An artist with no artwork
For those who have followed my career believe that my recent work has nothing at all to do with the work I produced thirty years ago. This is true and I celebrate that. I consider my permanent evolution to be a value. However, I do see that there has been a guiding logical thread that has led me from there to here. In the mid-1990s I renounced —at least see-mingly— those vectors that were monopolising info graphics. This radical formal change was a shock within the profession, as well as for the readers. Without a doubt, I felt a desire to go back to using hand-drawn illustration and reducing the role of the computer to what it does best: editing text and images. But, in truth, this was not a renunciation. Instead it was the manifestation of a concept that aimed to broaden the possibilities of infographics as a communicative tool. Known in professional circles as the “Clarín style”, from the daily newspaper where most of these pieces were published, it was, in reality, a non-style. It was a concept that sought to anticipate and expand the information about what was be-ing looked at and to give form to the content. This concept is often called “aesthetics as ethics”.
Back in those days, like today, in any geographic latitude or altitude, apart from the profile of the reader, of the media company or the subject matter being dealt with, the illustrations included in infographics had an aesthetic that was tame, sterile, and deliberately invisible. This made sense: the important thing in an infographic was substance, not the form. But renouncing aesthetics means renouncing one of the most powerful channels of communication. And, on the other hand, it’s a fool’s task: it is not possible to avoid aesthetics. All aesthetics communicates. Science does so too: coldly, aseptically, digitally, inhumanly. In essence, the “non-style” implemented at Clarín consisted in grasping that, unfortunately, aesthetics are a fundamental part of infographics that cannot be dispensed with. The best that we can do is harness them by enhancing them with content.
This idea can be clearly understood by looking at three maps published between 1996 and 1997: La Barcelona de Antoni Gaudí (Antoni Gaudí’s Barcelona), a map about the Rwandan genocide and Miami top. These three maps had the same mission and I believe that they achieved it. The goal was to construct a cartography of a physical space about which we explain something specific. But each of these maps was created using a certain method depending upon the subject. La Barcelona de Antoni Gaudí was created using what is known as trencadis, a technique that the famous architect used for adding decoration to his buildings. It involves using broken, ruined tiles to create forms. The resulting map is a work that is luminous, up-beat, physical. If the reader is already familiar with Gaudí, the imagery anticipates the text. If the reader has no prior knowledge of his style and methods, the map still fulfils its function and, here, instead of anticipating the written information, it amplifies it. It provides aesthetic information which, as such, would be impossible to show in any other way. More or less explicitly, something similar happens with the maps of Rwanda and Miami. Clearly, in these pieces the presence of the author is more pronounced than it would be in a map created according to a style guide. The reader also has more space for reading.
Since the decade of the nineties (of the last century!), I have had an affinity for popular subjects, for things which are deeply ingrained in culture or which are possibly an intrinsic part of being human. For example, the effects produced in our bodies by a passionate kiss or from consuming tobacco. These types of subjects are guaranteed to be successful: they have to do with things that are right in front of you or that are pressuring you or are burning to get out of you, and that you are barely aware of. The reader can easily see themselves reflected in the pieces. Today, I continue to be interested in this same material, although in a way that is even more restricted and which approaches it from a different perspective, one that I call ‘“singular subjectivity”. Sexuality: if before the focus was on what happens in our bodies when we kiss, now it would be on the sex life of a specific couple. Addictions: if before it was a frank description of the habit of smoking, now it is a map that can be created about a specific person based on the cigarettes they’ve smoked.
Just as the grammatical construction of a text can be used to identify its author, or the framing or light of a photo references the photographer who took it, another intention I had at that time was to find a graphic and narrative construction that would make me recognisable and in which I felt acknowledged as the author of my infographics. So, I created some dozen pieces, among which the best-known was La ballena franca (The Right Whale). But my interest was not in finding a unique style that I could continue repeating. I asked myself the question: Is it possible to produce creative infographics in a style that is personal and, shall we say, radical? Once this question is answered, I lose all interest. Repetition kills me.
The ability to choose, with total freedom, the subject matter that I would work on and flesh out with a personalised formal treatment had come to make me feel empty. What I wanted —what I suppose I had always wan-ted— was to take a position on the subjects I was looking at. Out of this wish came seven years of experimentation as an opinion columnist at La Vanguardia, a Spanish daily newspaper, and at Courrier international, a French weekly. Opinion is the only genre in a media product where subjectivity has to be used in order that the reader meets the author, be it either in opposition or in agreement.
