Excelling: an interview with Danielle Aubert

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.