‘A Counting’ maps the linguistic diversity in the US through sound and signs

Led by Ekene Ijeoma and Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab, A Counting is a response to USA's Census 2020 when it misrepresented the ethnic and linguistic diversity across the country.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : May 04, 2021

When the Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini mentioned, “A different language is a different vision of life,” he rightly drew attention to the multifaceted nature of culture and languages that is practiced by people across the globe. The uniqueness that nurtures the diversity of social fabric, if on one hand exudes a sense of togetherness for a selected few, on the other hand could pose an imminent threat to the majoritarian community for the short-sighted rhetoricians. In a similar vein, the generative artwork A Counting, led by the artist Ekene Ijeoma and his group Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab, is a response to the systematic scepticism (towards the notion of plurality) emulated by the United States Census 2020 when it misrepresented the ethnic and linguistic diversity across the country.  

A Counting sign video | Ekene Ijeoma and the Poetic Justice group | STIRworld
A Counting sign video Image: Courtesy of Ekene Ijeoma and the Poetic Justice group

While Ijeoma was invited to create a new project to be included in an exhibition entitled Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers at the Museum of the City of New York, he together with the Poetic Justice group started to develop concepts around the themes of open data and New York City. In an interview with STIR, Ijeoma mentions, “We started researching the different languages that were spoken in the United States, and found that there are over 1300 languages, over 600 of which are spoken in New York City. I thought it’d be poetic justice to create an ongoing count to 100, which is a statistical whole, using all the voices and languages of the country. As the country evolves culturally, so will our count”.  

“We wanted to dismantle the hierarchy of languages,” says Ijeoma, “to create more equity.”  A Counting selects different voices and languages for every count to 100. To achieve this, Ijeoma affirms, “We don’t select the languages - our algorithm does. The fewer recordings we have in a language, the higher the probability that the algorithm will select that language to be included in a count. As most of the recordings are in English, if we didn’t use any weighting, English would be selected the most”. Sensitive to the numbers that are part of the endangered languages of which the project does not have recordings, the algorithm retains them as silences in order to hold a space for them. 

Linguistic Mapping of the New York City | Ekene Ijeoma and Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab | STIRworld
Linguistic Mapping of the New York City Image: Screenshot from A Counting by Ekene Ijeoma and Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab

Currently, these recordings are turned into sound and video portraits, with three city-specific editions for New York, Houston, Omaha and St. Louis. These videos feature voice recordings from calls placed by close to 600 people in over 85 languages. Ijeoma walks us through the ways people are recruited to participate in the project, “Our first participants found A Counting through Craigslist ads, which invited New Yorkers to call 917-905-6647 and count to 100 in any language. That was before we had released the artwork to the public online and over the phone. After that, more people have found it through the various exhibitions and initiatives at the Museum of the City of New York, Contemporary Art Museum of Houston, and Contemporary Art Museum of St. Louis as well as publications including NPR, The New York Times, and Fast Company. Soon we will be launching a digital ad campaign to find more languages and more speakers of languages with the fewest recordings”. 

Ekene Ijeoma’s portrait | Ekene Ijeoma and the Poetic Justice group | STIRworld
Ekene Ijeoma’s portrait Image: Courtesy of Ekene Ijeoma and the Poetic Justice group

With the ever-growing community of participants, there would not be a single but many sound and video portraits. The vocal edition of the A Counting emphasises the tones and textures of the sound sans the participants’ faces. This helps to dismantle the tyranny of identity markers – a particular face could anticipate a singular expression. The sign language edition of A Counting is inclusive to the community that uses signs as a means of communication. The different signers for each number between 1 to 100 would evolve into a generative portrait. 

Sign Languages | Ekene Ijeoma and Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab | STIRworld
Sign Languages Image: Screenshot from A Counting by Ekene Ijeoma and Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab

Ijeoma ensures the callers are given an opportunity to share a rarely known fact about their languages, “When you call, the last prompt is to share anything about your language’s counting system or your experience with participating. So, some participants responded with how numbers are gendered or multiplied to count in their languages”. In the times rife with examples of lopsided cultural appropriation, where ‘a’ dominant language is construed as a voice of everyone, A Counting opens the poetic possibility of restoring the lost harmony of the multilingual world. 

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