh? "Timekeeping" certainly being one example of centralized hegemony, even legitimacy.
Another exhibit of objects wired up, except here a plant and not a clocks:
The plant is wired up to a sensor -- not sure what's being sensed, but I guess the flow of water, or nutrients, or possiby, from the circuit board logo, bio-hazards? -- and the sensor emits a sound! (The DIY circuit board/sensor concept is very Arduino, but there is no Arduino logo. Should have bought the show catalog, I guess.)
And each small plant multiply connected by electrical wires and tubes of flowing fluid, with each sensor beeping to create a wall of sound:
Here's a static image of the wall of plants, showing the interconnections:
What's especially powerful about the wall of wired-up plants is the sound: High pitched, pentrating, it permeates the hall, faintly near the entrance, but more and more powerfully and unnervingly as you approach; reminding me of the whistling protesters who, until recently, were blocking the entrance to the museum!
And speaking of protesters:
From a fresh angle, showing salient characteristics -- from the artists's viewpoint -- besides the signage:
Strong stuff for Thailand!
And finally, a critique of the Thai educational system that leverages the BACC's upward spiral:
The desks have images and words carved into them as vivid and subversive as the remarks in the prints of Figure 2.
When you get up close, you see each small multiple is individual, unique, different -- though comparisons, a la Muybridge, are beyond the scope of this post. This is true for each print (Figure 2), each clock (Figure 4), each plant (Figure 5), each marcher (Figure 8), and each desk (Figure 9). If I were the maker of these pieces, I'd be very conscious of that. (We are also in a political economy where making things by hand in bulk is very do-able.)
Finally, though I've urged the power and ubiquity of small multiples as a formal technique, in my view each of these pieces is highly imaginative both in conception and execution. Since a lack of imagination (see Figure 10) in the Thai political class and civil society generally is in the view of some a barrier to working through Thailand's current set of political difficulties, I find the powerful works on imagination on display at BACC a very encouraging sign of health in the Thai body politic.
NOTE * And if you are in the area, do feel free to drop me a line, and maybe we can get together.