The Stock Market’s Worst 36 Minutes Ever, Visualized

On May 6, 2010, the market lost and regained one trillion dollars in less than an hour.

Even if you don’t truly understand the minutiae of the stock market—and let’s face it, who really does?—you know it’s uncertain, unwieldy, and can take on a life of its own. How else could Amazon founder Jeff Bezos make a staggering $6 billion in 20 minutes? And over the past few years, it’s only gotten more complex. For example, on May 6, 2010, the market lost and regained $1 trillion dollars within a 36-minute span.


Not due to a company missing its earnings forecast or an economic bubble bursting–but because of computer algorithms.

The so-called “Flash Crash” of 2010 is a thoroughly modern scenario, borne from the practice of high-frequency trading—whereby computer algorithms analyze data and carry out large-volume buys and sells with an execution time down to the millisecond. This practice has been around for years and usually goes off glitch free, but when an aberration happens? The results are catastrophic, underscoring just how shaky our financial system is.

Using data compiled by Nanex—a company that streams stock market activity into real-time graphs—the artists Gunnar Green and Bernhard Hopfengärtner decided to turn the worst 36 minutes in the stock market into a series of beautiful abstractions. Assembled in a book called 75000 Futures, their graphics are an unsettling look at the uncertainty of the market.

The images show actual trading activity with all of the numbers and figures removed, so all that’s left are prismatic lines, boxes, and grids. The forms ended up resembling familiar things—like lightening bolts and castle walls—so the Nanex analyst that provided Green and Hopfengärtner with the data nicknamed the graphs as such. Their seemingly benign titles, however, belie the cataclysmic nature of what the data represents.

“We found that beautiful because it is unexpectedly romantic, bizarre, fantastic, and innocent considering the actual activity that’s been recorded here, which is rather technical and involves a lot of money,” Hopfengärtner says. “The stock markets are probably some of the most powerful institutions concerning their effects in the real world and at the same time they are most abstracted from [the world], especially in high-frequency trading. We don’t feel that we can understand what’s really going on there and probably even experts can’t because the algorithms are black boxes. What is left is a very simple mode of making sense through aesthetics.”

Suddenly, storing your money under a mattress seems like a safe bet.


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.