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Guest Thinkers

By the Numbers: The Census in Public Art

Thanks to years of conservative pushback, the United States Census looks like a huge waste of time and taxpayer money to many Americans.  Even worse, many Americans misconceive the census as the government’s insidious way of metaphorically looking through their keyhole to spy into their private lives.  A commercial shown during the last Superbowl broadcast tried to redeem the census as ironic and cool, while other more wonky advertisements stressed the benefits to the community that come from participation in the census, which helps the government decide what bucks go where.  Anita Glesta’s The Census Project (shown) tries to humanize the faceless government census bureau through large-scale public art that is both thoughtful and whimsical at the same time.  Don’t fear the census, The Census Project wants to say, because the census is you, the census is Americans. 

Sprawling across more than seven acres of the United States Census Bureau Headquarters in Suitland, Maryland, The Census Project represents different ways of counting by examining how the different cultures from which Americans come from have used numbers.  Native American, Mayan, and Asian numerical systems appear throughout the installation on tiles and other media.  Oversized versions of familiar Arabic numbers stretch out at various points of the winding path to invite passersby to gather or just to climb like children.  Glesta self-admittedly aimed at “a mediation on the notion of counting and order with a global perspective,” an interesting take on an American institution but an accurate one considering how diverse we are increasingly being as a people, as reflected in the census, of course.  Another counterintuitive but spot on element of the project is the central winding path interrupted by a series of reliefs, all of which, as Glesta intends, nonlinearly and playfully disrupt the ideas of order and categorization linked to the census but also show how the human element takes precedence over abstract numbers and statistics.  (Below is a video that walks you through the history of the project as well as gives you a brief tour of the installation, which will be inaugurated on July 12th.)

Census project from Anita Glesta on Vimeo.

Glesta’s The Census Project accomplishes what all public art aspires to, namely to connect an idea with the public.  It sounds simple, but so many installations fail to reach individuals on a human level in striving for size.  Glesta’s design combines large scale with intimate moments, just as the census itself measures a mammoth country through individual stories.  Reminding us of those individual stories, and how they fit in the big picture of America, is the victory of The Census Project and may actually help put to rest the fears that keep some from sharing their stories and finding a place in that big picture.

[Many thanks to Susan Grant Lewin Associates for providing me with the press materials for Anita Glesta’s The Census Project.]


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