“I Hope That People Will Feel Seen”

Data journalist, artist, TV producer and writer Mona Chalabi digs into mountains of data to create artworks that help us see the world we live in more clearly. She may be documenting some of the constants in our existence, or she might be conveying information about inequality and injustice as it manifests today in ways that may move us to action.

In 100 New Yorkers, she has aimed to represent the great city of New York and its 8.4 million people in just 100 invented characters. In this interview, she talks about the public presentation of the same artwork in Lower Manhattan; the notion of “minorities” in a city where non-white people make up a great segment of the population; and about the meaning of representation, not just in an artwork but in the sense of feeling heard and seen.

100 New Yorkers is going to appear at a massive scale across enormous LED screens at the Westfield World Trade Center shopping mall and transit hub. Have you ever worked at such a scale before?

I’ve done public art projects before, including a recent poster project around Manhattan, but this is the biggest-scale project I’ve ever done. I think that the scale of the characters will be almost life size. Working at this scale poses different design challenges. With 99 percent of what I do, I’m thinking of social media first, so I’m usually thinking of a screen that’s just a few inches wide. There are different constraints when you’re doing that, for example I’m always minimizing the number of words I use, as well as making sure things don’t blur as they’re shrunk down. But when you blow images up, there’s also a chance of pixelation. I’m never creating the work at the dimensions in which it will finally appear.

Were there facts you learned about the population of New York that you learned in studying the census data that surprised you, whether pleasantly, unpleasantly, or otherwise?

All of the groups that we think of and tend to speak about as “minorities” just aren’t. I was surprised that 68 percent of the city’s residents are people of color. For me that’s an encouraging statistic. I don’t feel comfortable in enormously white spaces. Now, the experience of a Black New Yorker is not the same as mine, and the experience of living in Chinatown is not the same as mine. But part of the joy of living in a city is the joy of experiencing anonymity, and the more a place isn’t white, the more, as a nonwhite person, you get to experience that joy in moving through it.

Also, there are other groups who technically are minorities but whose numbers surprised me. About 11 percent have some form of disability. That’s something so many of us don’t often think about, especially since many of those disabilities are not necessarily visible. It’s important to remember how many of my fellow New Yorkers have a disability and to think about how much of the city is inaccessible. And I could do better, too. Am I always adding the alt text to my Instagram images, for example? I’m not, and there’s no excuse for that oversight.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like it might be relatively simple to represent characteristics like age, race and ethnicity, and profession. Was it more difficult to represent, say, socioeconomic status?

Actually, none are simple. Showing gender, for example, isn’t straightforward. I don’t want to show women in dresses and skirts. I had to ask, Am I falling into the norms of representation in a way that reinforces simplified and limited understanding of these things? In so many of my visualizations, the categories are male and female. How can I represent in just one character what it means to be a man? Or a woman? How, in a limited number of characters, can I represent Blackness? I have to incorporate a variety of hairstyles, body types. I’m also limited by the data. There is no meaningful census data on the number of people who are trans, or who are nonbinary. There is no data on people’s skin tones. There’s no information on the number of Arabs, which means I’m not in this data set, so I’m mindful of its limitations. You’re always facing choices. For example, the number of New Yorkers who are Native American is less than 0.5, so if I had rounded down, there would be none, but I thought it was important to represent someone Native American, so I rounded up.

You’ve created this project at a pivotal moment in New York, as in the rest of the country. Covid-19 hit New York very hard in the spring; in November, we face an election where Americans will choose between two presidential candidates, one a New Yorker, with very different beliefs about the pandemic. What do you think people might think about as they study this piece, which is, like elections, about representation, about whose voices are heard?

I hope that they think about whose interests are being represented by which politicians. Some represent only a small handful of the characters in 100 New Yorkers, and some represent a much broader share. So I would encourage people to think outside of their own needs. But then again, what I just said assumes that a wealthy white New Yorker is the one looking at the work. But I also hope that poorer people and people of color might be comforted by the scale of the numbers. We make up such a huge part of the population.

In the end, I hope that people will look at it and feel seen. That’s honestly the best thing I could hope for. I hope they feel represented. Not spoken for, but represented.

Can you tell us one thing about the print you’ve created for Absolut Art?

I’ve tried to make it as colorful as possible, so hopefully it will fit into any environment!