In a fact-averse culture, this New York and Boston-based artist/designer brings them to the fore with his MIT group Poetic Justice
Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis is a fascinating and enlightening show currently at the Museum of the City of New York, which examines the history of the city’s battle with infectious disease – a fight which, in their words, involves “government, urban planners, medical professionals, businesses and activists.”
The relationship between people and pathogens has always had a cultural and political element, in terms of which communities suffer. On display at the exhibition is a new sculpture titled “Pan-African Aids”, which exemplifies this by exploring the “hyper-visibility of the HIV/Aids epidemic in Africa and the hidden one in Black America.” Between 2008 and 2015, while the rates of HIV/Aids infections in Africa went down, the rates in the black population in the USA actually went up. A series of layered plexiglass panels transition between representations of the two populations at a rate equivalent to the rise of infection in Black America, sliced up into 14 sections – two for each year.
Commissioned by the museum in partnership with London’s Wellcome Trust, the sculpture is the work of 34-year-old Ekene Ijeoma, a New York- and Boston-based conceptual artist who uses design and technology to create powerfully affecting sculptures, installations, websites and performances. “The work I'm doing and the context of it is meant to be seen and discussed,” says Ekene, picking at a croissant on the plate in front of him. Softly spoken and sometimes self-deprecating, he often offers a ‘maybe’ or a ‘kind of’ at the end of lengthier discursions. When an idea takes him, though, he is forthright. “For me, it’s about getting the ideas and the issues out there through the work.”
For “Pan-African Aids”, Ekene worked with an epidemiologist, researching scientific reports about rates of infection in African countries, where the fight against Aids was funded by the Bush Administration’s PEPFAR, and in black populations in America where it wasn’t. “I just started making all these connections between race, health and inequality,” he explains. “Men who have sex with men in Harlem, their rates are about the same as some of the countries with the highest HIV prevalence rates like South Africa... We're supposed to be this first-world country. Yet you have populations here that are experiencing the same conditions as in so-called developing countries.”
Ekene grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where both of his parents are small business owners. “I don't have many thoughts about Texas,” he says. He went to college at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York state. “I thought it was closer to New York City than it is,” he laughs. (Narrator: It’s actually about 350 miles away, near the Canadian border.) In high school, he focused on art, but his parents didn't want him to go to art school. So, he started taking design courses while continuing to make art. While being taught how to make apps in Java, he taught himself other languages like Processing. “I started learning to draw with code, and it changed the way I thought about art. I was just making work. I didn’t know about the art world.”
His first major project that came to people’s attention was The Refugee Project, an interactive map created in collaboration with Hyperakt design studio: “It showed, for the first time, every country affected by the refugee crisis,” he explains. “We visualised the data, but what it really was, for me, was changing the way we see an issue represented in the media.” Ekene explains that the issue of refugee migration is one that’s mostly discussed around singular photos – like the Afghan girl in 1984, or Alan Kurdi’s body on the beach in 2015. But focusing the conversation on single images, or even single countries, meant the wider scope of the crisis was lost.
“The Middle-East and Africa had been experiencing some of the largest numbers of refugee migration consistently for decades,” he continues. “(The project) was to show more perspectives, to look outside the frames of photography that just focus on individuals, and look at the larger system of the refugee crisis itself.”
On the one hand, we are told people need simple stories and faces, otherwise they’re not able to impart information. On the other, we see the dangers inherent to boiling everything down to personal narrative – such as the breathless palace intrigue surrounding Donald Trump and his court of corruption, or the soap-opera when-will-she-go coverage of Theresa May’s Brexit debacle, which both drown out almost all discussion of actual issues. It’s life and politics reduced to the banal stagings of a reality show.
“People need characters,” agrees Ekene. “You know, one of the criticisms of that work was that it was lacking in just that. And that's fine! It was a pragmatic way of showing the issue.” He talks about Colors magazine in the 80s, and how they approached the refugee crisis and Aids. “Those things are still being represented in the same way, but nothing's changed,” he says. “If the issue hasn't changed, why hasn't representation changed to affect that? For me, using the means of today to make work about today is what I’m doing, and seeing technology as the way to do that.”
