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For artist Anita Glesta, taking on a public art project with a Census theme was a bit challenging at first, and not because her project covers more than seven acres. Rather, it’s because Glesta hates numbers.
“My personal history with counting and with numbers is a bad one,” she said. “I’m a little dyslexic.”
So when Glesta was commissioned by the United States General Services Administration’s Art & Architecture Program to create the Census project, which is installed at the United States Census Bureau Headquarters in Suitland, she had to find a way to make the project less about data and more about something that resonated with her artistic sensibilities.
The result is an exploration of the diverse population of the United States and the various numeric systems used by different cultures. Glesta found particular inspiration in Native American counting systems for two reasons.
“First, they’re America’s indigenous people, and they’ve historically been underrepresented,” she said. “Second, they use a digital—meaning hand-based—counting system, and they express counting in sentences that I found incredibly poetic.”
In addition to representing cultural diversity, another goal of Glesta’s was to create a space for the 10,000 Census employees working at the Suitland headquarters. She increased outdoor seating to accommodate about 100 more people, and she created a path that winds throughout the installation. “I wanted to provide a nice walking space,” she said, “because a lot of the employees like to take walks on their lunch breaks.”
Glesta had “complete and total freedom” in creating the project, including her decision to use all the space that she did. “It’s pretty vast,” she acknowledged. “It wasn’t commissioners’ intention for a project to fill all seven acres. They were probably just expecting a single piece of art.”
Glesta performed extensive research for the project, and noted that though immigration issues have recently been the subject of intense debate, they’ve always been a hot topic in American history. “I am actually not sure that this is different from any other time in history in the United States,” she said.
What is different this year, according to Glesta, is the effort to raise public awareness of the Census. “There’s a real reaching out to the American people with this Census,” she said. “It’s a tool for our own empowerment, so the government can have a sense of our needs and what services to provide. We shouldn’t be fearful of being counted.”