From “aesthetics as ethics” to opinion, the essential concept that is intrinsically found along the way is the expansion of the space devoted to the subject; both the reader’s space and my own as a transmitter and emitter of information. As a transmitter, I move the subject to the centre. And as an emitter, my goal is to convert the subject into a theme. The goal is to present the subject using a device conceived of to best serve the object. This turns out to involve, a priori, confronting a contradiction, or a sort of conflict that must be resolved or is something to be learned.
Although culturally linked to communications, infographics is also originally a way of thinking. Just look at the notebooks of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Leonardo da Vinci or any other scientist. By means of pro-to-infographics, they combined figurative or abstract images with words in order to solidify their reflections, which were difficult to apprehend by other means. With the passing of time many of these reflections came to be considered empirical truths. But before this happened, they were just theories, something like well-grounded opinions. Many, probably most, of their reflections have turned out to be false, left in a limbo of infographic indefinition. In any case, all scientific reflection springs from a desire to ex-plain the world around us. But what happens if we apply it to our private lives? What will we see then? And beyond that; perhaps that isn’t even infographics anymore?
Through infographics we can imagine and narrate reality or fiction, facts or truths. Infographics can’t determine whether something is science, journalism or art. This would be equivalent to saying that it’s possible to create works of fact or fiction using only words, or photographs, or video. Although it is important, infographics is just a tool and cannot considered indispensable. That is to say, it’s nothing more than narrated content. Infographics needs the accompaniment of an adjective that defines its function: journalistic, scientific, artistic, and even, why not, poetic. Of course, some adjectives coexist with others.
Through illustrated infographics we can describe and analyse something tangible at a specific moment or over a very short period, whether it be something real or imaginary. This representation is, by definition, figurative. Through data, it is possible to narrate intangible concepts (that’s why their representation is abstract), which also can be real or imaginary and which can cover very long periods of time. Time is the element that allows data to tell stories. For example, the changes in the price of gold during the last century. How the price changed over time is exactly the kind of story I’m interested in telling. I only need to change the concept “gold”, which is a collectively imagined truth, for another one that seems valuable to me: some singular and concrete truth.
The celebrated trio of health, wealth and love would be worthless without time. They simply would not exist. Time is the essential theme. All other things live inside of it. Time is the authentic capital that we have available by means of its three basic representations: past, present and future. Time is life and its absence is death. It is that simple. We are measurable: heart rate, salary, academic record, number of hours of sleep, number of hours at work, frequency and duration of sex, levels of cholesterol, uric acid, water, sweat, body temperature, number of “likes”, “retweets”, “matches”, aches and pains, connections, weight, distances, anxiety, milligrams, vertigo, altitude, latitude and on and on. All mapmaking relies on data. Time is the territory in which we map out our lives.
Dealing with a territory that has no lines of demarcation is much more complex than making a map. It’s like the difference between life itself ver-sus what is being lived or has been lived. Time is ungraspable. “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to he who asks, I do not know,” wrote Augustine of Hippo. When I manage to trap time on a square meter on the floor of my house, I feel I have achieved some-thing magical.
My current work consists in constructing reality: mine, the only one possible. It is not about what for several years now some artists call “discourse”, or what the world of politics has taken to labelling “narrative”.
Reality is a cluster of small truths, such as sensations and thinking and doing, that together make up what life is. I don’t extract information to create a message of some distant reality, nor do I limit myself to just imagining it. I live the experience which comes out of the message. It could be said that there is no clear delimitation between work and life. Despite not being a believer, I take part in the game of communication. Regularly sharing some of these small truths that I have lived is also part of my work. Communication is an act of faith: one hopes that one understands and will be understood; but, in truth, we never really know how little of what has been received is exactly as we have sent it. The highest level of communication belongs to the emotions, from empathy to intimate contact or artistic displays, especially music.
The visualization of massive data is a kind of abstract hyper-realism: just like hyper-realistic painting, it portrays a reality so excessive that it seems false. Big data can be many things, but one thing it cannot be is true. Private corporations, institutions and governments collect, store, visualize and analyse billions of datapoints about every one of us, but they do so without us: modern technology has no need of our tendentious intermediation. Once dehumanized, data becomes objective. And it is precisely this objectivity that prevents data from being true. The truth, in addition to including facts, is composed of culture, experience, interpretation; in short, subjectivity. Objectivity does not exist; everything can be true. Truth is a human invention, it cannot be objective. Nor are there two equal truths, each person has their own. The truth is subjective.
