On April 25 I had the honor of presenting at 360|intersect. My talk was titled Desperately Trying to Remove the Air Quotes Around the Word “Artist”. I present artwork I’ve created over the past year, and reflect on my struggle to identify as an artist.
The video recording of my talk is below, it’s about 45 minutes long.
If you’d like to jump through the slides themselves, here they are:
Some photos from the conference
Or if you’re more the reading/skimming type, here’s the full transcript with the slides that you can read through. This was written out before giving the actual talk, so the words differ a bit from what was actually said in the video.
My name is Doug McCune. I am a programmer. I’ve spoken at various tech conferences before, and this is usually how I introduce myself, although the “I’m a programmer” part usually goes without saying. This talk is a little different, however.
Because while it’s true that I’m a programmer, this talk isn’t about that particular label. Or rather, it’s about fighting that. It’s a bit about these labels we put on ourselves.
So what else is this talk about?
It’s about data. I work with a lot of data. I’m a complete data geek, as you’ll soon see.
It’s also about maps. I’m also a map geek, which you will also soon find out.
I hope it’s about art.
But perhaps most importantly, it’s about self identity. It’s about figuring out who I am.
I’ll be presenting a lot of work I’ve made over the past year. But I hope to weave back and forth between showing art and discussing the broader implications of what this whole thing means to me.
I started speaking at tech conferences in 2007 and spoke on a variety of topics. That worked for me for about 3 years. But then things started getting a little weird in 2010. I finagled my way into giving a talk at a tech conference that wasn’t a tech talk at all.
Luckily it was run by Jonh Wilker, the same guy running this show. Big thanks to John for letting this shit slide back then. It was called “Take the Tangent” and it was about embracing the random side projects that you find yourself passionate about. It was a way of trying to justify the super random shit I was spending far too much time on.
See, I had been working at a company doing mapping software for a number of years, and I had gotten pretty obsessed with maps. On the side I started experimenting with some visually weird maps. Images that were more about interesting visual aesthetics than readable cartography. I started taking data and twisting the representation.
I think it’s fair to say that talk was met with a bit of a mixed reception. It wasn’t quite what people expected in the context of a tech conference. And I was really scared when I gave this talk. This was the first time I was actively sort of changing my professional identity in public. It was uncomfortable.
So then another 3 years go by and I’ve moved deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole. I spoke at the first 360|intersect in 2013 and presented even more weird, fucked up work that I had been playing with.
But still when introducing myself to people at that conference I said, “Hi, my name is Doug, I’m a programmer”. Because why else would I be up on a stage?
You know what’s funny? I never once questioned calling myself a programmer. I started calling myself a programmer pretty shortly after getting my first paycheck for writing code. It wasn’t something I gave much thought, it was just sort of a statement of fact. It’s like if you get a job fixing sinks, you’re a plumber. You’re writing code? You’re a programmer. Easy.
But I had now reached a point where the work I was most proud of had almost nothing to do with code anymore. I didn’t know what to call it. I started semi-sarcastically saying it was “art”. Always like this <air quotes> “art”. These fucking air quotes.
I found myself unable to say the words “art” or “artist” without my hands instinctively making these dumb air quotes. My gut was that this was the direction I was moving in, but it felt so foreign.
I felt entirely like an imposter. And now I didn’t fit in anywhere. What I was doing wasn’t really tech anymore, so I didn’t really belong at tech conferences. But a programmer was my only even remotely professional identity. It was what was on my business cards, on LinkedIn, my blog, everywhere.
I started having these weird conversations trying to explain what it was I was doing.
And so I suppose I should try to explain myself a bit. This is more or less the recipe I’ve been playing with in various ways. Step 1: take some horrible data. When I say horrible I mean things like dead people and sex offenders. Then step 2: combine that data into a beautiful visual map. Mix those two things together and you end up with a nice batch of What the Fuck? If WTF can be considered an emotional response, that’s what I’m usually going for.
To illustrate this concept I’ll start with one of the pieces I’ve worked on recently, called “Under the Surface”.
This is the outline of San Francisco. It’s a simple clean map. It’s also a box. You can see it has a slight handle, inviting you to open it.
And when you start opening it a deeper map emerges underneath. You can see the city cut away, with these deep valleys forming.
