Even to a seasoned carnivore, the meat aisle can be a bit nauseating if you stay too long. The steaks sit there, looking at you, their red flesh smushed against plastic wrap like faces pressed against a window. The lighting is a gross green-tinged fluorescent and the styrofoam containers have that texture that makes your neck shiver. Occasionally, a pack is actually wet with blood.
Beef Stakes is a project by NYU grad student Sarah Hallacher that channels all of the disgusting tropes of meat packaging into data that you can touch. She rendered the top beef-producing states in beef (okay, it’s actually modeling clay) and squeezed them into shrink wrap and styrofoam. Each state’s thickness corresponds to its pounds of beef production.
"I wrestled with the idea of using real steaks, but ultimately had qualms about wasting food," Hallacher tells Co.Design.
Even still, the project creates intuitively tactile data. Any seasoned shopper could pick up two Beef Stakes and instantly interface with each, judging the weight and feel against years of kinesthetic memory from the grocery aisle. Then, for more specificity, Hallacher leverages the beef label to list statistics: The amount of beef produced per state, the cost to produce the beef, and how much beef each citizen would have needed to consume were the beef not exported from that state. (In other words, every person in Iowa would have downed over 2,000 pounds in beef were we all eating local.)
As a data/art project, Beef Stakes is striking. But I can’t help but wonder if some of its lessons could actually make beef labels better for concerned consumers. Why don’t we see where our steaks came from? Why can’t we see even deeper data, like how many pounds of grain created this chunk of meat, or how many government subsidies are affecting the price per pound? Because newspapers filled with scary factoids are nowhere near as impactful as holding a slab of cold, drippy beef in your hands, seeing the true cost of that privilege.
"I think the physicality of the project—the weight, the realistic look of the meat, the familiar packaging—certainly helps people want to explore the data, and perhaps see the food in a different light," Hallacher writes. "I’ve been thinking about planting them in a few grocery stores, and standing by to see if anyone notices."
[Hat tip: infosthetics]