The Unemployed, Cerritos College Art Gallery, CA, September 15 - November 5, 2009
Interactive installation / data visualization Processing applet, video camera, computer, data projector, misc cables and hardware
Programming: Jody Zellen with Rory Solomon and Jonathan Bobrow
"The Unemployed" is an interactive installation that visualizes world wide unemployment. Using data culled from online sources that list unemployment rates by country, "The Unemployed" represents the jobless as animated figures who inhabit a generic cityscape. The number of monthly unemployed varies from country to country ranging from a few thousand in sparsely populated places to many millions in places like the United States, India, and China.
The software randomly cycles through approximately 200 countries, drawing the number of unemployed as aimless wanderers, ambling across the screen (as they are unemployed). Whenever a viewer enters the space of the installation, their silhouette is captured by a video camera. The software instructs the figures to inhabit that shape and move with it for the duration that they are in the camera's scope of view. The silhouette metaphorically becomes an available labor force as well as the visible presence of the jobless. When the viewer leaves the camera's frame the figures return to their urban wanderings. If the country has a large number of unemployed, there are enough figures to fill and move with numerous silhouettes. If the country has minimal unemployment the silhouette is only partially filled. Displaying the numerical statistics as figures allows for a powerful visualization, one that allows for immediate country comparisons that ultimately resonate differently than simple bar graphs.
While the program sequences through the countries randomly, the time change between them is determined by the number of unemployed. The more figures that populate the screen, the longer they are visible. When the population are not flocking to a silhouette they are represented as an earthy tone, when they inhabit and move with the silhouettes they become black. The transformation between these two states is not always fluid. There is often a latent image, suggesting there is a lag when transitioning from employed to unemployed or the reverse.
The motivation for "The Unemployed" came from my own urban wanderings, my drawing practice, and my interest in algorithmic art. Because I was often bumping into people as I walked down crowded streets, I began to think about the paths people travel when they walk through the city and to wonder if a depiction of the city could be generated by code. I was already making pen and ink drawings that depicted figures in abstract urban settings and I was interested to see if the computer could be programmed to make figures that approximated the ones I drew. Using Processing I was able to plot points to create stick-like figures. These figures were then programmed to move across the screen according to steering behaviors --algorithms that followed specific rule sets with respect to properties like velocity, attraction and cohesion. I was interested in simulating how people move in urban space using these steering behaviors. After experimenting with different incarnations of a fixed number of figures, I began to search for relevant data sets that could be continually updated from the internet in order to map actual statistics to the number of figures on the screen. Struck by the growing number of unemployed I was reading about in the daily newspaper, I decided to turn the project not only into a visualization of world wide unemployment, but also into an interactive installation mapping the number of unemployed onto silhouettes captured by a camera and turning that silhouette into a shadowy presence that follows the movements of people in the gallery space.