Using Technology to Analyze Political Expression across Continents

By Alejandro Velasco and Florencia Malbrán | May 7, 2015

Cover Image

During this past semester, teams of students in New York and Buenos Aires archived murals, graffiti, performances, and installations in selected neighborhoods of the two cities, using tablets and GIS software. They met once a week via videoconference in a new course that explores what the art and writing of city streets reveals about urban life in 21st century America. The course is co-taught by Professors Alejandro Velasco and Florencia Malbrán. Alejandro’s area of expertise is urban politics in modern Latin American history. Florencia’s expertise is contemporary art and art curation. The course is therefore an effort to think through how art and politics, the professors’ respective areas of expertise, intersect in the Americas.

Art and politics have long gone hand-in-hand in Latin America, especially in capital cities, which are usually the largest population centers as well as the centers of political power. With the state and the nation as audience, people express their frustrations and aspirations on the canvas that is urban public space furtively, creatively, and illegally to get around censorship or repression. This means graffiti, conceptual art, carnival-esque protest.

We wanted to explore the extent to which this is or isn’t the case in the United States, and why, by comparing the interplay of art and politics in two major metropolises: New York and Buenos Aires. To do this well, we knew we needed to explore changes over time in these two cities, which involved reflecting on gentrification processes, policing practices, policy priorities, demographic changes, and electoral shifts.

The Technology

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software allows us to examine these multiple layers simultaneously: first, by having students conduct weekly canvasses of selected neighborhoods in each city using GIS-fitted tablets, and then shooting and uploading images of public art they encounter onto a mapping platform; second, by having students graph area-specific demographic and political data onto their geo-coded images; and third, by collectively coming up with correlations about how the incidence and type of public art reflects other data from the selected areas, and vice versa.

Indeed, it is one thing to map the location of public art in selected neighborhoods in both cities, and to track them over time; it is another to ask what accounts for changes in the relationship between art and politics in those spaces. That’s what we’re most interested in uncovering.

Working with the GLI Team to Learn Technology

Neither of us had ever worked with GIS software or hardware, and the same was true for most of our students, whose interests range from fashion design to grassroots organizing. So, just learning a host of new terms was challenging, not to mention growing comfortable with programs like Google Fusion Tables, which is our primary platform for mapping images and overlaying layers of data from census results to electoral returns in order to draw correlations between art, its context, and politics.

To make the course work, we knew from the start that we would be relying on our partners in the Global Learning and Innovation (GLI) team to offer input every bit as vital to the course as what we are providing conceptually. From day one, we have tried to communicate to students that we are providing them with three sets of tools through which to analyze the data they are collecting: one is learning to read and interpret public art; the second is learning to think politically about urban space; and the third is technical, taking platforms like fusion tables and combining them with online data to draw out correlations.

What Comes Next?

The course is designed to run over three consecutive semesters. So, in truth, it is an 18-month research project with three successive cohorts of researchers building upon each others’ work to track the evolution of public art in Buenos Aires and New York, especially as each city experiences major political shifts during the period in question. In Buenos Aires, a highly contested presidential election is scheduled to take place in December. What this means is that, as has often been the case, the city’s walls and public spaces will be teeming with political images and messages. Students will therefore provide us with a sense of what the city looks like before, during, and after an electoral event, and by focusing on three distinct areas of Buenos Aires, we will be able to compare and contrast how different parts of the city “look” as they undergo these experiences, and perhaps why.

Meanwhile, in New York, Mayor de Blasio has shifted policing practice away from the kind of low-level offenses, like tagging, that were the hallmark of previous administrations, and shifted resources to invest in public housing and other services attending to the city’s working poor. How these shifts will be reflected in the city’s street and public art is one major question we hope to decipher.

That said, it is too early to tell what trends we will discover – mainly, we expect to be surprised by the kinds of correlations we are able to uncover with the help of GIS.