Ekene Ijeoma, Nigerian-American artist and founder of MIT Media Lab’s Poetic Justice group, explains how he draws on data and lived experience to explore social inequality through his multimedia works, why looking at people as citizens rather than consumers helps to go beyond the design of products and services, and what his public lecture series teaches us about the state of Black mobility and safety today.

From an interactive installation that submerges a topographic map of New York City underwater to visualize where low-wage workers can afford to rent to a series of music performances and sound-reactive light installations in which a self-playing piano deconstructs the Star-Spangled Banner by removing notes at the rate of mass incarceration: the works of first-generation Nigerian-American artist Ekene Ijeoma transform sociopolitical data and statistics into a multitude of media, employing both computational design and conceptual art strategies while at it.

You studied Information Technology and Interaction Design and then moved into conceptual art. How did that come about?

EKENE IJEOMA: I think it was a response to working in the industry connected to my studies and not seeing myself – my identity – reflected in the products, services and experiences that were conceived there. They weren’t telling me anything about myself and my communities. That said, I don’t think I would be producing the type of art I’m making now if I’d studied art. I now combine computational strategies with conceptual art.

From apps and websites to music performances and interactive installations – your projects take on very diverse shapes. What do you believe are the benefits of such an interdisciplinary approach?

I don’t know if I can speak to the pros or cons of it. All I know is that not everything can be said in a painting, not everything can be said in a photograph, and not everything can be said in sculpture. So I try to speak through the medium I feel is best for what I’m trying to say. In every work I’m speaking about issues that are intersectional. So I think there’s something about translating that through an interdisciplinary practice that just feels right.

I try to speak through the medium I feel is best for what I’m trying to say

Your work focuses on visualizing social injustice through art. What do you hope to achieve by doing so?

I wouldn’t use the word visualizing, because not all of my work is visual. I also work with sounds, for example. The goal is to expand people’s imagination around social justice, and justice in itself.

Commissioned by the Museum of the City of New York, Wage Islands #2 submerges a topographic 3D map of NYC underwater to visualize where low-wage workers can afford to rent, highlighting the city’s salary disparity. Photo: Isometric Studio

Wage Islands Immigrants at Pratt Manhattan Gallery. Photo: Isometric Studio

During your speech at Design Indaba a few years ago, you said: ‘I want to see data as poetic and not just pragmatic and I want to look at people as citizens not just consumers.’ Can you explain why?

Data is something that’s used in a lot of pragmatic ways, to look at what’s true and what isn’t. But I believe the truth lies somewhere between life experiences and big data. You can’t navigate that truth in a way that is purely pragmatic, you need to do so with poetics.

You can’t navigate that truth in a way that is purely pragmatic, you need to do so with poetics

As for citizen versus consumer: the design industry is mostly there to work within commerce and commercial practices. So most design is determined by the consumer-product relationship, which is a commercial relationship. It changes the way you think of people and the things you design. If I’m thinking about someone as a consumer, then I’m going to design products or services that will be marketed to that person. But if I’m thinking about a person as a citizen, the needs change and it’s no longer just products and services that can answer those needs. The possibilities are different. My installation Heartfelt is an example of that. It’s designed around human connection. Participants need to use their bodies as conductors to close the circuits between lights. So it’s more than physical, I would say. It’s metaphysical. Participants can’t see the energy that’s travelling between the poles, but they will ‘feel’ it. It’s both a participatory and interactive work that brings people hand-in-hand with others to close the circuit of social polarization in New York, one of the most diverse yet segregated cities in the US. There is all this diversity here, but is it actually diverse if people are still segregated? I’m trying to find ways to get to the essence of humanity and the one thing that we are connected by is that our bodies are conductors. A lot of my work is about that: reducing ideas to their essence and designing a space for that.

To activate Ijeoma’s interactive installation Heartfelt, participants are encouraged to use their bodies as conductors, thus closing the circuits between lights.

Do projects that require audience interaction, like Heartfelt, need to deal with a whole new set of challenges in today’s age of social distancing?

