The designer using data to tackle mass incarceration

Published December 12, 2017

Ahead of Houston’s third-annual Day for Night festivalwhich brings together music and forward-thinking art—we’re visiting some of the New York-based artists in their studios.

In his work, which has ranged from apps to websites to sculpture, Ekene Ijeoma takes things we’d rather not think about or maybe don’t fully understand—data about refugees, affordable housing—and transforms them into something so visually arresting, it is actually enjoyable to look at and interact with.

“In all my work, I’ve tried to get to some level of poetry, and let the data drive the work without showing any of the numbers,” the 33-year-old Brooklyn-based artist says, by way of personal statement. “Because it can be hard to understand things like mass incarceration rates.” In the past, Ijeoma has used technology to explore the time we spend looking at our phones (Look Up, 2016); low wage workers (Wage Islands, 2015); and refugee diasporas (The Refugee Project, 2014). His projects take many forms, but they are united by their socially-conscious focus. Each work feels like a solution of some kind, presented in a digestible way.

Ijeoma had been thinking about the issue of mass incarceration for several years. “If you consider what the American dream is supposed to mean, we’re five percent of the world’s population, and yet 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population,” he says. “What kind of dream is that?” When the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit, approached him with their data around 2014, he sought to find a visceral way to convey the numbers. The result is his newest project, called Deconstructed Anthems, which will premiere at Day for Night. It’s bipartite: The first uses data about the rates of mass incarceration nationwide to literally deconstruct “The Star-Spangled Banner”—over the course of 15 repetitions, notes will be removed from the song according to incarceration rates. As notes are slowly taken away, the anthem becomes first jilted and strange, then silent altogether.

The second part is an installation using a two-way mirrored scrim. Viewers will step into an enclosure meant to emulate a jail cell, with mirrored panels. A self-playing piano in the center of the space will bang out the ghostly tune. (Three times a day, it will be performed live with a jazz trio.) Timed to the changes in the music, lights will turn the panels either reflective or transparent. “The composition is based around silence,” Ijeoma says of how the two parts fit together. “In those moments of silence, I want to create moments of reflection. Reflection on mass incarceration and what that means. The silence could be interpreted as missing members in society.”

Remarkably, Ijeoma had to teach himself how to read music for this piece. “That’s what I do for every project: I learn how to make things,” he says. “I feel like this work is going to embody everything I’ve done.”

 

EKENE IJEOMA’S DECONSTRUCTED ANTHEMS RUNS DECEMBER 15 THROUGH 17 AT DAY FOR NIGHT FESTIVAL IN HOUSTON, TEXAS. TO SEE MORE OF THE PARTICIPATING ARTISTS, CLICK HERE