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St. Louis Data Project Reaches Half-Way Point

Jer Thorp
Stephanie Zimmerman | St. Louis Public Radio Intern | File photo

Data artist Jer Thorp completed the research-based stage of his $75,000 project to examine and creatively present St. Louis’ data. The New York based artist’s research consists of city visits and extensive demographic and mapping research coupled with an unexpected emphasis on experiencing the physical environment of St. Louis.

“The best thing has been these long spontaneous conversations I’ve had with people,” said Thorp. “Most people I’ve talked to who live in St. Louis deeply care about the city. They all have their own stories and urban legends.”

The Center of Creative Arts announced Thorp’s project late last spring. Thorp will present the final project in spring of 2015 after a 15 month long residency sponsored by the Regional Arts Commission’s Innovation Fund. Thorp came to St. Louis three times in the past six months, spending close to a week in the city with each visit. Thorp said talking with local residents as well as walking and biking through the city is research that helps him understand the numbers he works with.

The artist said data gatherers like surveyors and census takers are very important to the project because they shape our perception of data and the physical places to which that data refer. During his visits, Thorp has explored the relationship between mapped boundaries and actual physical characteristics.

“It wasn’t until I had the chance to get around the city a little bit that the maps started to make sense,” said Thorp.

His attention to the places and people of St. Louis is tied to his approach to understanding data. Thorp's part of a growing number of artists and analysts turning to data visualization as a way to present information in a relatable way.  His previous works have examined the number of times certain names appeared in a paper during the course of a year and mapped the appearance of phrases across different bodies of work.  Thorp falls in line with contemporaries like Stefanie Posavec and her Writing Without Words project which gathers sentences and themes from a literary text and presents these occurrences as information blooms resembling flowers. Really, Thorp’s not just looking at numbers - he’s looking at the systems that create numbers and data groups and frame the information’s presentation.

“I think there’s politics in every data set.”

Thorp’s practice investigates how data changes culture and how culture changes information production. He said some data can be used to exclude certain populations but can also be a tool for activism or influencing political change. For Thorp, the influence data has on society depends on how people decide to use the numbers they’re given.

“We know that some of these decisions are wrong and will have long-term ramifications,” Thorp said. “We should be just as critical of a decision that’s made on a gigantic data set as we are on a decision made by the opinions of a few people.”

Thorp works to produce visual representation of data sets that are more easily understood and acknowledge the soul behind the statistics. Although he’s currently unsure what topics his final St. Louis project will tackle or what it will look like, he’s confident he now understands the city he’s working with.

Thorp’s 15-month-long project will be presented in partnership with the Center of Creative Arts in the spring of 2015.