Dominique Paul In Conversation: Interactive Median Income Dress Acting as a Social Interface

by Patti Jordan

Dominique Paul: ‘The Median Income Dress’ at the Irish Hunger Memorial, New York, New York, 2015. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

Mapping Life
, a group exhibition at New Jersey City University’s Lemmerman Gallery, offers a melee of mappings through wide-ranging works that seek to delineate objective and subjective distances between people, places, and objects whilst conjointly constructing linkages to diverse destinations, thought processes, and historical narratives. Participating artist Dominique Paul took the liberty to speak with me at the opening reception. Her multimedia work is extraordinarily prescient and reveals an aptitude for forecasting critical events before the larger populace is made cognizant of them. Below is an interview that delves in-depth into her art practice, and more pointedly, into how her ‘Interactive Media Income Dress’ “maps” life relevant to this exhibition.

Patti Jordan: Your influential work assimilates the genres of fashion, philosophy, pop art, and tech, and situates itself at the locus of contemporary art. In what way does your 'Interactive Median Income Dress' tap into any or all of these areas of inquiry, and how does it relate to the exhibition concept, Mapping Life?

Dominique Paul: The Interactive Median Income per Household wearable is displaying the data from each census tract back to the geographical site where the data was collected; it is making the data visible from where it came. To do this, I use programmable LED strips to display the color associated with the level of income. Using light is a constant in my practice. In an earlier project addressing environmental and income inequality issues, the portable structures were lit with arbitrary color choice. With this project, I associate meaning to the color selection. The design was inspired by a map translating the census data into a color code presenting eight income zones ranging from red ($0-15,000 per year) to blue (more than $200,000 per year) ( What is striking about some areas of New York - or was, as it is diminishing, is the cohabitation of a wide variety of income within walking distance. I could feel it at the street level but seeing the data on the WNYC map was a revelation. I had my concept: to make the median data visible as I walked the street, thus mapping an aspect of life in a neighborhood.

In my practice, I develop strategies to help perceive in a different light. I am attempting to find a space of freedom, which is a philosophical question raised by Vilém Flusser and the field of inquiry in my Ph.D. thesis: "What are the strategies developed by artists to find a space of freedom, to take a critical distance?" My approach is to emphasize data through the body using a technology-enhanced performance to visualize and bring attention to it in the public space where it was collected. However, when first walking on the street it is abstract to the passersby. They are initially attracted by the lights, and then I explain the meaning of the color code which starts a conversation.

PJ: Can you elaborate on the technical systems you're using to dramatize the visual impact of your performative mapping? Was having yourself filmed in the dress while traversing across different crosswalks in the New York City region a crucial narrative component?  

DP:  The design is made possible by technology. The choice of the technical components is driven by two design principles. Firstly, the design is to scale such that the light elevation corresponds to the amount of income. Secondly, it displays the color code associated with the amount on the map. A square nylon netting was the solution to set a scale and to weave the LED strips. The programmable LED strip allows the control of individual LEDs, such as which ones turn on and what color they take. I use an Arduino, a microcontroller, to host the program and a GPS to automatically translate the data. All the technology has to be portable, hence the handbag and the extensive wiring, programmed by Patrice Coulombe.

I obtained an MFA in Interactivity in 1998-2000 from the University of New South Wales, Australia, and I am attracted to the idea of interactivity which enriches or augments the human experience. I had observed that it could be poetic when, for example, a natural phenomenon was being translated. Being a visual artist, I had planned to document the drastic change of color when crossing a street with a change in the census tract. My walk itinerary aims to show the drastic change in income. During my first outing, passersby stopped me to ask what the dress was about: it became obvious that I had to record the interaction, that it was more interesting than documenting the change of color. I produced this project as part of New York's Residency Unlimited (RU) and the special project curator Ayelet Danielle Aldouby encouraged me to record and plan the questions I would ask passersby; this was a new challenge.