If we want to extract something relevant from and for a subject, we must convert facts (data being the most precise facts of all) into a truth, applying them to what a specific person does, at a certain moment in time, when facing a concrete situation. In the truth of another person, we can all see ourselves reflected. It’s just like the Roman Chremes said: “nothing human is foreign to me”. Already in the days of Publius Terentius there was a 1% tax, but it is now, in the modern paradise of big data, that we have converted Nobody into an entity that exists. Nobody tells us what the Truth is; all-encompassing Truth with a capital “T”; with all the horror which that implies. Nobody is the rule that proves the exception: the norm. Nobody is any longer, on their own, a ridiculous percentage; Nobody is also the billions of pieces of data collected about all of us. We are all Nobody: Nobodies in the singular. We can see ourselves reflected in the fears, desires, frustrations, neurosis, etc. of every person, but we must avoid looking for ourselves in Nobody. That is a concave-convex mirror which shows us the deformity of the norm. We humans fear the freedom to not look like our neighbour, and that is how Nobody applies his oppressive power.
I strive to develop my narrative using data as a metaphor. It is a strategy to capture attention but, honestly, data doesn’t interest me that much. I could do my work with no reference at all to absurd datafications; in fact, running through my work is a clear criticism of this sort of account-taking of our lives. But today data has become very seductive for a large number of people. It seems to me to be a part of the work of the narrator to look for points of encounter between what they want to communicate and what will attract the receiver. For me, the lexical model is not particularly important, so I do not have too much trouble adapting it. On the other hand, I use data because infographics is my tool and it needs data for its representations. I stumbled into infographics when I was running around the newsrooms of some papers. I participated, as a member of my generation, in “getting things dressed” as some refer to it today. On the other hand, it taught me how to tell better stories.
I value boredom as a fermenting space for desire. We need to give boredom a chance. Great things have been achieved thanks to the need to alleviate boredom. You have to be deeply bored, free of any immediate need, to wonder why a ripe apple breaks off from its stem and falls on your head instead of floating off into the sky. The result: the universal law of gravity. In my case, boredom seems to me to be the absence of stimuli emitted by something unknown: something to learn. Once learned, boredom sets in again; and from there the possibility of something new might arise.
This kind of chain reaction of boredom-desire-boredom has been my way of learning. This led me to revisit and deconstruct the same concepts that I had a hand in introducing into infographics for the sake of expression and, as such, by necessity, to the inclusion of the subject. Infographics, a tool born to serve what is objectifiable, has been made to serve the subjective; an exercise that could, in itself, be a poetic act. In my case, infographics has been serendipitous; I came to it by chance. It could have been something else, but I sincerely believe that I would be in the same place today, having arrived here through some other discipline, in some other form, but with the same foundation.
In my continuous professional rebuilding, I have considered moving from infographics to some other discipline that has more relaxed parameters. But creativity has very little to do with freedom. Without rules, there can be no game. Try to imagine a soccer match without any lines on the pitch, without no determination of whether the ball can be struck with the hand or the head, without an umpire who makes judgement calls, even erroneous ones. How could Messi or Ronaldo perform their feats of genius? Up until the start of the last century, rules were external cultural impositions within which a creative act was performed. Today, and ever since French artist Marcel Duchamp dynamited, in the now-distant year of 1917, the preconceptions of what may or may not be art by presenting a prefabricated urinal as a sculpture, limits should be -ought to be- imposed by oneself. The limits of what had worked until then might be blown away but what limits would then be in place after that? I decided to continue in infographics and delve into places that had no directional signage anywhere in view.
Habitually, my work has no message, just a statement with infographic guidelines that the reader-viewer can fill in. But then, if there is no message, what am I? Answer: the exaggeration of an infographer.
Habitually, in the communications game, the infographer is an intermediary between sender and receiver. But we cannot forget that on this transmission belt he is also a receiver and a transmitter. The infographer does not think about, or does not manifest his thinking about, the message he sends. His ethical code and his professionalism are measured, in part, by his ability to play these unavoidable roles unnoticed. In summary: the infographer receives a message in one format and emits it in another, trying in vain that nothing is lost or distorted along the way. That’s what we call being objective (although any message, insofar as it has been created by humans, can never be that).
