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Recently, WRT featured the art book 16 Months Worth of Drawing Exercises in Microsoft Excel. WRT interviewed artist Danielle Aubert about her Excel art, and more:
WRT: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Danielle Aubert: I’m based in Detroit. I moved out here in June of 2005 after finishing up an MFA program in graphic design at Yale University. Prior to that I lived in New York and Moscow where I worked as a web designer. I didn’t begin studying graphic design formally until I got to Yale, so while I was working in web design I more or less learned on the job. I studied English Literature for my undergraduate degree. I came to Detroit to join my partner who is a professor in the English department at Wayne State University. I’ve been teaching at the College for Creative Studies (http://www.ccscad.edu/) twice a week and work for clients out of an ‘office’ in downtown Detroit (I rent a 1-bedroom apartment down the hall from where I live).
WRT: How did you begin working with Excel artistically?
DA: I started ‘designing’ directly in Excel when I was putting together a thesis book for my MFA at Yale. I had been thinking a lot about how information is tracked and compiled, and when it came time to imagine a final form for my thesis book it made sense to me to create the book in Excel. One chapter of the thesis book was a catalogue of all the things I had designed over the previous three years. I laid it out in a spreadsheet format. At the end of the book I included graphs and charts that were generated by the information in the spreadsheet-catalogue of all the work (I determined what fonts I tended to use most frequently, how productive I was at different times of year, what my color preferences were, etc.). While I worked I “tracked changes” so that I would have a history of all the actions I made while working on the document. For example, whenever I copied and pasted information from one cell into another it might register that at 7:52 pm on April 2, 2005 the word “paper” was copied from cell H245 to H289. So in effect, the document that tracked the projects I’d worked on for three years also tracked itself.
During that time (spring 2005) I also started making daily ‘drawings’ in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. I was inspired to begin making them after a conversation I had with a friend of mine from Moscow named Oleg Aronson, who has a theory about ‘Small Art.’ He had been writing short poems about sort of standard things like love, sadness, and beauty and posting them every day on a russian poetry website. At one point he stopped posting poems and discovered that people had actually been reading his poems - he started receiving emails from people asking him why he’d stopped and when he would start writing again. He said his poems weren’t that great, he was a kind of amateur poet and wouldn’t spend much time writing each poem, but somehow this time frame and amount of energy seems appropriate for a particular kind of internet art. We talked about how the internet calls for small artistic efforts that are maybe not quantifiable or valuable on the art market but that bring some joy to the people who find them.
So after this conversation I started making Excel drawings, never spending more than 30-40 minutes on each one, and I tried not to get hung up on whether I was making non-representational versus representational versus abstract versus systems versus typographic drawings. I just made drawings about anything that I thought might be pleasing in some general way. After a while I started to copy one day’s drawing into a spreadsheet for the next day’s drawing because I found that that way the drawings could build on themselves and maybe become a bit more complex. But really my main objective when I began making them was to experiment with making ’small art’ - or the equivalent of my friend’s small poems - in Excel. And the reason I was working in Excel was because I thought I could include it as a chapter in my thesis book. But then the drawings developed a life of their own in a way, because I continued making them even after the thesis book was done and I’d left school.
WRT: The concept of “small art” seems to resonate well with some of your past projects that were also built up out of small pieces - for example, the iterative documentary photography of “Every Waking Hour” or the accumulative catalogs of “All the Clothes of a Woman” or “$100 Exchange Project”. How was this work a similar or different experience for you?
DA: In a way the other projects were a bit different for me than doing the Excel Drawings because in the other projects I would set up a system and carry it out in a methodical way. With the Excel Drawings the system was more loose. Just to make drawings from time to time, more or less daily, of whatever seemed like it might be interesting. In projects I’d done before I would really try to set things up so that I wouldn’t have to do anything expressive or make decisions according to taste. I started to get tired of working that way because I felt like the decision-making moments all happened at the beginning of a project and the rest of the time would just be spent on execution. So I would decide to document all my clothes, then I’d be engaged in the tedious task of photographing and sorting through my wardrobe for the next three months. And in the mean time I would hear about other artists who had done the same project or very similar projects that were more interesting many years ago (like for example Hans Peter-Feldmann did a really nice project called All the Clothes of a Woman in 1974).
