Reichstag, Berlin, West Facade. Photo: Stefan Müller

Hans Haacke and data: Infusing the banality of fact with meaning

Data visualisation is a creative practice that requires a commitment to accuracy and truthfulness. In this it is similar to journalism (my own discipline), and it is no accident that the two practices are expanding their mutual engagement in both their core functions: as research and as communication. This is not to claim that all journalism and all data visualisation is art, but rather that both practices raise issues about the role of human creativity in the interrogation of reality, and communication about that interrogation. Accuracy, truthfulness and reality are far from simple concepts. They are fundamental to art as well as data analysis and journalism, as with any creative practice in any knowledge‑seeking activity. 

The nexus between art, information and journalism was made in the Conceptual Art movement that burgeoned in New York in the late 1960s. In their famous 1968 article “The Dematerialization of Art,” Lucy Lippard and John Chandler located contemporary art between the final two evolutionary “zones” of art according to the schema advanced in 1948 by Joseph Schillinger in his book The Mathematical Basis of the Arts, according to which “scientific, post‑aesthetic, which will make possible the manufacture, distribution and consumption of a perfect art product and will be characterized by a fusion of the art forms and materials, and, finally, a ‘disintegration of art,’ the ‘abstraction and liberation of the idea.’”

The highlighting of scientific thinking, the de-centering of aesthetics in favour of accuracy and analysis, the mechanisation and automation of production and distribution and the foregrounding of abstraction are all core elements of data visualisation. Data typically originates in the material characteristics of individual objects or processes, so we can’t jettison materiality but need to reconcile it with abstraction.

Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real estate
Hans Haacke Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971 (Excerpt of Buildings and Charts), 1971. Purchased jointly by the Whitney Museaum of American Art, New York, and the Fundació Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona. © Hans Haacke–Artists Rights Society

Hans Haacke was a prominent contributor to the controversial Information exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in July 1970 with his MoMA Poll, which asked visitors to respond Yes or No to a question about New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and the Vietnam War. The following April Haacke had his solo exhibition at the Guggenheim cancelled six weeks before opening because the Museum Director considered three of the works to be not art but journalism. One of the works was a visitor poll, and the other two presented publicly available, official information about the Manhattan real estate holdings of a notorious slum landlord (Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real‑Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971) and the largest private real estate mogul (Sol Goldman and Alex DiLorenzo Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971). 

The curator of the exhibition, Edward Fry, was an international authority on cubism and contemporary art. He defended Haacke and was immediately sacked. In his catalogue essay, Fry wrote that “the approach to reality offered by Haacke acts not only as a severe critique of previous modern art, but also serves to eliminate arbitrary boundaries within our culture between art, science and society.” To make absolutely unequivocal the importance he attached to Haacke, he said he “has extended the limits of art and has forced the re‑examination of both previous art and art theory.”

Fry was never again employed by a major US art gallery; Haacke in the following four decades has risen to the peak of international acclaim, with acquisitions and solo exhibitions at leading institutions and events including Documenta and the Venice Biennale, but he is yet to achieve that recognition at home in the US. The rejection and ostracism experienced by Haacke and Fry are intrinsic elements of the meaning of Haacke’s art. What is it about the neutral visualisation of publicly available data on real estate that is so profoundly challenging to major US art institutions? What lessons can we learn about data visualisation from this episode?

Haacke himself recognised the gift that Guggenheim Director Thomas Messer had bestowed on him. He grasped that the institutional and public reaction to the challenge posed by an artwork must firstly be incorporated into the artwork’s core meaning, and secondly could reveal the hidden relations of power that drive the processes of major social organisations by provoking actions and reactions. The reaction to the art became part of the art, not just as symbolic scandal (which can readily be accommodated), but as a revelation of core institutional relations to material facts and processes. 

Haacke is meticulous in his empirical research. He went on to produce a long succession of critically acclaimed works that effectively function in the same way as an astute question by a journalist—to provoke a response that will reveal the underpinning state of social relations that is producing material reality. Both the question (art object) and the answer (response) are dialectically linked to produce a revelation that constitutes the artwork. Most mainstream products of data visualisation are content to merely display information or track superficial interactions. That is not Haacke’s way.

Hans Haacke Derbevalkerung
Hans Haacke Der Bevölkerung[To the People], 2000, installation view, Lichthof, Reighstag, Berlin. Photo: Stefan Müller, 2008. © Hans Haacke–VG Bild Kunst.

A work by Haacke that poses conceptual challenges for data visualisation is DER BEVÖLKERUNG (translated as “To the population”). This work installed in Berlin’s refurbished Reichstag building in 2000 responds to the inscription on the front of the Reichstag, “Dem Deutschen Volk” (“To the German people”), a citation heavy with resonances of blood ties and exclusory nationalism. Following months of public controversy, including rousing debate about German citizenship laws and national identity in reflection on German history, there was a vote of 260 to 258 in favour, with 31 abstentions. The resulting work of art commissioned by the German Bundestag involved the agency of the role of the elected representatives of the Bundestag to participate (or not) in a project that in part responded to the notorious Bodenrituale (rituals of blood and soil) of the Nazis.

The work comprises a garden of earth installed in an internal courtyard of the Bundestag, created from sacks of soil brought from their individual electorates by members of the Bundestag. This 21-metre trench filled with earth and the illuminated letters is deliberately to be left untended in every way in perpetuity. The resulting art object ruthlessly spurns any mythic function to present everyday life as banal fact—in this case, a patch of randomly growing weeds documented by a web-camera recording the passage of time and the seasons. Its significance as art is a direct outcome of the social relations driven by the commissioning process, and the ongoing process of interpretation and production of meaning.

