Last night I heard artist and designer Nicholas Feltron speak (thank you to Kate Bingaman Burt for turning me on to his work). Feltron is best known for a series of annual reports that illustrate details of his daily life: books read, miles run, photos taken, vegetables eaten, etc (see here). He also started the site Daytum. You will not be surprised to learn that he now works at Facebook.
(That's the question I would have asked had I asked one: "If you didn't work at Facebook, what other company, organization or sector could benefit from your talent?" A student in the back started her question with "Umm...I'm in the sciences, and I think we, and other disciplines, could really use this type of data visualization." And then I wanted to cry thinking about how far the academy has to go to make their work more accessible, meaningful and visually appealing. A friend reports that professors like Shigehisa Kuriyama at Harvard are trying their best to teach creative ways of distilling and presenting information. Hats off for tackling this sisyphean task, which could really use more Feltrons.)
I imagine at every one of his talks, someone asks the obvious question, "Why do you do this and to what end?," as was the case last night. His answer is that he enjoys the process, and quantifying daily life helps him to live more deliberately. But I found this story to be a far more compelling reason:
In 2010, he devoted his annual report to the life of his father, who died that year. Feltron found a rich trove ephemera and records to work with: passports, diaries, receipts, postcards, photos and slides among them (Felt + Wire did a write up here). As you'll see above, he made an atlas of all of the countries and places he could identify that his father visited and lived. He also pieced together his cultural experiences: the movies he went to, books he read, and exhibits he saw. Feltron handed out the report at the memorial service, to his father's dear friends who were in their 70s and 80s. The response was pretty incredible-- to see how a life could be pieced together, visually and statistically interpreted, and presented in a slender volume. The friends' memories were jogged by this clear and beautifully digested information, and the stories started pouring in: "Ah, he traveled to Canada that year for our wedding!," for example. Instead of just being a point on a map, it now had a narrative of someone who was there attached to it. And they were remembering at a memorial, shared with others in time and space.
This, it seems, is a different angle to the "to what end" question: we make choices about solipsistically examining and recording ourselves, or knowing and connecting with someone else. And those choices are how we will be remembered.