Date: 2005
Project Type: Generative

Launch Project Launch Project

Exercise for Ethan Ham's

Email Erosion


Email Erosion (EE) is a computer-operated installation (also viewable via webcam) that automatically creates sculptures when it receives an email. EE has roots in conceptual art because its activity is centered around a set of instructions. It also relates to data visualization, or the aesthetic presentation of text or numerical information. In EE, a block of biodegradable styrofoam is surrounded by a steel frame. When triggered by the contents of emails, a mobile mechanism sprays water on the foam and causes it to slowly dissolve.

Note: this exercise is difficult, and best suited for students with some familiarity with online communication.


To consider how data can be visualized in forms that are not text or number-based.


  1. Warm-Up Activity (5min):

    View different population charts: a bar chart, pie chart, histogram, and scatterplot. The educator should lead students in a brief discussion that touches upon each one. Suggested questions could include:

    • What are the names of the different graphs?
    • Which one best represents the information?
    • Do any represent the original data in a way that seems inaccurate?
  2. Play (10 min):

    Students should scroll through Email Erosion, browsing the emails and seeing how each one creates a different foam sculpture.

  3. Follow-Up Exercise (10 min):

    The educator should introduce the terms conceptual art and data visualization and guide students in an interpretative discussion of the piece. Suggested questions could include:

    • What is an email made of? For instance, subject, sender, body text?
    • What connections can be made between the original emails and the sculpture? Is their content reflected in the sculptural form? Does the sculpture evoke email communication?
    • Do students think that email is a valid subject for a piece of art?
    • Do students enjoy the piece in its online form?
  4. Activity (25 min):

    Students should quantify how they spend their time in a day, according to half hour segments. The following are sample categories, but students should feel free to create their own categories:

    • Listening to music
    • Getting dressed
    • Friends
    • Eating
    • Cooking
    • Homework
    • At school
    • Working
    • Family
    • Sleep
    • Playing television
    • Watching video games

    Students should first lay this information out in a basic line chart. Next, they should transform it into either a bar chart or a pie chart. Finally, they should come up with an original way to visualize the information, be it a drawing or with words in different sizes. The educator should provide examples of data visualization that will guide them.