I Wanted To Look for the Constants

In a world where we’re bombarded with a 24/7 news cycle of scary statistics, being in a state of constant anxiety can be the norm. To combat this new reality, Absolut Art invited artist, writer and TV producer Mona Chalabi to create a series of drawings that would employ data to actually bring the viewer some reprieve from the troubling news that constantly bombards us. In response, she created a set of drawings that look to unchanging facts from the natural world, like the behavior of birds, the movement of ocean waves, and the rotation of the Earth. “It’s precisely because everything is changing so much day-to-day, she tells Absolut Art “that I wanted to look for the constants.”

You’ve done many different kinds of work, from producing television shows to writing to illustration to public speaking. Can you sum up any single mission in all of these productions, or even a few?

The through line is journalism, because the ultimate goal is to make information accessible, whether in words or film or illustration, and do it in as joyous a way as possible. A lot of the subjects I tackle don’t have any joy in them, to be frank. For example, I’m voraciously reading journalism of this new disease, and the images of people lying on stretchers makes me want to look away. So I want to present information in a way that doesn’t patronize but doesn’t just instill horror, because horror can be quite debilitating. The point is so that people can change their behaviors to do things that are right for them or be responsible citizens, because otherwise, you’re left standing still.

Indeed, you have swooped into action in response to the novel coronavirus, creating a number of educational posters about whether people should continue to honor social distancing guidelines, for example, and what the symptoms are. Do you often create works in response to pressing concerns of the moment versus longer-researched projects?

Actually as a journalist I’m often responding to what’s happening in the world rather than delving into research on subjects that appeal to me, so the majority of my work is looking at things that happen in the world. Very rarely are they long-term projects. I just did a gallery show, which took place over a year, but so much of my work is done over days rather than weeks. So it’s good that it looks that way!

Your work spans a wide emotional range. For the New Yorker, you wrote about how certain professions are more common in New York, perhaps unexpectedly, than elsewhere, like home health aides, jewellers, and crossing guards. For the New York Review of Books, you wrote about the exorbitant costs of funerals in America, which have risen drastically in recent decades. Did you have an “aha” moment when you realized the diversity of ways you could use statistics?

I’m always trying to make the mood consistent with the subject itself. If you look at most data visualization, there’s a supposed neutrality. I try to make the visualization represent the subject itself in its overall tonality. For the ones I’m making for Absolut Art, I experimented with watercolors and then I used felt tips, which I don’t normally use. I started out working on Nate Silver’s blog, FiveThirtyEight, and it was so draining, it’s so emotional. I became disillusioned with standard data journalism and wanted to try something different.

Some of your work has a distinct feminist mission, with productions like the Vagina Dispatches, which offers lessons about the female anatomy, and the video Touch Your Tits, about being aware of your breasts so you can be alert to any changes that may indicate health hazards. They’re both funny, too. How do you think about combining humor with very serious subjects like sexuality and women’s health?

As a journalist you’re trying to depict the real world. Your genitalia is funny and it’s serious, and that’s the way that we think about data in the real world.

We’re all, to say the least, a bit anxious right now. But you’ve put across some very lighthearted, timeless messages with these drawings, about the Earth’s rotation and the motion of the waves. These things aren’t likely to change anytime soon. What’s the importance of these facts even in a worrisome time with immediate concerns?

It’s precisely because everything is changing so much day-to-day that I wanted to look for the constants. The few times I’m going outside, nature is so confronting. The trees are blooming and you see the continuity of something that happens every year. It’s comforting, I think. It’s not to make you happy exactly, but to provide some comfort as an antidote to the anxiety induced by the world all around us.