The SoCal Time Machine: The Thinking Behind the Timeline

How do you tell the story of L.A.? A vast metropolitan area that is eighty miles wide and a hundred miles long; a city of villages that are as interconnected as they are isolated; a sprawling urban-desert carpet that is a million different places at once.

In conceiving and building the Southern California Time Machine, our group sought to see if there was a way that we could better understand the cultural history of Los Angeles in a way that didn’t involve linear narrative (a style of storytelling that seems to be ill-suited to a geography that is so atomized and diffuse). Part of this stems from my own interest in the way infographics have come to tell stories really effectively in the area of politics and business.

See this image I found on the blog The Big Picture — related to the current debate about the debt:

 

Below is another graph, which appeared on Mother Jones, explaining American views on economic inequity:

I find these graphics compelling because of the way in which they are able to tell complicated stories in clear and visual ways. And recently, they have been used to great effect by the political and business media. In the arts media, not so much — where we tend to stick to traditional forms of storytelling, stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end. (See the image of Artforum magazine, at right.)

In the case of cultural coverage, these types of infographics don’t always make sense — since charts require raw data with similar values that can be easily crunched and rearranged — and they shouldn’t necessarily replace long-form story-telling. But, that doesn’t mean that we can’t think about doing arts coverage that is more visually driven — something that goes beyond slideshows. So, I settled on the idea of a digital timeline.

To be certain, timelines aren’t new. Timelines seem to make an appearance in history books and art catalogs. And, naturally, these days, they also appear regularly online. (The New York Times does this particularly well: check out this timeline on the American diet.) While many of these timelines represent an interesting way of organizing data, many of them still operate on a linear basis. In most cases, they are still read from beginning to end.

But with digital technology we can create timelines that can be accessed entry by entry. They can be entered and exited at any point. Individual entries can be shared using social media. They can reside online and be continually updated, turned into living documents that can evolve over time. And, they can allow us to see old information in new ways. Part of what inspired this project was a timeline of data systematization published by Wolfram Alpha. The timeline is a record of the ways in which civilizations have systematized data (not necessarily new information), but by consolidating all of this data into one place, the timeline allowed the researchers to analyze the information in new and synthetic ways. (If you access the link above, you’ll see how they were able to break the data out.)

Which brings me to the Southern California Time Machine.

The intent was to weave together different aspects of Southern California culture in ways that might allow us to see the culture of the region in fresh ways: from important happenings in the city’s punk rock scene to the vibrant conceptual arts happenings of the 1970s to Nixon’s resignation. The intent was to put together all of the major happenings of the era in one place in a way that is easy to understand and navigate. Unfortunately, a technical glitch prevented us from using the content management system we would have originally liked to — a system that embodied the cellular structure we were seeking — so what you’re seeing on the site is our hasty Plan B.

But in terms of the journalism, I’ve already seen a pay-off in organizing information in this way. One, much arts journalism is compartmentalized into its individual subject areas: music, art, theatre, film. By putting everything together in one place, we were able to see how the zeitgeist was informing all the different types of art being produced. An example: for decades, articles, radio stories, and films have been made about Chris Burden’s 1971 performance art piece “Shoot,” in which he had himself shot in the arm with a .22. It is often discussed within a visual art context. Often, it is deconstructed almost entirely within the context of his own career. Any outside influences — be it the tumultuous politics of the era, or the fact that rocker Iggy Pop was cutting himself with drumsticks at his performances as far back as 1969 — are rarely addressed. By putting this information together, it allows us to see Burden as a product of a larger cultural milieu.

In addition, the digital nature of the project allows to be able to search the information  and organize it in different ways. Under ideal technical conditions, we would be able to sort the information by subject, by date, by keyword or by a mix of all three — making this an ideal tool for researchers, journalists and others interested in learning more about Southern California.

 

Carolina Miranda

Carolina A. Miranda is a New York-based freelance writer who has contributed articles on culture and travel to Time, ARTnews, Fast Company and Budget Travel. She is a regular contributor to New York Public Radio, where she produces on-air and multimedia reports on visual art. Previously, she was a general assignment reporter at Time magazine. She has reported on the burgeoning industry of skatepark design, architectural pedagogy in Southern California, the use of video games as art and Lima's burgeoning food scene. Her blog C-Monster.net has received mentions in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and Salon. In January of 2010, the Times named her one of nine people to follow on Twitter. @cmonstah

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  1. Yes! Finally someone writes about Cosmetice.