Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Two UX designers are making art based on a shared frustration: Government tech ideas that don’t incorporate people into the process.
Two years ago, families that were relying on food assistance in Washington, D.C., faced a sudden crisis. After the city’s local health department transitioned to a new computer system for processing applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, thousands of households lost their benefits due to a glitch. Along with a food nonprofit, several people who were affected filed a lawsuit in federal court over these delays and cancelations.
That suit is still ongoing before a federal court. But a pair of designers have already memorialized the case with a contemporary art piece in a food pantry slated for demolition.
Food security is an unlikely subject for contemporary art. And government technology experts don’t usually document their frustrations with public services through sculpture or installation. But that’s the direction that artists Xena Ni and Mollie Ruskin felt compelled to take for Transaction Denied.
“This is the story of our lives in civic tech, about government’s failed IT projects,” says Ruskin, a founding designer for the U.S. Digital Service who now works as an independent design strategist.
The piece appeared over the weekend as part of “Umbrella,” an art festival temporarily situated within a former food pantry, where it caught the eye of at least one viewer in a position to influence food-security policy, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She caught the exhibit on Saturday, according to the artists and curator. (Her office did not respond to questions about her experience.)
Transaction Denied features dozens of hanging receipts that depict failed SNAP purchases. The title of the piece appears on every receipt, circled in red ink on canceled transactions for oatmeal, grape jam, chicken cutlets, and other everyday staples. The piece invites viewers to walk through this paper maze and imagine what it might feel like to stand at a grocery store register and watch as an EBT transaction fails—without necessarily having a backup plan for the next meal. The installation also invited viewers to write about their own dealings with food stamps on the walls of the makeshift gallery.
Even within the niche genre of contemporary art related to poverty issues (sometimes described as “social practice”), Transaction Denied finds a narrow purchase. Ni and Ruskin are both UX service designers by day; Ni is a design manager for Nava, a company that creates software for government services. Both have experience working for government clients and advocacy groups alike. Transaction Denied flows from their shared frustration with civic tech, specifically with government solutions and vendors that don’t focus on people in their design work. It’s a calling.
“We live in a very progressive city. There’s certainly political will to make the system dignified and accessible,” Ni says.
Here’s the backdrop for the piece: In October 2016, the District launched a new computer program, D.C. Access System, for verifying SNAP eligibility for residents. The system went live despite a warning from the federal Food and Nutrition Service that “launching a system without having conducted a live pilot is against the intent of the regulations and against our best advice,” and that the city’s human services department “proceeds with the deployment . . . at its own risk.”
“Almost immediately, severe technical glitches began to endanger the successful and timely distribution of SNAP benefits,” reported Street Sense, a nonprofit newspaper on homelessness, at the time. The Washington City Paper also reported on these glitches.
“It’s unclear if [the D.C. government is] going to do anything differently to guarantee that they’ll test it in some way to make sure that it doesn’t fall over when it launches again,” Ni says.
Transaction Denied is the second collaboration for Ruskin and Ni, making them veterans of the gov-tech-art circuit. Along with Eric Chiu, they joined forces for a piece for “Data X Design,” a March exhibition at Brooklyn’s New Lab featuring alternative cartography projects that make use of New York City’s Open Data initiative.
Amy Morse, one of the curators involved with “Umbrella,” asked Ni to cook something up for the show in D.C.—which is how the artists came to be hanging receipts at the former home of Martha’s Table, a charitable organization that focuses on food access. Martha’s Table decided in 2017 to move on from its home of 37 years; the building will be razed to make room for a mixed-use development. As a last hurrah, an arts group called the No Kings Collective booked the vacant space for a block-long art party celebrating D.C. culture. The show spotlighted more than a few pieces that point to ways that the city’s culture is changing.
Transaction Denied enjoyed a special context in the “Umbrella” show. The Obamas made it a point to stop by Martha’s Table on Thanksgiving Day to hand out food. The piece is timely: Earlier this month, Ocasio-Cortez joined dozens of House colleagues in a letter to Sonny Perdue, secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, protesting a new federal rule that would tighten work requirements for recipients of SNAP aid by nixing certain exemptions issued by states. Work requirements for the social safety net are a priority for the Trump administration.
For the people who attended “Umbrella,” Transaction Denied served as a teaching moment about both the singular experience for SNAP recipients in D.C. as well as broader issues about food insecurity in America. In addition to the receipts and the scores of earnest testimonials from viewers that came to cover the walls, the piece included three telephones booths, through which the audience could listen to different perspectives.
One booth featured a person reading from the tedious text of an application for the SNAP program. People who picked up a telephone receiver at another station could hear excerpts from the SNAP lawsuit against the District. A third booth offered six first-person narratives about food stamps pulled together by Code for America. Several that I listened to shared the feelings of shame that the users felt about needing food assistance.
The piece highlights how, even in a progressive city, decisions about process, execution, and administration can leave thousands of people behind. Civic tech plays a role in facilitating aid—and in increasing the feelings of inconvenience and indignity.
“Every version of this problem, which exists in a similar flavor across the country, has troubling, specific issues,” Ruskin says. “One of the things that stuck with me is that, in D.C., you have to bring your application in. Which is unusual. Usually you can submit it online. It’s usually online, even if it’s terrible.”