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Humans and technology

What would true diversity sound like?

A participatory project explores the linguistic landscape of the US.

December 30, 2022
installation view of A Counting
MIT Museum

What do the people of the United States sound like? Census language data would give you one kind of answer. But numbers don’t capture all the factors in play—assimilation, the past and present of language, whose voices are prioritized. It’s this gap that multidisciplinary artist Ekene Ijeoma, who runs the Poetic Justice Group at the MIT Media Lab, are exploring in the ongoing participatory project “A Counting.” 

“We were thinking about what it means to count and be counted, and how the Census has historically undercounted and underrepresented marginalized communities,” says Ijeoma. “And we were thinking what a poetic response would be.” 

Presented online at spaces like Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum and and in person at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and the Museum of the City of New York, the artwork features audio recordings of 100 individuals counting from 1 to 100 in a variety of languages, accompanied by a transcription in white lettering on a black screen. Localized versions reflect the linguistic landscapes of New York City, St. Louis, Houston, Omaha, and Ogden, Utah, as well as the US overall. A sign language version is also in the works. 

Most of the voices are those of people who called in to record themselves. The Poetic Justice team then built an algorithm that “selects and weights languages that are the least recorded so that you hear them more frequently,” says Ijeoma. The video changes over time as new recordings are added. 

“A Counting” is the latest in a string of artworks that leverage Ijeoma’s background in information technology to translate cold data into something laden with feeling. “I want to create a contemporary portrait. What better way to do it [than] with contemporary tools and techniques—those of data analysis and data visualization—not in a way that’s literal, but poetic?” he says. 

The first word in “A Counting” is always spoken in an indigenous language from the area being represented. For the New York City edition, this meant using the voice of someone no longer living: when Ijeoma and his team reached out to the Lenape, Manhattan’s original inhabitants, they were sent a recording featuring Nora Thompson Dean, a.k.a. Weènchipahkihëlèxkwe, one of the last fluent speakers of the southern Unami dialect of Lenape, who died in 1984. The recording, provided by the Lenape Center, expands the project beyond a mere “living portrait” of this land’s current population, inviting viewers and listeners to wrestle with how this nation came to be and whose voices have been buried along the way. 

Ultimately, Ijeoma says, the project “is really a speculation on what it would sound like if this were a truly united society.” 

To participate in “A Counting,” call 844-959-3197, or visit a-counting.us to record yourself. 

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