I still do things in a very systematic/methodical way from time to time but maybe not as much. I think it’s a bit comforting to work that way because you don’t have to pay careful attention while you work, yet you can derive some feeling of satisfaction of having projects going on, or running themselves in the background.
The $100 Exchange Project was maybe a move toward following a less regimented system because I didn’t have totally fixed parameters for spending the $100, or a plan for what I would do after I exchanged objects I’d bought for other objects. I just had some ideas about exhangability and value and trying to buy as many objects as possible in local shops. I ended up with this box full of random objects I’d bought or exchanged and finally I threw most of it out. Even though I liked the idea that the contents of the box was ‘worth’ $100 exactly.
WRT: What was the progression of the various iterations of Excel projects, and how are they named?
DA: The names vary and are generally just descriptive of the project. And I think I did the first book (just 11×17 color laser print-outs stapled together) and the web pages at the same time, and I also output some posters for my final thesis show at school. I also made a video. I was interested in outputting in all possible ways. But then more recently an actual published book came out through Various Projects, run by Brian Janusiak and Elizabeth Beer (they also have a store called Project No. 8 in lower Manhattan).
Here are the titles…
- 58 Days Worth of Drawing Exercises in Microsoft Excel (color laser print saddle-stitch book)
- 58 Days Worth of Drawing Exercises in Microsoft Excel as Rendered for Web
- Four and a Half Months of Daily Drawings Made in Microsoft Excel (video)
- 16 Months Worth of Drawing Exercises in Microsoft Excel (hard cover book)
Individual posters were just named according to the date they were made.
WRT: The sense of you reopening files and building spontaneously on previous pieces is palpable in your Excel drawing video animation - as is the sense of progressively exploring different parameters and features of the interface. What is it like interacting with Excel? Does the software user interface feel like a tool, or a like medium, and how does it compare with other tools or media you have used?
DA: That’s an interesting question, because I think that using Excel to make drawings rather than using it to do what it is intended for makes it more of a medium than a tool. If I use Photoshop or Illustrator to make images then I’m really using that software for its intended purpose and it’s hard to think of the Photoshop-ness of Photoshop - it’s hard to get outside the software and think about the influence it has on the decisions you make while you’re using it. But if you work in some other software it creates restrictions for what you can do so inevitably whatever you produce in Excel looks ‘Excel-ish’ by comparison to something you might ‘draw’ in Illustrator. So at first it really feels restrictive, because for example it’s not possible to draw a curve in Excel. But then there are other things Excel can do easily, like inserting comment boxes and adjusting the background colors of those, or adding diagonal line pattern fills, that in Illustrator or Photoshop would take a bit more work.
I haven’t really explored the Excel ‘drawing’ tools palette, though. I had been trying to use only the tools that were available while the ‘track changes’ feature is turned on. But recently I saw this example of an Excel drawing, which is done on top of the spreadsheet rather than within it (I think).
WRT: Playing with Excel reminds me of artistic play with other tools from the Microsoft Office suite - for example, David Byrne’s “E.E.E.I. (Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information),” which uses Powerpoint. Your working against what Excel is “intended for” is if anything more provocative because the spreadsheet is widely considered an icon of corporate accounting culture - the opposite of art, if you like.
DA: I really like David Byrne’s PowerPoint project a lot. His ideas about PowerPoint being a kind of democratic easy-to-use tool for making artworks are really great. You have a limited palette which is frustrating in a way but then there are all these other things you can do really easily. Like make charts. I actually saw David Byrne’s PowerPoint show in New York a few years ago when it opened. I remembere there were a ton of people at the opening. I was there with some of my classmates from Yale, we were on a ‘field trip’ to New York studios and the last person we visited took us to the opening. The thing that I remember most about the show was that he was also showing images of office park signage, those signs that are often surrounded by shrubs at the entrance to corporate campuses. But they were manipulated somehow. I can’t totally remember I should probably look it up. When I was using Excel for my project I was thinking a bit about David Byrne and wondering if because he had used PowerPoint to make art then by using any MS software to make work you’d just be copying his project. But I was also thinking about some ideas in graphic design that are maybe responding to the prevalence of print ephemera designed in Microsoft software. I think designers are thinking a lot these days about their role and where they want to place themselves or think of themselves with relation to widely available methods of production. Like it’s easy for graphic designers to make fun of the kerning on homemade flyers for lost pets but actually there are many people who are very skilled at designing in MS Word and they can do complicated things that would take hours to reproduce in Photoshop. So why not use clip art if it makes sense? Anyway maybe all that is beside the point. But when I first started using Excel to design a book and then to make those drawings I had this feeling of inevitability. Like I was aware of David Byrne’s work and of people working with Microsoft Word but I thought, sooner or later it will make sense to choose software that is most appropriate to a particular project. And Excel is the appropriate software for my project right now, so I should use it. Maybe it will make sense for someone one day to write a book entirely in Eudora, or for someone to make a feature film in iMovie, it just depends on the project and I think the software should be a part of the decision when you set out to create something.