These valleys are the hotspots where the most registered sex offenders live in the this fine city. The deeper the crevice the more sex offenders in close proximity. It should be pointed out that the conference hotel is basically in the shit here. Well, to be fair it’s a good 5 or 6 blocks away from the epicenter there.
Here’s a quick rundown of the process for this piece. We start off with the raw data with the locations of the sex offenders. Then we create a density map, which shows the concentration. That density map gets turned into a contour map, just like you have for elevation data. Each of those contours then gets laser cut out of sheets of wood. Here are all the sheets laid out separately after getting stained. Then it’s time to glue the whole thing together. Add a handle and viola! You now have the creepiest box in the world.
The next piece I’d like to show is equally strange. This time we’re shifting from horrible sex stuff to horrible death stuff.
This piece is like looking up into the sky on a clear night to try to make out constellations. Except each star is a homicide. This takes the data for homicides throughout the Bay Area and forms constellations out of the 2013 murders. Based on the different clusters in different cities you end up with various patterns.
To briefly touch on the process, here’s the raw point data. This piece is the perfect example of me having no idea what I was doing while I was playing with the data. I was poking it, prodding it, trying to figure out what was there.
Eventually I tested this type of algorithm that connects the dots based on proximity and these shapes started popping out at me.
And based on the length of the lines we start filtering some out. What remains are the clusters of points that are close enough together. Any of the patterns that form do so organically. And I’ve focused in on a few of the cities that have the most data. The highest density is on both sides of the Bay, focused mostly in Oakland, but some other cities form interesting patterns. A face appears to me in San Jose, which I find particularly poetic.
San Francisco looks like a dog to me. Or there’s the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland over here in Oakland and up into Berkeley.
This was a good example of just playing with the data until a story emerged. I probably spend the bulk of my time just poking the data in various ways. Trying to find that narrative.
This next piece is more starting with the story and creating the visual with the data based on the narrative.
Before showing the piece I created, I wanted to touch on the source data. This a map of census data from a few years ago showing median family income. Red is the lowest and blue is the highest. Since San Francisco is so small you end up with these pockets of poverty next to immense wealth.
San Francisco is a really weird place right now. I’ve lived here for 10 years, and over the course of those 10 years the city has changed a lot, particularly in the last few years as the amount of tech money in this city has exploded. And I can’t stand up here and be all preachy about anything, I’m the gentrifying force as much as anybody. I moved to the Mission 10 years ago as that neighborhood was gentrifying. I’m now in the Inner Richmond, where I paid what I thought was a ridiculous amount for a house 3 years ago, only now to be told that I can probably now sell my place for nearly double what I paid. The amount of money flowing into this city is just unreal.
And yet then you walk through the Tenderloin. If San Francisco was a body, the Tenderloin would be its geographic heart. And so on the one hand you have the most insane home prices in the nation here, and on the other you walk 2 blocks from Union Square and there are needles in the street. And you’ve got the Mission, which has a long hispanic history, but has now become the most hipstery hipster place in the world. What used to be a low income neighborhood is now where Mark Zuckerberg bought his $10 million home.
The city is full of this tension. Rent control is holding people hostage in fear, since if they get evicted for whatever reason there’s no way they can afford to live in this city anymore. People who have lived here for decades are feeling the pressure that’s pushing them out. They simply can’t afford to stay.
I figured I’d speed up the gentrification. Normally it would take years, decades even, to push out the poor people from this city. But with a laser cutter we can do it all at once. I cut out the poorest census tracts and simply removed them altogether. Gutted the city of its poor.
They get cast aside, pushed out. And let’s be brutally honest, this is the San Francisco a lot of people really want. And it’s the San Francisco we’re getting.
Let’s take a pause from the heavy shit for a moment. I want to discuss a metaphor that had a big impact on me recently. I read this book called “Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free” by Cory Doctorow. Super fast read, I recommend it if you’re interested in the arts in the age of the internet.
There’s one particular metaphor in this book that I love. It’s about the difference between mammals and dandelions.
I know it’s a little bit weird to transition from sex offender and homicide maps into pictures of me and a newborn, but all my art content is equally morbid, so I couldn’t really find a better segue.
But back to the difference between mammals and dandelions. When mammals raise children we do so with an amazing amount of care and protection. Our children are fragile, they need looking after. It’s our job to shield them from the dangers of the world and ensure they survive in all their perfection.
