Northeastern professors question evidence and reality in collaborative art exhibit at Boston Cyberarts

Professors pose at art exhibit
Professors Jennifer Gradecki and Dietmar Offenhuber are two of five Northeastern faculty challenging what people accept as true in Re:Constructing Evidence, an exhibit that asks viewers to reconsider trusting certain forms of information over others. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

At a time when facts are called into question, what provides indisputable truth? Is it data, the seemingly objective numbers spit out of polls and censuses? Could it come from nature? Or maybe physical, tangible evidence? 

In reality, data belies the practices and choices that went into collecting it, nature can move too slowly to convey an immediate message, and there are some physical traces we should’ve never left—not to mention things that leave no trace at all. Such is the message five Northeastern faculty members infuse into Re:Constructing Evidence, an exhibit at Boston Cyberarts that forces you to question what you believe.

Assistant architecture professor Ang Li’s entry point? Styrofoam. Salvage Units, Li’s collection and analysis of expanded polystyrene foam, illustrates how the material was once touted as a “wonder material,” being simultaneously light, strong, and waterproof.

But images of people lifting foam columns or standing on foam planks are juxtaposed with sobering statistics of waste, since many recycling facilities now refuse the material because it’s so expensive to move and process; its lightweightness—it being 98 percent air—is both its selling point and its weakest point. In the shadow of a towering column of foam—itself a glimmer of hope, as it repurposes the material into something new—numbers can be seen on the wall. Amount of Styrofoam discarded in the U.S. every year: 2.3 million tons.

In Re:Constructing Evidence, an exhibit at Boston Cyberarts, Northeastern professors explore the complicated permanence of Styrofoam, the immateriality of real-life events when presented online, and the paradox of narratives being attached to 'raw' data. Photos by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Numbers only tell part of this story, and in Computational Fables, assistant professors of art and design Jennifer Gradecki and Derek Curry call out those who suggest otherwise. After all, if data is objective and “raw,” what to make of the data analytics companies that might’ve handled it first, the same companies that construct dramatic campaigns to advertise their capabilities?

Data is something that has to be created,” Gradecki says, citing a tool by IBM called I2 Analyst Notebook. The product site, which lists the going price as “starting at $9,060.00 per user per year,” claims that, with the tool, data analysts will be able to “quickly uncover hidden connections and patterns in data.”

“Something that’s fabricated being regarded as evidence becomes very problematic,” says Gradecki.

Computational Fables compiles promotional videos from such data analytics companies, sorting them by common imagery and themes. In this format, you can see just how many companies utilize footage, say, of a person writing equations on a piece of glass, presumably emphasizing their transparency in handling something we perceive as raw and unrefined.

The irony of wrestling with our faith in “evidence” is that there are also things that leave behind no evidence, that you nonetheless trust. Just as physical, “hard” information is not always complete, more immaterial digital content is not always as baseless as the web might make us believe, with its uncensored opinions and ability to redact.

Take the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. There was a surge of newspaper coverage, much of which is preserved, having been scanned and converted into digital files. But a lot of coverage also took place online for the first time in many publications’ history, which is true whether or not we can dig up the records—and, as it turns out, sometimes we can’t. 

The Washington Post’s first venture online took place on an independent server (it didn’t operate on the World Wide Web), so something like the Wayback Machine wouldn’t turn up any evidence of the site. Assistant journalism professor Meg Heckman’s installation, Breaking, seeks to recreate the experience of being on a news site the day of the bombing, from the pixelated screens (mocked up in design software) to the clunky computer monitor and desktop trinkets reminiscent of pre-aughts culture.


“When you think about evidence, there’s always this assumption that it has to be accessible to the senses—that you can verify it with your own eyes,” says Dietmar Offenhuber, an associate professor of art, design, and public policy who also contributed to the show. How, then do you convince someone of the gravity of something like climate change, which deserves countenance but might be harder to quantify, to capture in a snapshot?

Offenhuber attempts to force such a snapshot in his installation, ozone tattoo, directly exposing bean and tobacco plants to the pollutant ozone, leaving the leaves singed as though with grill marks. 

He calls these marks “tattoos,” a strikingly visible indicator of air toxicity, though they could also be likened to a stamp or signature from the environment, given that Offenhuber describes this method of visualizing information as “autographic.” Through the spotted, branded leaves, the environment speaks.

The exhibition, running through Friday, October 25 and punctuated by an opening reception on Friday, October 4 at 6 p.m., has itself a hidden back story: The five professors had already been working on these projects before the exhibit was conceived, says Gradecki, the theme arising independently. Indisputable is the common thread, trickling into the work of largely disconnected faculty until a joint project was inevitable.

“We don’t usually do shows that are brought to us whole cloth. We usually curate shows,” says George Fifield, who directs Boston Cyberarts. “This was an exception.”

Across disciplines, people are grappling with questions of permanence and truth. Let this stand as evidence.

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