The Artist Series Two: iSquare Protocol

Artist Series Two: iSquare Protocol, What is Information?

An interview with Jenna Hartel @ the iSchool, University of Toronto


This past spring, an exhibition called REWIRED: ART X BISSEL opened within the iSchool’s Bissel building which stems of the main Robarts building. The exhibition features the work of artists whose work focuses on the intersections between people, digital technology and information. The exhibition connects contemporary artist’s responses, including works by Tobias Williams, Adrienne Crossman, Connor Buck, Robbie Sinclair, Jessica Zhou, Tabitha Chan and Brandon Dalmer with research, showcasing the qualitative, arts-based research project called the iSquare Protocol, run by Dr. Hartel and her research team. A display-case with drawings collected from around the world can be found on the fourth-floor foyer. The iSquare Research Program is a study that uses drawing as a way of investigating the concept of information, a word that can be confusing, nebulous and vague. Dr. Hartel decided that an arts-informed approach would bring great insight to her field of research. The study asks the questions:


1) How do people visualize the concept of information?

2) How do visual conceptions of information differ among various populations?

3)  How do these images relate to conceptions of information made of words?


I was fortunate to participate in this study during my first semester as a graduate student in Foundations of Library Information Studies, taught by Dr. Hartel. As a part of this class, students collected iSquare drawings, analyzed them, and responded with writing and our own creative responses. (The methodology, explained in greater detail here and in the video above). As a student with a background in the arts, realizing that drawing could be considered a valid, and even valuable, way of studying a concept was exciting. I had long known from personal experience that drawing and painting was a vital way of processing and communicating information and experience, yet this incredibly rewarding practice tends to be limited to those with training, technical comfort in some artistic medium. I loved that Hartel’s study invites non-professionals to engage in this process of communication and exchange through art and furthermore, was being taken seriously in an academic context.

Our class divided itself into three groups; each would study a different topic. Dr. Hartel had expanded her research, asking students to choose from three possible subjects, which were “information,” “librarian” and “internet.” I opted to join team internet.  I was curious to see the ways that participants would depict something as massive, and hard to grasp as the internet. I wanted to see how others conceptualized the internet, something I relied upon every day but had little-grounded understanding of how it functions. Here are a few of the “internet” iSquare drawings:

This drawing depicts a dark mysterious cloud with giant limbs encircling the earth. The internet is of massive proportions, powerful and unknowable. Many of the drawings touched on the unknown in their illustrations. The 18 year old male who made this drawing said “ The internet is this vast, dark void that is continually growing and can never be fully explored yet it controls our entire existence on earth.” The sense of helplessness, and the lack of human proportion in this response is unsettling.

Other illustrations focused on a more human scale, but still presented bizarre conceptions of the internet. The 25 year old female participate explained her illustration this way: “It’s a window like, square shaped thing.” The drawing communicates so much more than the statement. The square window acts as an intermediary structure connecting the mouth of one subject through to the forehead of a masked, disguised other. The tree stemming of the central square in the center softens an otherwise disturbing image. Lacking humanizing facial features, the bodies seem to be hooked up to the machinery of the internet, neither the “speaker” nor the “recipient” appear to be active, and neither are directly engaging with one an another.

This drawing, more positive than the last one shows the connectivity of the internet. The 53-year-old female participant says “My drawing is meant to illustrate how the internet connects us to information, ideas, bureaucracies, and other people.” This abstract drawing is active, dynamic with more fluid and mutual relationships between its varying parts.

Dr. Hartel’s research affirms that the perspectives of broad publics matters. Her approach to researching information had a beautiful social component which, on top of its impressive archive of drawings, left traces that were undocumented. These traces were the conversations between researchers and participants about big concepts that were initiated by a contemplative drawing exercise. The squares expose visual metaphors, affective responses, presented in short period of time. The squares revealed attitudes, the ways that individuals relate to the systems that we rely so heavily upon, systems that often perplex and overwhelm us while having such a great bearing on how we live our contemporary lives.

After interviewing Dr. Hartel for Digital Tattoo, she introduced me to the Handbook of Arts in Qualitative Research By Sandra Weber. Her writing outlines how, over the last few decades of the 20th century, qualitative researchers in the social sciences began to pay serious attention to the use of images as a way of enhancing understanding of the human condition. The handbook offers a list of ten good reasons that answer the question: “Why use arts-related visual images in research?” These good ideas were so good that I wanted to share them here. Images can be used to capture the ineffable, the hard-to-put-into-words


Images can make us pay attention to things in new ways.

  1. Images are likely to be memorable, as images elicit emotional as well as intellectual responses.
  2. Images can be used to communicate more holistically, incorporating multiple layers, and evoking stories or questions
  3. Images can enhance empathetic understanding and generality.
  4. Through metaphor and symbol, artistic images can carry theory elegantly, and eloquently
  5. Images encourage embodied knowledge
  6. Images can be more accessible than more forms of academic discourse
  7. Images can facilitate reflexivity in research design.
  8. Images provoke action for social justice.

Asking the question, “what is the internet” required participants to consider their relationship to technology in a new way, gaining a different perspective through the exercise which requires participants to gain some thoughtful distance from something as ubiquitous as the internet. To quote Weber once more: “An image can be a multi-layered theoretical statement, simultaneously positing even contradictory propositions for us to consider, pointing to the fuzziness of logic and complex paradoxical nature of particular human experiences.” This statement about the potential of images was realized in the study. People’s drawings of the internet conveyed multiple meanings, positive, negative, concrete and abstract. Opening up broad discussion around what the internet is, what information is and how we relate to these subjects is a first step in becoming knowledgeable, engaged social participants. Dr. Hartel’s research is an example of how academic research can break down boundaries between art and academic research, as it engages communities in an inviting, playful way. Her research is building aesthetic, social knowledge through representations, symbols, and conversations.




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