Ventanilla: duet by Regine Abos

This book project takes an unusual approach to the use of data visualisation: it presents a thematic analysis of written correspondence between a poet and historian about difficult histories and colonialism in the Philippines and Australia. The role of the data visualisation designer here is that of an observing anthropologist: every section of the conversation is meaningfully positioned on each spread using an underlying grid, with each prompt and response moving horizontally and vertically according to the nature of the exchange (i.e. when there is a direct exchange between the speakers, the text is set on the same visual plane/hang line). The notations beside selected lines throughout the text represent the unseen dynamics between authors, identified through deductive thematic analysis: a systematic process similar to social science research methods used in generating new knowledge from qualitative data in interview transcripts or artefact content. It first involved reading the text several times, then assigning codes to specific phrases: date, place, person, relationship, event, insight, question. These codes were then grouped into broader themes, reviewed, then assigned a specific symbol: one each for when the conversation diverged, when it converged, when there were unanswered questions, when there was a response to an earlier question, when there were similar themes but set in different contexts or manifested differently, and when there were pauses in the exchange. This visualisation speaks to: 1) the readers of the text (those interested in history and literature) and allows them to experience additional layers of meaning — tone of voice and body language — that are otherwise lost in the written word, and 2) the authors themselves — who, upon digesting the system of symbols, noticed for the first time some cadences and rhythms that they themselves hadn’t realised; the visualisation therefore played a major role in reflection of the self and the creative writing process.

Being a “duet”, the design of the symbols loosely reference musical symbols and the book format selected (Royal Octavo) is a nod to octaves in music. There are two keys to decode the data: one in the authors’ bios at the beginning of the book, where the different voices are established (the poet’s voice is set in a Roman version of the typeface “Le Monde Livre” and the historian’s voice is set in the italic version) and the other is located at the end, explaining the meaning of each symbol. Having this key at the end rather than at the beginning encourages the audience to explore the text a second time and pick up nuances that they might have missed upon initial reading. The cover and back cover of the book offers a final visualisation: it is a diagram of a transom — a partition between rooms of a house or building where sound/voices can travel through — used in the text as a metaphor for barriers to certainty. It also pokes fun at the poet’s disdain for the word and taunts the use of the more romantic (albeit slightly inaccurate) Spanish word “ventanilla” in the title.