Winston Churchill once said the world had experimented with many kinds of governance over the years. And, given the choices, no one ever pretended that democracy was perfect. In fact, it was really the worst form of government going, once you discount all of the others.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, democracy was believed to be growing and getting stronger all the time. Into the 21st century, these trends were continuing. But by around 2010, something happened. Authoritarianism was making a comeback as freedom started to erode in a number of countries compared to their last few years. Regimes had figured out how to circumvent established norms and institutions to support human liberties and freedoms in their own countries, as well as aiding like-minded nations with similar designs. Jurisdictions struggling with the forces of democracy and authoritarianism are increasingly slipping backwards. The deterioration has meant our global order is heading towards a tipping point: the goal of achieving a peaceful return to democracy and personal freedoms is in danger of falling out of reach.
Democracy in Motion is an original multi-sensory installation from the ARCTRN Group exploring the visualization of an existing data set about the state of democracy in different countries. Premiered at Toronto’s Nuit Blanche 2022, which showcases contemporary art in public spaces, the installation includes data exploration( the crystals were procedurally generated using Blender and Python) sketching, prototyping, data sonification, dance choreography, musical composition, data mapping and projection and 3D printed crystalline-shaped models inspired by the data. The goal was to explore avenues for better understanding insights residing in data and ways to express this story. And what steps we can take to go beyond mere facts and figures to build a more meaningful relationship with information.
In the world of Big Data and analytics, data visualization has increasingly become a dominant visual art form of charts and graphs that give us a clear picture of what this information all means. As our society becomes more data-driven, data storytelling becomes an essential tool for translating information and making sense of our experiences by curating data into its most accessible, understandable form for us to digest.
Designers are not immune from this transformation. Data and life-centred design increasingly define our practice, while data science and analytics help to inform design thinking that fuels the growth of innovative products and services. It is the new reality and our challenge to use it to work with data more creatively. To come up with better, more compelling designs that offer more engaging and immersive experiences for people.
ARCTRN put this data translation and storytelling theory to the test by interpreting a pre-selected data set through a specific medium (in this case, a crystal-like form) to see whether reshaping data into more manageable information chunks could result in greater meaning and understanding. Data amassed around the current state of global democracy presented the ideal opportunity for investigating this thesis.
After the January 6, 2021 attack of the U.S. Capital, it appeared countries around the world were turning less democratic. Was this just a perception or was there any basis to it in fact? The first step in confirming the reality was to check the data found in the Democracy Index, published annually by the Economist Group. The index is a snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide in 165 independent states and two territories. It comprises 60 indicators grouped within five categories: electoral process and pluralism; functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties. Based on its individual score, each country is classified as either a full democracy, a flawed democracy, a hybrid regime or an authoritarian regime. For 2021, Canada was ranked as the fifth fully democratic country in the world (behind New Zealand, Sweden, Iceland and Norway) with a score of 9.24 out of 10. By contrast, the United States, as a result of January 6th, was downgraded to a flawed democracy with a score of 7.92.
With data points based on individual scores corresponding to these categories, a series of radar charts of five countries – Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Russia and China – were created. Using 3D modelling software, stacking these charts created crystalline shapes embodying the condition of democracy during this period. And taking this one step further, these shapes were 3D-printed to create actual physical objects.
Transitioning Data to Sound and Movement
With the rendering and printing of the crystals as three-dimensional objects done, the next step was to consider what other media there might be to communicate the data, as well as other senses that might be engaged. In particular, whether music might have a role to play and how it might be applied.
We proceeded in this process through sonification and by assigning sounds to each of the crystal indices, creating a layered soundscape for each of the five countries that could either be played individually or woven together as an “otherwordly” collective. We created the Nuit Blanche/DesignTO installation from data from Canada, the United States, India, Brazil and Russia.
Expressing Data through Movement
How are we to interpret data through movement? Our original interpretation and approach were inspired by actual numerical differences that existed between individual countries profiled in the Democracy Index for 2021. Their visual representation on a graph depicts the averages of each country’s data over the same 16-year period embodied and visualized through the medium of the crystals. The dancers have simply translated two-dimensional data represented graphically into movement, reflecting the differences and peculiarities of each country.
For example, India, the most volatile of the countries portrayed, was represented with the most pronounced jerky movements, while Canada and the U.S., which have been relatively more stable over the same period, exhibited more gradual and gentle movement.
The dancers were captured on film in studio, layered with a musical score. The film was projected outside at Artscape Wychwood Barns in Toronto as part of a multi-sensory installation for Nuit Blanche Toronto 2022 on October 1st and part of DesignTO a city wide design event on January 20-29, 2023.
Democracy in Motion is ARCTRN’s first experiment in multi-sensory data storytelling, an important project in enhancing our understanding of communicating what democracy is and how we can make it more meaningful for a greater number of people. It was also an important first exploratory step towards identifying new areas that warrant further investigation and discovering opportunities for building on early results and gaining greater insights. These include scaling up the amount of data used, expanding the contexts and adding more current information and programming user interactivity to enrich the overall experience.