Come to Your Census: Who Counts in America?
On ViewYerba Buena Center For The Arts Online
Before cyber reality claimed dominance over the physical, America was preparing for another grand face-off with technology. The first digital census in its 230-year history was being planned to minimize cost, help reduce environmental waste, and include undocumented residents. The Census Bureau kicked off the official census period on April 1 for all United States residents to go online and provide information about their households. Since then, our dependence on the digital has rapidly amassed; unlike the census, art moved online, unavoidably. The deadline for the census ballot has currently been pushed to October 31, and one arts organization wants you to respond to it.
The Art+Action coalition developed and launched the arts-driven COME TO YOUR CENSUS campaign, powered by San Francisco’s Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA), to mobilize communities to participate in the Census and inspire civic engagement through art. When COVID-19 reached the West Coast, YBCA was putting final touches to the community art campaign while hosting the Office’s Social Impact of Art+Action branch as an incubator on its ground floor. The nearly two-decade old interdisciplinary arts center has a Civic Engagement Department and previously brought socially-committed artists, such as Suzanne Lacy and Tania Bruguera, to the Yerba Buena Gardens complex. The core of the YBCA’s census awareness program was and still is a group exhibition titled Come to Your Census: Who Counts in America?, in which more than 20 artists, mostly from the Bay Area, could exhibit their work on citizenship and civic presence, supported by workshops and performances in line with the organization’s multidisciplinary program.
Intrigued by the lack of art on the importance of census participation, the center’s Associate Director of Public Life and one of the exhibition’s coalition of curators, Martin Strickland, embarked on a search for artists whose works revolve on the subject’s peripheries. “Why do different communities need to be convinced to respond to the census?” was a question the team pondered while gathering a host of artists invested in community-based practice. Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo, an artist whose medium is activism through painting and printmaking, was commissioned to create a 12-foot by 25-foot public mural, titled Who Gets Counted?, inside the center. Similar to Branfman-Verissimo’s former public text-based works, the mural intends to ask a seemingly abstract question about entitlement and civic rights. The artist had completed 75% of her work when the city went on a hiatus. Strickland believes that educating visitors about the impact of census participation regardless of their status of immigration, class, or race is one side of their twofold mission. Providing space and time for contemplation about civic issues through art is the other main goal, which they have been experimenting with online through artist interviews and digitally adapting certain projects. Maria Paz, a self-taught Chilean sculptor of ceramics, came from an undocumented past and did not have the intention to take the census when she was approached for a commission. Paz’s glazed stoneware sculptures dressed with stories of displacement haven’t been exhibited to the public yet, but the project’s online platform hosts an interview between the artist and the YBCA’s Director of Public Life, Sarah Cathers. Their conversation joins others that the YBCA has been publishing with artists about their civic and creative experiences.
The challenge to digitize a project that is fully committed to social interaction has eventually transformed into its own creative process. BREAKING ICE: A Community Response to Citizenship Test (2017/2020), for example, augments the questions on the United States citizenship test with those that investigate belonging on a philosophical and personal level. The project was initially conceived by three artists to be printed on colorful cards but the questions currently live on the YBCA’s website in four predominantly spoken languages in San Francisco (English, Spanish, Chinese, and Tagalog). Also online are James Hosking’s nearly half-hour film, Beautiful by Night (2014), about the last gay bar in San Francisco’s Tenderloin area, and Filipina artist Cece Carpio’s portraits of individuals underrepresented in the census. The project may have started with the core incentive to encourage the public to go online and participate in the census, but now the engagement starts there.