Yes, but a lot of my current and upcoming projects are accessible remotely. One of the works, for example, is A Counting, created in response to the census, which has historically misrepresented the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the US. How many languages do you think are spoken in the US? It’s over 1,300 but they are reported in only about 70 language groups. That’s not a good representation of diversity. A Counting crowdsources recordings of people counting to 100 in their languages and combines them into a generative sound- and video-based voice portrait that’s remotely accessible via a hotline and website. As more people call, the work of art becomes more diverse. And, if you watch it in real-time you can watch it evolve. It started in New York, but we are expanding it to other cities, and including sign language.

Design is determined by the consumer-product relationship, which is a commercial relationship. It changes the way you think of people and the things you design

You have both your own studio and work at MIT – how do you experience going back and forth between being a designer, a researcher and an educator?

My studio and lab are two separate practices, but they’re connected in a lot of ways. I don’t think I’d be doing these distributed, large-scale, participatory works of art in my studio practice. Those ideas came from being in the lab environment. There is just something about being in the lab environment versus my studio environment that creates different ideas, and vice versa.

Statues that remind us of the racist and violent history of countries have been removed or torn down in places across the world. You contributed to a project that reimagines such monuments. Can you tell me a bit more about that. What was the idea behind your concept?

In 2018 I was asked by The New York Times to transform what had remained of the Robert E. Lee monument in New Orleans – Lee was an American Confederate general best known as a commander of the Confederate States Army during the American Civil War – into a ‘monument for a new era’. The statue had been removed but the six-storey stone pedestal was still there. My proposal was an architectural intervention aimed at transforming visitors from passive spectators of history into active participants in a shared memory. I created a double spiral staircase that goes up to the top of the monument, where every visitor can see what the Robert E. Lee statue saw over a period of 133 years. On their way up visitors circle the pedestal, which is painted for the largest part in red to represent the 339 years of American slavery, partly yellow for the 89 years of racial segregation, and lastly green to show over 60 years of continued racial inequality. It’s a timeline showing racial progress – or the lack of it – in the US and allows visitors to imagine what else and how much longer it will take to achieve equality.

An ongoing series of music performances and sound-reactive light installations, Deconstructed Anthems features a self-playing piano or music ensemble that deconstructs the Star-Spangled Banner by removing notes at the rate of mass incarceration, ending in complete silence. Photos: Theo Civitello

How much further we still have to go when it comes to equality also becomes evident in your Back Mobility and Safety Seminar series at MIT, part of The Green Book Project that reimagines the Negro Motorist Green Book, which was published yearly from 1936 to 1966 and listed safe places for Black people to visit while travelling. Reimagine in what way?

Through a two-seminar lecture series, we place it in today’s context and explore all kinds of topics around living while Black – from birthing, breathing, sleeping, eating and walking to learning, voting, driving, working and loving. We have had and will have a lot of interesting speakers ranging from designers and urban planners to activists and social scientists. To discuss Eating while Black, I invited Omar Tate, the founder of Honeysuckle, which began as a dinner pop-up series dedicated to exploring Black heritage and culture through food, and is now expanding into a brick-and-mortar community centre in West Philadelphia that will include a supper club, grocery shop, meat market and café library.

For Breathing while Black, we’ve welcomed environmental advocate Marcus Franklin, whose research confronts environmental injustice that disproportionately impacts communities of colour and low-income communities in the US, and who examined the health effects on Breathing while Black for communities who live near polluting oil and gas facilities.

Elijah Anderson, the Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies at Yale University, in turn came to talk about Walking while Black. In one of his ethnographic essays ‘The White Space’, he discusses that ‘while white people typically avoid black space, Black people must navigate white space as a condition of their existence’.

I’m really excited by the lectures still to come, for which I have so many interesting speakers in mind.

Participate in or listen to the ongoing project A Counting, a multimedia vocal portrait of the US, by calling +1 844 959 3197 and listening to nearly 600 people count to 100 in almost 100 different languages. Want to share your notion of freedom? Participate in Ijeoma’s multimedia ‘vocal portrait’ of Freedom Radio – honouring the 30th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison – by calling +1 844 335 3588.

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