Edward Tufte wrote a text on PowerPoint (The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, 2005) where he kind of bemoans the effect PowerPoint will have on information graphics, which strikes me as a conservative attitude. Like he’s afraid people will forget how to make nice information graphics because PowerPoint will ruin our ability to think outside of the bullet point system. Or something. I think obviously Microsoft Office kind of homogenizes the things we do on the computer but it also makes it possible for us to do a lot of things we wouldn’t otherwise do. Furthermore any software you use homogenizes the ‘look’ of the thing you’re producing, whether you’re using mostly Adobe software or even if you’re really devoted to using GIMP. My brother is into open-source stuff and Linux and every time I see him he encourages me to use GIMP. I think maybe I should. Lev Manovich makes a point about the effect of software on the ‘creative process’ in The Language of New Media. I didn’t completely realize how much of an effect Photoshop and Illustrator had on the things I produced until I did a couple of projects in Excel. For that reason I think everyone should try working with alternative software.
My friend Tan Lin has this idea about the software as readymade, like the ‘artwork’ is sort of about making visible the software. He mentions Cory Arcangel’s hacked Nintendo game piece as an example, where Arcangel manipulated Super Mario Bros (I think) so that all you see are clouds in the sky floating by. Arcangel’s project and David Byrne’s project are most memorable because they’re Nintendo and MS Powerpoint projects - the software as a medium is what makes them interesting. I think now the Excel Drawings project is really a novelty project because it’s made in Excel and in some ways that is the most interesting thing about it - the drawings themselves aren’t that sophisticated but the fact that they’re made in Excel makes them weird. But I think everyone should try using PowerPoint or Excel as an art medium. Not in support of Microsoft, but in support of the people who have to use Microsoft every day. I’m just waiting for Excel drawings to become a genre rather than a novelty thing, then maybe my project will become completely uninteresting, but I think that’s ok, because actually it really is fun to use Excel for drawing. Someone emailed me a couple of months ago with drawings he had made in Excel, they’re really great, I’m not sure how he made them he did this thing where he split cells diagonally and has one color on the top and one on the bottom. Drawing in Excel is much easier than struggling with getting formulas to work, especially if you don’t need the drawings to be representational.
WRT: E.E.E.I. is distributed as a DVD for people without Powerpoint. In making these works more accessible to non-MSOffice owners, these transcriptions also change the work. Removing the authoring software context also makes art a bit more ‘closed source’ - harder to examine, sample, or remix. What are your thoughts on transcribing spreadsheets to web pages or a print book?
DA: I think it’s interesting to think about the natural formats that projects take - for example exporting the Excel files for web was something Excel can do. I mean maybe ‘natural’ is the wrong word. But the software is configured to make it easy to export HTML files. So I think it’s interesting to work with the forms that are kind of already available? Which is why I was a little nervous about making a book of the Excel drawings - because on the one hand it seems like, ‘oh, interesting to do the unexpected - to put Excel documents in a nice cloth-covered hard-case book with gold stamping.’ But on the other hand it seems maybe more appropriate to export the drawings to PDF and post them on Lulu, so they can be printed on demand. Or maybe you’re right, to make the files available so people can just print them out on their own printers… I mean I don’t know, there are a lot of possibilities. Maybe more than this project warrants, in a way! Better to just stop!
WRT: Where can people order the book?
Aubert, Danielle. 16 Months Worth of Drawing Exercises in Microsoft Excel, New York, NY: Various Projects, Inc, 2006.
Byrne, David. E.E.E.I. (Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information), London, UK: Steidl Publishing, 2003.
Tufte, Edward R. The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 2003.