Years ago, Brad Bartlett was flipping through used books inside an old Glendale shop when he found an image that looked familiar. In fact, it looked like the cover of Joy Division's 1979 debut full-length, Unknown Pleasures. Bartlett did his research and found out that the graphic, a representation of data from a pulsar, was what graphic designer Peter Saville had used on the now-classic album cover.
That piece of post-punk trivia stuck with Bartlett, who teaches in the graphic design department at Art Center.
“Very few people know that the graphic itself is actually the first-ever recorded pulsar,” says Bartlett by phone. “That to me is super interesting and exciting, that it continues to live on, that the data from a dying star is alive and well, pretty much on college campuses everywhere too.”
Bartlett's also the Director of Transmedia at the school and explores the intersection of data and art in his classes. That makes the Unknown Pleasures cover a perfect piece to study. It's data that became album art and, in recent years, its popularity has surged, with the image appearing on everything from Tumblr posts to sneaker soles to a Mickey Mouse T-shirt.
“What's also interesting about that particular piece is that it almost continues to resonate and change and mutate over time. You see it on so many T-shirts in almost every iteration it's changed just a little bit, customized for the personality of the person that's wearing it it,” he says. “It's almost like a cultural meme, that's kind of like a living thing that we see everywhere. It's just a fascinating cultural phenomenon.”
Bartlett curated “Double Data: Typography + Data Visualization” on view at Art Center College of Design from Oct. 21 through March 17, 2017. The show features a wide range of data-inspired art, from and LED display made by Bartlett and Ivan Cruz to a piece of music based on word patterns in Green Eggs and Ham made by Art Center graduate Daniel C. Young. Naturally, there's also a piece based on Unknown Pleasures in the show.
Michael Zöllner teaches interaction and information design at Hof University in Germany. He made a 3D sculpture of the album art as what began as a “simple weekend project” to play with a new printer. Since there weren't any 3D models or vector graphics of the art available, he made his own. Zöllner is interested in creative coding — that's one of the subjects he teaches — and initially attempted to use an audio recording of the pulsar to generate the lines. Turns out that the recording he found wasn't for the correct pulsar. Instead, he spent a night recreating the vector lines before getting to work. In the end, it took the weekend, plus a few more days to complete the project. Zöllner was so happy with the results that he sent images to a few blogs. “Then it went through the internet,” he recalls over a Skype call.
Zöllner says that it's the subject matter that made his project a viral hit. It's not just a cool image; it's part of the mythos surrounding a beloved band. “At first you don't know that it's an audio signal of a dying star, which makes it much more interesting regarding Ian Curtis' death,” he says.
There's a certain sadness to Joy Division that goes beyond sound. They were poised for greatness, but singer Ian Curtis committed suicide on the eve of the band's first U.S. tour. Their biggest hit, “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” came out after his death. While the surviving members went on to become the highly successful band New Order, Joy Division was a cult phenomenon. And like other cult hits, from the British singer Morrissey to David Lynch's TV show Twin Peaks, Joy Division's popularity grew in the internet age. Bartlett suspects that's partially responsible for the popularity of that album cover. It also plays a part in the other Joy Division-related piece in “Double Data.”
Peter Crnokrak, a geneticist-turned-graphic designer based in London, has been enamored with “Love Will Tear Us Apart” since he first heard the song in the mid-'80s. He kept tabs on some of the covers that were released over the decades, but eventually, he decided to find out just how many people had remade that alternative rock staple. Crnokrak describes the ensuing data art piece as a “fanboy” project. He tallied up cover versions of the song twice. The first time, he came up with over 80 covers. On the second stab at the project, he found 168 versions of the song. “I'm a harsh critic because I love the band so much and I love the song so much and I think most of the covers, to be kind, aren't very good,” he says over Skype, “but there are a few real standouts.”
In this case, though, quantity is more important than quality. “You get a few covers here and there in the '80s and a little bit in the '90s and then this massive peak occurred in the mid-2000s,” says Crnokrak. “That's interesting just from the pattern point of view of what happened in the early '00s where Joy Division, the band itself, and, in particular, the song gained a sort of cultural foothold that it never had before because the band was really quite obscure.” He notes that there were a whopping 24 covers of the song released in 2007, which is the same year that the Ian Curtis biopic Control hit theaters.
Crnokrak's research could have just resulted in a list, but it became art when he stylized it. The black background with the white graphic recalls that Unknown Pleasures cover, but Crnokrak takes a different approach with the design. “The circular arrangement is somewhat indicative of not really having a beginning or an end,” he says. “The song itself will go on forever.”
Like Zöllner's 3D print, Crnokrak's data art became quite popular. He says it remains one of the most successful pieces he's made. “I think it resonated by people because the band is so well-loved, but the song itself is just, it's really cherished,” he says. “It's got that special quality imbued within it. It's just had a life of its own.”
With projects like these, artists help us see data in different ways, but our reactions have a lot to do with the popularity of their source material. “There's a sort of camaraderie that people feel when they see and understand the effort that I put into it,and it does take a lot of effort to make pieces like this,” says Crnokrak. “I think that resonates with people a lot because of the nature of the song, because it is so well cherished. It's not any old song. It's something that's very close to a lot of people's hearts.”
“Double Data: Typography + Data Visualization” opens on October 21 at 6 p.m. at the Hoffmitz Milken Center for Typography, ArtCenter College of Design, South Campus.