This is my daughter, about a year ago when she was just born.
The dandelion, on the other hand, takes the opposite approach. Instead of spending so much time and effort creating, protecting, and nurturing this one highly fragile child, the dandelion creates thousands of seeds and throws them into the wind. It gives up control entirely of where they will go.
It has the faith that even though most are guaranteed to die, it only needs a few to land in the right spots.
And as we all know, this approach works, because dandelions pop up everywhere. Every field and patch of grass.
Even places you wouldn’t think they’d survive. Every crack in the sidewalk.
This brings me to another saying that has become somewhat popular in the tech world. I think originally the quote is “Do things, tell people”. I’ve slightly modified it here to just be “Make things, tell people”. These 4 words encapsulate 90% of what I think it takes to be successful. This applies to tech, I hope it applies to art.
Make things. Tell people.
Both parts, the making and the telling are equally important. You’ll notice here in San Francisco there’s an awful lot of “entrepreneurs” (in this case the air quotes are very intentional). And they’ll tell everyone they can about the amazing things they’re going to make, but of course they never actually do.
But on the flip side, just doing the work isn’t enough either. You can’t be a dandelion that makes thousands of seeds but hides them away from the world.
Make Things. Tell People.
And so as I continued experimenting with this new “art” stuff I was working on I decided I needed to be more like a dandelion and I needed to make things and tell people. I didn’t want to stress out as much over whether what I was making was good enough, or if it was “done” and polished and ready for the world to see. I needed to make as much as possible and send it into the wind.
Luckily we have platforms now that are perfect for sending out thousands of small dandelion seeds. Twitter is of course the prime example, but the Facebook or the Youtube or the Tumblr or whatever else works just as well. I started making a conscious effort that I wouldn’t wait until I had finished something to talk about it. Typically before I would spend weeks or months working on something and only once it was polished enough I would put it out there, since I was so afraid of criticism. But instead I wanted to force myself to put more out there. Everything from random experiments to failed iterations.
This is when I was first playing with the homicide data and I didn’t know where it was going. I was just experimenting, trying to figure out if there was anything there.
And here’s another shot of the homicide data as it got a little closer to the end result. This was still pretty unpolished, but shows how the thing evolved as I was working on it.
Similarly, this is an early iteration of the sex offender box. This one was slightly different, you’ll notice it’s a square box. When I first laser cut this I wasn’t intending for it to be an openable box at all, the top part here was just going to get thrown away. But then after I assembled it it struck me that this throwaway piece turned it into something even more interesting. I wasn’t sure if I was going to pursue it or not, but that didn’t stop me from taking a few photos and posting the work in progress.
I’ve also decided nothing should be a secret. Exactly how I make things, how I get the data, how someone else could reproduce my work, all of it should be shared.
I know some of you here are local to San Francisco, or at least the Bay Area. So I’m sure I wasn’t alone when I got woken up at 3:20am on August 24 last year.
A 6.0 magnitude earthquake struck Napa, which is just north of here. This is the shakemap produced by the USGS that shows the shake intensity and the epicenter. There wasn’t any damage down here in San Francisco, although it was a good jolt to wake you up in the middle of the night.
And once I was up, like any good data geek, I started immediately downloading the data and playing with it. The USGS has a really cool network of sensors that instantly produces shakemaps of any large earthquake, instants after it happens. So by 4am I had the data and was already modeling it.
I turned the shake intensity data into a 3D model, as if the epicenter was a big mountain. Over the course of the next few days I worked in my garage where I keep my 3D printers and turned that model into sculpture.
The resulting print gives you a sense of where the earthquake occurred and how intense the shaking was at the epicenter, then as it drops off as it emanates out.
One of the coolest things about this was just how fast you can turn a recent event into something hanging on the wall. If my insomnia had held out that night I could have been printing that earthquake before the sun came up.
I got into this natural disaster data because of work. For my day job I work on mapping software, with a particular focus on natural disaster data. We end up selling to a lot of insurance companies who are interested in knowing where a natural disaster occurred and what properties it might have affected.
This next piece is influenced by that work. It’s called A City Town in Two and represents a tornado strike in Oklahoma.
I’ll start again with the source data. This is the official city boundary of Moore, Oklahoma.
On May 20, 2013 a EF5 tornado cut right through the middle of the town. It killed 24 people and leveled most everything in its path.