The infographer as transmitter tries to pass by unnoticed. I exist without being. My name is Jaime Serra, and like everyone else’s, my “I” is something else besides that. I explore themes inherent in the reality of existence: death, sexuality, disease, etc., or which are so deeply rooted in our culture that they might seem to be: love, faith, the family, couples’ relationships and so on. I am looking for the simplest way to present, if possible, themes that the reader-viewer is already familiar with, and which I fill in with data from an ordinary person, usually someone around me, because they are close at hand. In my work, data essentially serves to make the reader-viewer understand how the visualization works. To be clear: it is a “key” for making content. In this way, the reader-viewer might find themselves reflexively inserting their own data into my piece. This is possible, precisely, because my data is irrelevant: I can be your data or you could be mine. If instead of being about the sex life of two socially irrelevant people, it was data from a couple of celebrities, would the infographer, first of all, still be acting objectively, in that she is not constructing the information but instead relaying it? And, secondly, since the content is presumably of interest to the viewers, the transference breaks up in the reading. I measure the quality of my work by the quality of the transference that reaches the receiver.
Vida sexual de una paraje estable (Sex Life of a Stable Couple) is, perhaps, the paradigm of this approach. The transfer occurs with extreme ease given that all of us are sexual. Since the work has been exhibited in numerous art spaces, there have been many stories about the viewers’ interaction with the piece, which is the most direct and sincere form of feedback I can get. It has also been published in newspapers, magazines and books. But maybe, the thing that best shows that the transfer is happening as it should is the fact that at some shows the work has been censored or has been displayed with warnings about its “explicit” content. Its publication has been blocked in some media. Evidently, some people see something more in it than just coloured lines: they see their own sexuality. And maybe, in some cases, that sexuality has been built on pornography…
—“Jaime, your work, is it art, journalism, both, or neither?”
—“I have been a journalist, but never a designer. Designers solve problems; it’s a very important calling. Our daily life is design: graphic, industrial, interior, fashion, even sound. Everything is design. Fortunately, someone is focused on solving problems. That’s not me. I create problems. My current work focuses on thinking and that is always a problem. I would say that my work is art by disqualification. In that sense it’s clear that it’s not about design or journalism. I can only call it art if it’s disqualified from those other categories. But what is art? I feel almost like I am a prestidigitator or someone who tells jokes. I perform tricks. Some people might find them surprising, witty, funny or poetic. Others, nothing at all. Since the piece has a certain patina of what we could call contemporary art, whoever does not like it tends to believe that they don’t understand it. But it’s not like that. There’s nothing else to it: you did understand it, you just didn’t think it was funny. Like an absurd joke.”
—“The data is your own, right?”
—“This is an underlying question in my work and one that, however, almost no one asks me, although I suspect that many people are thinking it. It’s an interesting and hilarious question. Truth, truthfulness, facts, fiction, reality; these are concepts that are an essential part of my job. Are you asking me if I drank two cups of coffee on 1 January 2014? Yes, I did. If I had an orgasm on 16 April? True, as well. If I believe that consciousness is important in my life? Yes, absolutely. My data is accurate and the question, when formulated about a specific case, becomes absurd. On the other hand: is it relevant? If I had been off in my domestic accounting, would the piece no longer make sense? Would it no longer work in the terms that I had intended?
“I appreciate that data has taken over the role that photojournalism and television used to have as the “truth.” When looking at a data visualization, fascination and faith come up. The larger the data pool, the greater the fascination and the greater the faith. I suppose that this is partly due to the way that data is collected, partly due to the para-scientific aesthetic with which it is presented and partly because we feel that we are included in it. We believe, or we want to believe, that data is the truth, with all the danger that implies. The healthy criticism that is being made today about information, especially that which is being generated by the media, does not seem to apply to data. And the truth is that on many occasions the data we are being given is false. And I’m not referring to socially irrelevant data like the kinds that I use.
“My aim was always to be, shall we say, for clarity’s sake, an artist without portfolio. A sort of Pepin Bello, who was a noted Spanish “Bartelby” of the last century. Something for which, evidently, I don’t have enough talent to pull off. However, I work very hard to limit my production. I’m pleased to think that there are not more than a dozen pieces that are representative of me. Important pieces are rare and often weighty. If you want to let a creation become something, just do it once and wait. Of course, this strategy has no guarantee of success (success?). But repetition transforms it into a matter of taste. And tastes can become a fashion and fashions come and go.”