Ekene Ijeoma brings digital data to analog life. Through his lab and studio art, Ijeoma creates sculpture, sound, video and installation art and has been exhibited at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Art, the Museum of the City of New York and many others. He is also Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, and Director of the Poetic Justice group at MIT Media Lab.
One of Ijeoma’s most striking, data-driven installations is Wage Islands, a series of sculptures that visualize how inaccessible affordable housing is to immigrants and low-income workers in New York City. In his 2017 Wage Islands: Immigrants, a topographic map of NYC is submerged underwater to visualize the areas of the city where low-wage immigrant workers can afford to rent. It’s a chilling, and visceral, reminder of inequity in the United States.
“I wanted to see what the geography of the city would look like if its islands were based on housing costs and wages,” Ijeoma says. “What islands could workers afford to live on at $8.75 or $15, which is what they were fighting to raise it to.”
For the series, comprise of Wage Islands #1 and #2, Ijeoma researched median household income and compiled that research into “wage islands,” pulling data from MIT’s Living Wage project. He created heat maps from the data, then laser cut hundreds of hand-assembled acrylic pieces to form the sculpture.
Although Ijeoma has been an artist all his life, his experience studying design and technology in college changed his artistic practice. In some ways, he says, data can help us understand social issues and cultural experiences without personal bias, because numbers are hard facts. But in other ways, data can show the way to a better world that doesn’t exist—yet.
This was the thinking behind A Counting, a series of multimedia linguistic portraits of the U.S. that was created by crowdsourcing recordings of people counting to 100 in any spoken or sign language, and then remixing them into counts that have a different person and language for every number. Ijeoma affirms that all of these languages are spoken in New York City, but there’s nowhere you can go to hear them at the same time.
“The work speculates on what a truly united society would sound like. And data allows me to visualize or sonify that,” Ijeoma says. “I’m trying to portray hidden things.”
Ijeoma’s work to uncover hidden truths about the world continues. Ijeoma is teaching a new seminar titled “Poetic Justice for the Climate Crisis;” and ranks high on his to-do list to create monuments for all the Black lives disproportionately lost to COVID. If anyone were to conceptualize intimately how each data point could reflect the depth of loss experienced by an entire family, generation or community, Ijeoma and his research-driven approach to art are sure to answer the call.
Written by Abby Lee Hood