This is the data defining the track from NOAA.
I took that data and made a 3D model of the city boundary, then cut it in half by removing the tornado track for the city. Because that’s essentially what the tornado did, it wiped that section off the map. This is 3D printed and mounted on wood in two distinct printed parts.
This is the satellite imagery, and you can pretty clearly see the path as it swept through town. And one thing that’s crazy about a tornado like this is that within the path you have complete destruction. It’s as if the houses just got wiped off the earth. And yet the craziest part is the on the other side of the street you’ve got houses that were barely touched. It was incredible how black and white some of the damage was.
And so I tried to capture some of that contrast. I 3D printed the boundary of Moore, but I split it in two, and I entirely removed the tornado track, since that’s basically what the tornado itself did, it just ripped out that part of the city.
3D printing is a bit of an obsession of mine, as is crime data, which I’m sure has been made readily apparent. These are some maps I’ve been iterating on for years now. I like to think I’m finally done with these now and can move on, but we’ll see. They’re what I call my stalagmite maps.
This is a set of 3 map of San Francisco showing different types of crime. Each one is a density map of the areas with the highest concentrations of crime. Where the most activity is the peaks rise up out of the map, similar to the Napa quake map but a bit more severe.
On the left on the green we have narcotics crimes, then in the middle in blue is prostitution, and then on the right is vehicle theft.
Here you can see them when looking straight on and you can see the shadows that the crime peaks form.
Looking one by one, here’s drug arrests. It’s probably not surprising that there’s a high correlation with the poorer areas that were cut out of the Discard the Poor map are the same areas that peak here.
Then we have one of my favorite maps of all time, which is prostitution in San Francisco. The cops basically arrest people along two or three main streets. There’s a cluster in the Tenderloin and in the Mission.
Then we have vehicle theft, which is all pervasive. It certainly has its ups and downs, and the low points here interestingly correlate with the high elevation. So you have twin peaks here, I guess people are less inclined to walk up the big hills to go steal cars, go figure.
I mentioned that I have been iterating on those maps for years. I presented very early iterations of those Stalagmite Crime maps 2 years ago at the first 360|Intersect, and another speaker there, Josh Michaels, also a returning speaker this year, happened to see that talk. A full year after that presentation I got an email from Josh. Turns out that he decided he wanted to find a fun way to throw away some money, so he had opened an art gallery in Portland.
He asked me if I was interested in doing a solo show. Without giving myself enough time to rationalize out of it, I quickly said yes, but since I had no idea how I was going to do a whole show by myself, I signed up for the latest possible time I could, which was April 2015. So I’ve been working hard as April approached.
And then I drove everything up to Portland and we hung it all on some blank white walls.
The whole thing was pretty surreal, from start to finish.
I even made these little labels, literally by googling “Museum labels” or some such shit and trying to copy what I saw in other photos.
But despite all my anxiety, it ended up being fantastic. It was scary as all hell, but it was fantastic.
The place was packed on the opening.
People seemed into it. Like these folks looking inquisitively at the work.
This shot is particularly hilarious, since I like to think he’s explaining to these people how my work moves him on such a deep emotional level.
This was actually the last piece I made, the day before I drove up to Portland, but it turned out really well and we mounted it on the wall and stuck the falling pieces on the wall like that.
The stalagmite maps were interesting. Josh wasn’t comfortable putting these on a wall, which I can’t blame him for. He was worried someone would have their back to them and back up into them. He didn’t want anyone going to the hospital, or snapping them in half, so we put them on a table instead. Angled up just enough to still give you the sense that you could be impaled.
And overall there was a great turnout. Tons of people came in throughout the night. Lots of really good conversations. Mostly people seemed to be into it.
(This picture is a little misleading because that guy’s my dad, so he’s forced to be into it).
I even had some art students come in and tell me how impressed they were, and how they were surprised because they didn’t expect it, but this work was “really quite contemporary”. I nodded and smiled and had absolutely no idea what the fuck they meant. Based on the way they said it it was clear the word “contemporary” has some very important meaning to art kids and I am very much not in the know.
As part of prepping for a show in Portland I figured I should cater to the locals a bit, so I started digging into the available Portland datasets. This piece is Drunk Traffic, which maps 10 years worth of DUI arrests in Portland.
