Atop the Charts 

Ruby Green installation explores the idea of information management by inserting viewers into a giant graph that maps Hank Williams' career and the Cold War

Ruby Green installation explores the idea of information management by inserting viewers into a giant graph that maps Hank Williams' career and the Cold War

Adrian Göllner "No, No Joe"

Through May 1 at Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center

Charts and graphs constitute a pervasive part of the visual information flow we receive, whether from CNN broadcasts or presentations at work. Whenever a chart flashes into your field of vision, it says firmly, "This is Information." Charts connote objectivity: They convert a set of numbers into visual form, anonymously, without interpretation. Right? Not quite. Every chart depends on someone deciding what data to include and how to display it, a process rife with interpretation, if not outright manipulation.

Adrian Göllner, based in Ottawa, Canada, takes charts as both the medium and subject of his installation at Ruby Green. As a Canadian Army brat, Göllner grew up in the 1960s and '70s on military bases around the world, an experience that led to a fascination with the Cold War. For this show, he combined that interest with our local obsession, country music, in an exhibit that impiously links the progress of Hank Williams' career and events in the Cold War.

Many people in Nashville have a good idea of where Hank Williams fits into the history of country music. We may less often look beyond music to see what else was going on at the same time. When you think about it, Williams' career (1947-52) coincides with the early part of the Cold War, a time when the U.S. and the Soviets were furiously developing and testing new generations of weapons. Williams directly acknowledged his Cold War context in the song that gives the show its title, "No, No Joe," a 1950 obscurity addressed to Stalin.

On one side of the gallery, Göllner created a line graph showing the peak positions of Hank Williams' hits on the country music charts. The bigger the hit, the higher it shows on the gallery wall. The length of the line indicates the amount of time on the chart. On the same timeline (1946-55), he plotted the A-bomb and H-bomb tests that occurred in those years, positioning them higher on the wall according to the magnitude of the blast.

Once Göllner defined rules for data inclusion, scales and graphic formats, he set a machine in motion that produced a pattern of lines and dots outside of his direct design. The result has a definite rhythm that reflects the compression and release of the events chronicled on the gallery wall. One of the reasons we respond to rhythmic effects in art is that they reflect our experience of phenomena like history. Göllner plays with this effect and shows that one can use any number of processes for generating the patterns we enjoy in abstract art. The underlying phenomena, rather than artistic design, produce these patterns.

Hank Williams and nuclear arms development have no logical connection; they are apparently unrelated. However, we have a compulsive fascination with the prospect of finding meaning hidden in apparently random events. We go for Tarot readings. We lap up conspiracy theories, which draw upon unlikely and suppressed connections similar to what Göllner gets here. The comparisons are spurious, but they also may point toward deeper, more mysterious connections. The sequence on the graph shows a flurry of releases in Williams' last year of life, followed by a bunch of A-bomb tests, a run of H-bomb tests and then another series of A-bomb tests. Did Hank Williams' death somehow open the floodgates for all these weapons tests? I'd need a conference call with Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo to figure this one out.

On the opposite wall, Göllner charts events in Hank Williams' life, arrayed along the same timeline and positioned higher or lower depending on the relative positive or negative character of the event. In a different color, he plots events that heightened or lessened U.S.-Soviet tensions and shows the position of the Doomsday Clock of the Union of Atomic Scientists, a graphic device used to indicate how close the world is to nuclear annihilation.

This part of the exhibit goes further in pointing up the inherent subjectivity of these communications tools. While Göllner plots events carefully against the horizontal timeline, the height position (y-axis) is his choice, unlike the chart ranking or blast size used on the opposite wall. He places an event like the initiation of peacetime conscription in the U.S. as an event that lessened tensions somewhat; one could debate that interpretation at length. The selection of events is also subjective. You expect some of them: Williams' death, his first sale of songs to Fred Rose. However, we also have "Hank Williams performs in Ottawa" in 1949. I'm thinking that probably wasn't his biggest gig. Although the clock graphic suggests something measured precisely according to a consistent, uniform system, even the Doomsday Clock is subjective. Its authors set the position of the hands based on solid analysis of nuclear dangers, but it rests on their judgment. (See for more on the clock.)

Charts and graphs are typically the anonymous issuances of bureaucracies and news media. In this exhibit, the form and even the materials suppress the presence of a maker. Göllner's only medium is vinyl tape, and the lettering is all in a uniform sans serif font—nothing that betrays an artist's hand. Of course, his presence is everywhere, in the many decisions that shape the displays.

Göllner has fun with this. The comparison of Hank Williams and nuclear tensions does not criticize either, but has a mock seriousness. The combination functions like a pun, making an inapt comparison, and he uses a punster's literal-mindedness to arrive at mixed meanings: He applies the concept of height to both groups of events, so that heightened U.S.-Soviet tensions—bad things—go higher on the wall, next to the high points in Hank Williams' life—good things. The scales go in opposite directions, which either destroys the illusion of correlation or suggests a strange negative correlation.

If Göllner introduces an element of critique, it relates to the methods of information management. His installation points out the way graphic methods can make it hard to distinguish information and misinformation. This problem played a big role in the Cold War, which was waged on both sides by technocrats wielding analysis and information as weapons. Robert McNamara championed a statistics-driven approach to policy and warfare in Vietnam, but ultimately, the apparent objectivity of the decision-making fell victim to its capacity to give poor reasoning a covering of inevitability. Göllner's exhibit makes clear the amount of judgment buried within apparently impersonal and objective graphs and charts. These techniques hide the fact of authorship and give the results undeserved status beyond questioning.

The visual experience of this piece may be a bit dry, with its reliance on impersonal materials and the forms of bureaucratic communication. But the piece does respond well to the long, thin gallery space, which gave Göllner his initial inspiration. He turns it into a three-dimensional graph, with multiple y-axes on the left and right side of the room rising from the one x-axis. Rather than looking at a two-dimensional graph from outside, viewers see this one from inside, like a bureaucratic version of Fantastic Voyage.

One question is whether this exhibit works more as media and social criticism than as art. It's easy to imagine the culture jammers at Adbusters sponsoring "No, No Joe" to expose the nature of communications tools used to influence and control people. However, Göllner enjoys the pun of his forced comparisons too much for that, and once you get past the information specifics, you can experience the entertaining, perspective-altering effect of being inserted into a technocrat's graph.


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