Recognising the banality of fact does not imply a disregard for accuracy and truthfulness. As Fry pointed out in 1971, “Haacke’s world is rigorously materialist, not symbolic, but his materialist view is of such large dimensions and possesses a logic and truthfulness of such clarity that it reaches the level of an almost transcendental moral force: rather than setting limits to consciousness, he offers a new freedom.” Any social or physical scientist dealing with information and data will confirm the validity of Haacke’s methodology. While empirical accuracy and scope are fundamental prerequisites for any valid research, it is in the abstract methodological premises where meaning is produced out of the facts. So four and a half decades after the revelations of Shapolsky and Goldman, what are the lessons to be drawn from Haacke about art and data visualisation?

The first lesson is that meaning is never intrinsic to a set of facts or data, and has to be produced out of a set of values and power relations in both the natural and social worlds. So, for example, a set of data about rising levels of obesity is meaningless unless the potential physical causes of obesity are understood in some detail, the potential results of obesity on health and wellbeing of both individuals and social groupings is understood in detail, and the various socio-economic interests involved in the production of obesity are recognised and understood in detail. Oftentimes, in the pursuit of a vulgar “objectivity,” products of data visualisation leave the identification of causes, results and vested interests at the level of implication rather than explication. The result is a mechanical transference of one visual form of information (such as statements or numbers) into another visual form. Haacke, on the other hand, saw those abstract or hidden factors as the most important element of meaning, and set out to induce actions by the relevant parties to reveal their roles. Actions are not mechanical and cannot be reduced to text or data, but have to be assessed and understood as practice and in practice.

The second lesson is that historical and geographical location is fundamental. The meaning of art is always site‑specific. Contemporary information about slum landlords that could be viewed in municipal records, subject to criminal court proceedings, reported and analysed in newspapers, could not be presented in an elite art museum, and the penalty for attempting to do so was banishment for decades if not life. A patch of weeds and a sign on a vacant block in Berlin is not the same as the Reichstag building. That is the significance of Shapolsky and Goldman and DER BEVÖLKERUNG that dwarfs all other interpretations, and the works cannot be understood without very specific reference to the historical and geographical location of that process of rejection or contestation. Shapolsky was finally purchased by the Whitney in 2007, three and a half decades after the events that defined its significance and when its importance could be relegated to the historical. The Bundestag spent more time debating DER BEVÖLKERUNG than it did approving the despatch of German troops to Kosovo, the first foreign deployment of the German Army since World War II, and the final vote was line ball. 

What would be the revelatory locations for data visualisation about links between alcohol consumption, health and violence? The advertisement breaks in a sports broadcast? Etched into the grass of a football field? Any attempt to use those locations would quickly reveal the interests and relationships involved in the political economy of alcohol consumption, just as it did in Australia when cigarette advertising was progressively banned from sporting venues.

Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System as of May1, 1971.
(Detail)Hans Haacke Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System as of May 1, 1971, 1971. Purchased jointly by the Whitney Museaum of American Art, New York, and the Fundació Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona. © Hans Haacke–Artists Rights Society

The third and perhaps most profound lesson is that art, as data visualisation, has to be understood as practice—practice on the part of the artist and practice on the part of the diverse audiences. Reducing art to an object, visual or otherwise, is a severe and crippling limitation on the interpretation and understanding of the work. Haacke’s entire oeuvre from the early 1960s onwards, initially focused on physical systems and then extended to social ones, is concerned with the links between material evidence and abstract relationships and values. Those links can only be understood as practices and through practice, as the French philosopher of everyday life, Henri Lefebvre, articulated. The meaning is never intrinsic to the object, no matter how informative or beguiling it might appear. Haacke’s genius lies in his capacity to understand the relationship between object, location and social relations, and to distil that relationship into a work that induces practices in response to an object that will reveal the social relations invested in its meaning.

Haacke’s modus operandi is not unique. Every journalist or courtroom lawyer searching for the killer question that will reveal the truth understands the practices of revelation and meaning production. So does every gallery owner and curator considering the politics of a particular exhibition. Thomas Messer at the Guggenheim and the members of the Bundestag understood the questions that Haacke was posing, and while they responded differently (by the narrowest of margins in Berlin), in both cases their processes of rejection or acceptance revealed the social relations that underpinned their institutions. It was only through their practice that this could happen.

The final lesson, harking back to Schillinger, Lippard and Chandler and the disintegration or dematerialisation of art, is the rigorous materialism in Haacke’s art. The responses of the Guggenheim and Bundestag were to material objects and concepts, and their responses took the form of material practice. These were not just ideas being thrown about for the sake of it. The art objects were going to be accepted into the two venues, or not. The strict accuracy of the information in the real estate pieces was essential (the NYPD approached Haacke to get his research on the Goldman piece, because they suspected it was a Mafia money‑laundering exercise). Conversely, the random nature of the plants that would sprout and survive in the Bundestag was essential to the integrity of the work, and any human intervention would have destroyed it. 

Haacke is certainly proposing the disintegration of art as a commodity to be traded and privately owned, but that in no way diminishes the materiality of the work or the idea of truth. Rather, as Fry said, his materialism offers a new freedom by deploying “a logic and truthfulness of such clarity that it reaches the level of an almost transcendental moral force.”

Chris Nash is Professor of Journalism at Monash University. His book What is Journalism? The Art and Politics of a Rupture was published in 2016.