This one tries to mimic a typical traffic map you’d see if you pulled up Google maps. You’ve got your normal red, orange, yellow and green streets, except now instead of indicating which streets have the most traffic, they tell you which streets have the most DUI arrests.
To create this piece I started, as always, with the raw point data.
Then we can also download the full road network, so we get the lines for all the streets.
You mash those two together and you can figure out the number of arrests that occurred along each street segment.
And there you go, your very own DUI map. I like to tell myself this map can tell you what streets to avoid as a pedestrian or bicyclist out on a Friday night, as opposed to which way you should try to drive home if you’re hammered.
I did a few other Portland pieces for the show. This one focuses on burglaries.
I created a sort of inverse topographic map. Your typical topo map will rise up into space. This one recedes down. It shows the density of a decade’s worth of burglaries throughout Portland.
I laser cut sheets of paper to achieve this effect. It’s quite similar to the Sex Offender box, but a bit more subtle.
While digging into Portland crime data I revisited some of my favorite themes.
I created a couple 3D maps of Portland to compare different crime types, in this case we have prostitution on the left and vehicle theft on the right.
I used a new approach to bin the data with hexagons and then extrude those hexagons to form the mountains. It produces almost a retro video game look. With the city so abstracted I tried to keep the river that cuts through Portland as the visual landmark for people to get their bearings.
And here’s prostitution, which is mostly flat, except for this mountain range running north/south. I learned a lot about Portland through combing through the data and doing this work. In this case I learned all about 82nd Ave, which is this street where all the action is.
Here’s a side view of the mountain range of 82nd Ave rising up. Apparently if you want anything from a probably stolen used car to a shady massage, 82nd Ave is the place to go in Portland.
And one last shot of vehicle thefts. The fun part about this one is that the gallery where the show was was right at this peak, so it was a lot of fun to watch people orient themselves and figure out that they’re standing right where the giant spike is.
OK, so all that stuff was up on display at the gallery. And like I said, it was equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. But hey, I even got on the local Portland news!
Although I was a bit disappointed I couldn’t get the title of “artist” on TV, but hey, at least I’m not labeled a programmer I suppose. But it does get you thinking, at what point does one earn the right to call oneself an artist? Does the TV have to say it? Did the gallery show count and give me enough street cred? Do hipster art students waxing about “contemporary” this or that get me there?
And when you start asking those seemingly silly questions it seems fairly obvious that none of those things really matter much. Of course it’s not a little label under your name, or what art school kids say. What matters is doing the work.
This was my living room right before I loaded up everything into my car to drive it up to the gallery. And as I was taking stock of everything my 3 year old son came downstairs.
Here he is giving me a double thumbs up. It’s amazing how much you can learn from a 3 year old if you take the time to really listen.
I was reading him one of his books the other day. This was a Richard Scarry book and it describes all kinds of different jobs people have. So you have lawyers, writers, window washers, etc.
So we come to this guy here, and I’m pointing to see if my son can figure out who each person is just based on the picture. And I point to this picture and my son, being the genius that he is, says
short pause, then
“Just like you.”
And so there I was. Reading a book to my son before bedtime and trying as hard as I could not to cry. Feeling this intense pride.
My mother was an artist. She never had anything hanging in a museum. She didn’t make her living selling artwork. She never had art kids analyzing her work. But for my entire childhood she painted, she created, and most importantly, she taught me to value that creativity. Without me realizing it she taught me what it was to be an artist.
And so I do this work, mostly for myself, I’ll be honest, but also for my kids. So they will grow up valuing creating as much as I did. To set the constant example that a life spent making things is a life well lived.
They’re too young to remember this show. But I’m determined to live the example I want to set.
And for myself, I’m determined to embrace it – to own it.
So I’d like to circle back to the very first slide of this presentation and give that one a second try.
Hi, my name is Doug. I’m an artist.
Thank you very much.
One thought on “Desperately Trying to Remove the Air Quotes Around the Word “Artist””
That was really great to watch – thanks for sharing, Doug. Your talks at 360Flex were always the conference highlight for me, and to this day “Take the Tangent” is my favorite presentation of all time – genuinely inspiring. It’s really nice to see happy as an artist and a family man; the “humanity behind the machine”, as it were.
All the best to you as the scope of your imagination expands ever onward. Allons-y!
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