Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
A pair of museum exhibits showcase work inspired by the decennial counts of the U.S. Census Bureau. And, like the census itself, the shows are going online.
In a way, the U.S. Census Bureau picked a good year to go digital. Since 1790, when the federal government first started collecting national demographic data, the 2020 decennial count is the first where people can fill out their census questionnaire online.
With field offices closed and in-person canvassing stalled by coronavirus fears, the census data collection deadline has been delayed until October, and the bureau is working overtime to reach people without internet access — or a nearby open library — with mailers and phone calls. Meanwhile, community organizations are trying to rebuild trust among those deterred by the Trump administration’s unsuccessful attempt to add a question about citizenship on the form. Though 53.7% of the country has responded so far, large swaths of the uncounted remain. With deep economic uncertainty on the horizon, the stakes are especially high: Census counts help allocate political representation and $1.5 trillion in economic power; the numbers are used to justify funding things, or defunding them.
The census is supposed to give us a greater sense of what the country looks like: how many, how diverse, where. But the data it generates does not easily speak for itself — it needs to be interpreted.
From the bold statistical charts that highlighted the lives of black Americans by W.E.B. Dubois to the physical, anthropomorphic embodiment of New York City that becomes the protagonist in sci-fi author N.K. Jamison’s latest novel, breathing life into demographic data has long been the role of artists.
In the lead-up to this year’s count, two museums on opposite coasts mounted census-themed exhibitions: Come to Your Census: Who Counts in America? out of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; and Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers, housed at New York City’s Museum of the City of New York. The featured artists were tasked with portraying what censuses past have illuminated about the U.S. population, what realities they’ve left out, and how much it matters to get a full picture of the country this time around.
“The real focus was that there’s actually beauty and pathos and even humor and whimsy to be found [in data],” said Sarah Henry, chief curator and deputy director of the Museum of the City of New York. “Depending on what people choose to do with this information, and how they apply their own filter and questions and intelligence and interpretation to these facts.”
When museums across the country shut their doors, the curators in New York and San Francisco, too, had to translate their efforts online — meaning they now face the same challenges in engaging people across the digital divide. Both felt up to the task. Even before San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s shelter-in-place order, YBCA was thinking about how to include the city’s 20 hardest-to-count communities in a project like this, knowing that those who were already more fearful of public spaces might be even more reticent to visit museums during a global pandemic.
“We are possibly our most inventive as human beings when we are falling,” said Deborah Cullinan, YBCA’s CEO, quoting the dancer and performer Liz Lerman. “In such moments we are being very innovative in order to survive.”
Ahead of the museum’s temporary shuttering, artists Arleene Correa Valencia and Ana Teresa Fernández had been working on outfitting San Franciscans with neon sweatshirts that read, “We Are Not Invisible” and “Somos Visibles,” the words glowing in reflective, iron-on lettering. They’d planned to canvass the city, and display their wares at YBCA. Now, they’re doing video tutorials to help people sew and put together their own high-contrast clothes and masks.
The concept was born from Valencia’s frustration with artists who claimed to shine light on those “hiding in the shadows.”
“[T]here’s all these artists that are up and coming and establishing themselves around the migrant narrative — talking about migration, what it means to be undocumented, and what it means to be a minority and person of color. I was really inspired by all that, but at the same time, I felt like there was this need to speak for others,” Valencia said in an interview with Fiona Ball for YBCA. “[W]e are not invisible. We are not voiceless. We are not all these things that you keep perpetuating by telling our narrative, but we do have a voice. We are here. We are present, and we want to be heard. We just don’t have the right platforms to do it.”* In a bright orange hoodie, people are putting the spotlight on themselves.
That tension is embodied in many of the pieces on display: Artists are simultaneously critiquing the methods of census data extraction and the biases baked into its questions, while stressing the importance of including oneself in the process.
In a series of portraits in YBCA’s exhibit, Cece Carpio represents some of the census’ most undercounted groups, like undocumented immigrants who fear that filling out the form will be grounds for deportation and incarcerated people who are counted not in their home communities but in the places where they’re living behind bars. The census does not ask about sexual orientation, but after years of LGBTQ activism, this year’s census gives residents the option to share if their household is comprised of a “same-sex couple.”
Many museums have embraced more interactive features in recent years, installing touch screens and buttons in rooms full of more traditional art. The coronavirus-inspired digital pivot means that those kinds of participatory experiences are actually easier to access. In “Breaking ICE: A Community Response to a Citizenship Test,” Lukas Brekke-Miesner, Yueqi Chen, Chris Hamamoto, and Takeshi Moro draft new philosophical prompts for YBCA that riff off the test all immigrants have to pass before being naturalized citizens; instead of asking civics questions like, “what is the ‘rule of law,’” they ask “Is it always better to have more choices?” and “What is the most important world event that happened in your lifetime?”
And in “A Counting,” a 2019 video by Ekene Ijeoma that’s been relaunched for MCNY’s audience, New Yorkers count to 100 in their native tongue. The languages are re-ordered by algorithm each time, selected in reverse frequency of how many residents are believed to speak them in the city. Calling a 917 number allows listeners to add their own voices to the chorus; so far, 75 of the 800 languages spoken in the city have found their speaker.
Despite operating in the sometimes-glitchy internet ether, both exhibits have deep roots in their respective hometowns. Yesica Prado’s “Home Is Where Your Heart Is” photo series follows housing-insecure residents of the Bay Area who live in trailers and cars. Inside the pale wood frame of a leaning hut, Mark Baugh-Sasaki makes a model of the World War II-era Japanese internment camp where his father was held. (Online, it’s harder to make out the sand lining the floor of the barracks, or the way the light refracts through the beams, or how perilously the structure sinks into the ground beneath your feet.)
“The original vision was to reach people in their communities, through and with artists that are of their communities,” said Cullinan. That vision hasn’t been abandoned. The Art+Action coalition, of which YBCA is a lead partner, has plastered bus stations and city signs with advertisements urging people to participate in the count.
MCNY’s exhibit offers odes to the topography of New York. Through maps, the city is redefined in turn by its immigration patterns (represented by the multiplying rings of an enormous technicolor tree trunk), and its languages (flattened by the census into imprecise categories like “African languages,” and visualized in blinding color.) Income disparities become structural, in a Herwig Scherabon map where towering bars of household affluence crowd each other out and wall each other off.
“This is the reason we set out to do this exhibition in the first place,” said Henry. “Getting them to feel not just fear about what could happen, but also some delight about what can be found out.”
The fear of not being counted is especially real in New York City, Henry says: Because of density and diversity and population churn, the boroughs have long been difficult to enumerate. “Every place has a lot at stake in the census, but the places that are hardest to count tend to be cities, and the places that are hardest to count are the ones that have so much risk,” said Henry.
New York is also the city being pummeled the hardest by the pandemic, its pain generating new data points: coronavirus infection counts, hospitalization counts, and death counts. Grim patterns of demography and geography are emerging. Black and Latino New Yorkers are dying at higher rates; the impoverished Bronx has the most cases relative to its population. The work of interpreting those numbers, and giving them faces, is only beginning.
*CORRECTION: A previous version of the story attributed this quote to the incorrect subject.