米 (mǐ) is the Chinese character for uncooked rice

Below is the concept sketch of my art installation, mǐ / uncooked rice.

I have collected a great deal of data on disparities over the years, and as I explore data visualizations in my work, I am contending with this tension: When people share data and statistics, their goal is to prompt some kind of emotional reaction. Surprise. Shock. Rage. A desire to take action. But the visual representations of data tend to be cold and analytical, even if they are beautifully designed. We seem to want numbers to be objective and unbiased, but they are not, and our use of them is highly subjective and biased. I am embarking on an investigation of how to depict data in a way that is emotional and personal, starting with my formative experiences growing up in my family’s Chinese takeout restaurant.

Concept sketch for mǐ / uncooked rice, an art installation.
mǐ / uncooked rice will physically illustrate the data contained in this chart of the US population versus representation of artists in US museums.

A note on using multiple languages: As an Asian American woman, daughter of immigrants who grew up in rural Kansas, former educator in the underfunded Milwaukee public school system, former project manager in the white male dominated industry of manufacturing, and artist-entrepreneur who communicates between the arts and clients in other industries, I am well accustomed to code switching.

This is the irony of cultural assimilation. I spoke exclusively in Chinese and some Taiwanese until I was 3-4 years old. When I started preschool at age 3, the other children made fun of how I spoke, so as soon as I started learning English, I told my parents I no longer wanted to speak Chinese at home. The pressure of cultural assimilation was for someone like me to speak exclusively in the English language. But the long-term reality of assimilation is that I will be translating between communication strategies for the rest of my life.

In the context of data visualization, I wonder, how will the way data is represented change how people perceive and interact with it? When it is propagandistic? When it is personal?

How many times will I have to translate this information before you, the viewer, believe what I am telling you?

Exploring Data Visualizations

On a broad level, I am investigating potential countermeasures to arts-based gentrification. Specifically, I am currently looking at representation and compensation of women of colour artists, one of the most excluded groups in the arts industry, and what their access to cultural and economic power entails for the future of the arts and city development.

Jenie Gao’s poster, Do women have to be white to get into the Met. Museum?, on arts representation in 2021, following up on the 1989 Guerrilla Girls poster
Jenie’s hand drawn bar graph of US population versus US museum representation. Click image to view larger.

I am working with drawings, prints, and data presentation. My material interests include:

  1. Reproducible, distributable items like postcards, prints, and maps / tools for guidance.
  2. Large-scale works like projections, installation, and billboards to take over public space.

I come from a strong technical background. I enjoy creating beautiful things and images as vehicles for emotion and action. I am pondering, how do I develop an aesthetic language for this work that feels genuine to me? I am referencing examples of how others have presented data, like W.E.B. DuBois’ data portraits of Black America, and Susan Jahoda / BFAMFAPhD’s criticism of the academic-industrial complex, in which nothing can finally be paid off.

BFAMFAPhD’s installation, in which nothing can finally be paid off.
W.E.B. DuBois’ data portraits of Black America

In her Art News article, What Can We Learn from Institutional Critique?, Aruna D’Souza writes, “Is the goal to make institutions ‘better,’ more responsive to social concern…models for a just society? Is the goal dismantling institutions in general? …Does institutional critique even have a politics and theory of change?” This quote articulates my concern—to what end is this for? My work can function across contexts, in the gallery or the community centre or public space, but long-term success relies on becoming a part of mainstream solutions. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, The Case for Reparations, was once criticized and is now discussed in the US Congress. To sustain, what was unrecognized must enter society’s framework of comprehension. So the ideal contexts for my art are those that enable it to connect with public awareness and lay the groundwork to connect with future policymaking.

How do I develop an aesthetic language to carry this information? How do I make room for personal exploration, particularly as an AAPI woman living in a majority Asian [diasporic] city for the first time? Coming from the US, what makes this work and research relevant in Canada? What funding and partnerships do I need to build to scale research efforts and grow this work?

Jenie’s hand drawn graphs of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s annual revenue versus expenses. Where does the money go, to what and to whom? Click image to view larger.

Final Notes

When I created the Instagram handle @paywomenofcolor, Instagram immediately flagged and deactivated the account before it ever went live. I submitted an appeal for Instagram to reactivate the account. Below are screenshots of the email Instagram sent me on how to appeal to have my account returned to me, a process that required me to literally dox myself and submit a mug shot. They never released the Instagram account.

The Starving Artist: A Poem

The Starving Artist tree poem is based on my recent essay series entitled Free Art & Racism: unpacking the role of unpaid artists’ labor in perpetuating racism and exploitation.

To create the poem, I searched for all instances of the term, “starving artist,” in my essay, and mapped the subsequent sentences and repeated phrases.

The Starving Artist: a poem by Jenie Gao. Click the image to enlarge.

What will growth look like in the next two years?

It is predicted that two thirds of the global population will live in cities by 2050, and even smaller towns and rural areas have begun to mimic the development tactics of metropolises. Terms like “placemaking,” the “creative class,” and the “creative industry” are all the rage right now. Meanwhile, arts-led gentrification disguised as “urban renewal” displaces up to 70% of BIPOC, as well as senior citizens, the working class, and anyone likely to be marginalized. The arts get used as a wedge—“poor starving artists” volunteer their time to revitalize their struggling neighborhoods, and receive just enough attention to make it seem worth it. Our cities invite artists to paint diverse people in murals, while neglecting actual policymaking that could make it possible for diverse people to build their lives in the same city districts. Wages have stagnated. We are in a recession, on the cusp of hyperinflation.

All of this is driving me to expand my research on how the arts are weaponized for gentrification, and why we must disrupt the pattern. Economic development is not bad, but when it prioritizes property instead of people, it eradicates the wellbeing of the very people who make our communities so special. I have used my practice thus far to make labor visible, to challenge existing frameworks of intellectual and physical property. I have consulted organizations to create equitable best practices for the arts industry to follow. And—while I have received both praise and pushback at a level where even the opponents of artists’ equity cannot dismiss this work’s impact, it does not feel like enough. I am not satisfied with doing outsized labor for incremental change, within the microcosm of my own business, or in the leadership positions I’ve held on boards, committees, and nonprofits throughout Wisconsin.

We need more artists who lack support systems to be able to pursue an arts career long-term, to become leaders who redefine the field. We need more equitable policies in public and private sectors. We need to strengthen cultural rootedness and disrupt cultural appropriation and other forms of stolen wealth. We need to build healthy ecosystems for everyone—because it isn’t good enough for someone like me to succeed “in spite of” the system. If the majority of people have to struggle to build their life here, that is a systemic failing, not an individual one. If the field requires exceptionalism to achieve a modest, middle-class lifestyle that’s becoming harder to come by, we should reject that system and build a better one.

There is a bigger question here, beyond our livelihoods and our localities: how is what we do in the present affecting the future? Will artists, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and the working class continue to be displaced by their own labor, or finally thrive in the places they help revitalize? For each of you reading this, how can you start living like the future you want is already here? How can you do it in such a way that expands wellbeing for others, too?