The U.S. Census has undergone many changes in its 229-year history. And a new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York explores how the changes reflect what matters to the government, and how the census itself has affected the city. “Who We Are: Visualizing NYC By the Numbers” approaches recent census information through an aesthetic lens, breaking the numbers down and using them to build something visually striking and thought-provoking.
“Who We Are,” which opened last Friday and runs through next summer, brings the census to life by visualizing the data and translating it to the streets of New York. One multimedia piece, for example, traces income inequality in the city via subway lines. Brian Foo’s Two Trains invites viewers to follow an animated subway map and listen to accompanying music. It plays as you move between subway stops—the louder and more chaotic it gets, the higher the median income in that part of the city.
Another piece plays recordings of New Yorkers counting out loud in their native languages. Artist Ekene Ijeoma and the Poetic Justice Group have been collecting recordings of people counting from one to one hundred in the different languages heard around the city for the piece called “A Counting.” Ijeoma then shuffles the numbers, prioritizing less common languages by playing them back more often. There are more than 800 languages spoken in New York City; about 100 of them are in this installation already, and guests can call in and add to the exhibit throughout the show.
“All these data points come from real people with real stories, with complex stories,” said “Who We Are” guest curator Kubi Ackerman. “This is a fundamentally human story.”
Doug McCune’s “Walled New York” Courtesy the artist
Other contemporary art pieces in the exhibit include R. Luke Dubois’s “A More Perfect Union: New York City,” a map of the self-descriptive words used in dating site profiles, with each part of the city represented by the word used more commonly there than anywhere else. There’s a piece by Pedro Cruz, John Wihbey, and Felipe Shibuya called “Simulated Dendrochronology of Immigration to New York City, 1840-2017,” that visualizes decades of immigrant arrivals as growing tree rings, which gradually accrete cell by cell, each of which corresponds to immigrants’ geographic origins.
One of the exhibit’s main points is that the creation of the census has nearly always been contentious—and 2020 is no exception. “The questions that you ask at the beginning and the categories that you make available shape profoundly what stories you can then tell and draw out,” said Sarah Henry, deputy director and chief curator of the museum.
There’s been plenty of debate about who next year’s census does—or doesn’t—include. The 2020 census won’t ask about a person’s sexuality or offer gender identity options besides “male” or “female.” There’s also no race option for people of Middle Eastern or North African origin. And the Supreme Court decided that there won’t be a citizenship question, despite the Trump administration’s efforts to add it as part of a broader Republican strategy to disempower states that generally vote Democratic.
Undercounting has been a challenge in previous New York City censuses. In 2010, the voluntary response rate in the city was just over 61 percent, much less than the national rate of nearly 76 percent. The count is important` because a drop in census numbers could lead to lower representation in Congress, or less federal funding for certain groups or programs.
“Programs like public education and public housing, Medicaid, senior centers, Headstart funding, infrastructure, depend on making sure that every New Yorker is indeed counted,” said Julie Menin, director of the Census for New York City.
Visitors to the Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit will also be able to check out the 2020 census questionnaire firsthand ahead of the real deal next year.
“Who We Are: Visualizing NYC By The Numbers” is on display at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 5th Ave, btwn 103rd and 104th) through summer 2020.