“I'm embracing the space between facts and feelings,” he adds. “When I feel something, I want to be able to say it's based on something. I don't want to say ‘Oh, I just woke up and I'm feeling this way…’ How can we communicate, create a visibility around this, so there's accountability around the ‘Why am I feeling this way?’”
Wage Islands (2015) is a 3D map of New York City based on housing costs, submerged in a tank of dark blue water. As a viewer presses a button to increase the hourly wage, slowly areas of the map rise above water to show the parts of the city low-wage workers can afford to live in at that wage level. Deconstructed Anthems (2017) is an ongoing project: a series of music performances in which a self-playing piano and music ensemble deconstruct the “Star-Spangled Banner”, repeating it multiple times while removing notes at the rate of mass incarceration, ending in silence. A haunting performance at the Day for Night festival in Houston, Texas, included Emmy-winning pianist Kris Bowers, as well as trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and bassist Burniss Earl Travis.
The United States imprisons more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. The jail population has exploded from less than 200,000 in 1972 to a scarcely comprehensible 2.2 million today, and it’s an issue that, like so many things in America, disproportionately affects people of colour. The statistics are shocking: one out of every three black boys born in the USA today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime, as can one of every six Latino boys, compared with just one of every 17 white boys, according to the ACLU.
Ekene knew he wanted to use the national anthem itself to speak to the history of inequality and injustice for black people in America. “The idea was to look at overall disenfranchisement and divestment in the black populations since 1900,” he says. “I had been talking to the Vera Institute of Justice, who have one of the most comprehensive, I think, collections of data on mass incarceration in the nation.”
“We've had all the facts. People have been presented all the facts and no one is acting on facts… So, what we're doing with our work is trying to translate that into an informed feeling” – Ekene Ijeoma
During the performance, as the notes slowly disappear from the anthem, it’s a powerful metaphor for a national identity decaying from the inside out, with parts of its collective identity literally disappearing over time – the people that should make the country what it is. “Juxtaposing something that is supposed to represent the American Dream with something that's the opposite of it,” he says. “We're supposed to keep believing that we're living the dream but we're not. Yet we still have to sing the same song.”
The piece was performed at the Kennedy Center in DC in a shortened version, and Ekene explains how he created custom software to compose the music and remove the notes. “I worked at the national level,” he adds, referring to the data it draws from, “but I can also focus on a city or a state, and change the composition based on where it's being performed.”
He could see it in the future being adapted for a symphony orchestra, or perhaps a gospel choir. But jazz is all about finding freedom amid constraints, which is why he found it such a powerful way of exploring this idea – “The story of jazz is the story of black people navigating systems in the US.”
This year, Ekene became founder and director of Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab, a group that sets out to merge different creative disciplines to “explore new forms of justice through art.”
“It's just me taking everything I've been developing over the last five years and expanding that through their facilities and resources,” Ekene explains. “Firstly, it’s one of the first art groups at MIT Media Lab. Second, it's about the third social justice group there, out of 25 labs. And I think there's been maybe one other black male who’s founded a group here.”
Ekene says he has been excited by the amount of applications he has received, but also their generosity: “People really share a lot. It's difficult because I want to be able to support all this work, but I have to focus on this overall concept that I'm trying to create with Poetic Justice. We're not just making work about social justice. We're trying to speak to social justice with poetry… Not literature but, how can we say this in the most poetic way? How can you find a medium for the message? Because not everything can be a website. Not everything can be a sculpture.”
“We've had all the facts. People have been presented all the facts and no one is acting on facts… So, what we're doing with our work is trying to translate that into an informed feeling. How can you meet people where they're at? The embodiment has to be different. And that's what we're exploring.”
Poetic Justice is based at MIT
Roderick Stanley is founder of Good Trouble, an annual publication about the intersection of culture and resistance