PJ: You design with ample amounts of visual impact in mind; in rendering a data visualization of the US Census Statistics on Median Income, your dress fuses the disciplines of Fine Art and Fashion. How do design principles inform your formal choices and enhance your unique human presence "in situ?"

DP: The design is simple: I envision my body as a column of data, a living bar graph. It is a wearable rather than a dress made by assembling materials: nylon netting and LED stripes. Fabric is being used for the lining to reflect the lights. It is not a fashion statement. It has the shape of a straight dress because it is to scale for the amount of light and is easier to move in. I cannot make walkable LED stripe pants! "In situ," the lower the income I display, the less visible I become. It is only with $200,000 plus income that the lights close to my face are lit. It reflects upon visibility versus invisibility, and with having more influential power as you earn more.

PJ: By engaging in performative dress through analytics software, one may say that you represent the "embodiment of data."  Do aspects of embodiment amplify the subjective versus the objective in any way here, specifically regarding the work's function as a "social interface?"

DP: Yes, completely. The wearable is acting as an interface, as a lure to start an interaction with a person in the public space. It is not easy to approach and stop people walking on a sidewalk, and it seems that the lights are facilitating the interaction that takes place. They are a conversation-starter about gentrification, making tangible the fact that people are struggling to keep living in their neighborhood. Passersby impacted by it express their stories. I am not trying to sell anything, and I am not a newscast. I am in New York where people are familiar with art; my performance is unannounced - it is a pop-up.

PJ: In your accompanying artist statement, you note that "the dress did the work for me." Did staging yourself in an urban district such as Fort Greene, Brooklyn – illuminating inequity through the spectacle of light – get conversations flowing, so to speak?  How did the "mapping" of this particular locale empower your initial concept?

DP: Fort Greene is offering a variety of public housing; some are rentals for middle-income families struggling to find affordable rent in New York City and others are for very low income between $0-15,000 annually. On Myrtle Avenue, there is street after street of renovated brownstones.  There are also delis and Dollar Stores for lower-income customers amongst the new pet stores, nice cafés, and restaurants. The people that approached me were the ones with a story about the difficulty to stay or to rent in the neighborhood, not the ones belonging to the higher income. They were mostly men of African American, Asian, or Hispanic descent.

PJ: How has your project functioned as an influencer in heightening awareness of the neighborhood disparities revealed in your data?  

DP: The viewer watching the video can observe that people are concerned and that ethnicity is at play It brings awareness to income disparity and gentrification which are very acute in New York City and are experienced in a vast number of urban areas such that people can relate to it.  Also, I have a limited reach in the public space as it is a one-on-one relationship. The video helped me reach a wider audience.

PJ: You also engage and collaborate in social and environmental practices involving education.  Could other actions be taken of a socio-political nature, such as re-establishing dialogue with these respective communities, or updating and reporting shifts in the data to impart change or transformation? 

DP: Actions of a socio-political nature arise from a collaboration with other groups. For example, using my Air Quality wearable and an Air Beam monitor, I led an Air Walk in downtown Louisville, Kentucky, organized by the Institute for Healthy Air, Water, and Soil. It brought awareness and media attention as it was featured in the regional TV news and NPR. I am an artist and I strive to bring attention to sensitive issues. People can then reach for community groups to impact policy. For air quality, there is very little awareness of the direct impact on health. There is also a very strong correlation between lower-income neighborhoods and bad air quality which is a form of environmental injustice. However, this is becoming more complex as some of the lower-income areas are facing gentrification.  Will it bring more attention to the air quality we breathe?

For the event Art in Odd Places, I analyzed shifts in data and the disparity between various ethnicities and women as heads of households living in the same census tract. This approach was triggered by the fact that AIOP is on 14th street in Manhattan which is already gentrified if you look at the Median Income per Household data. I had the pleasure of having a research assistant to help me with the data. 

Mapping Life is curated by Midori Yoshimoto, Ph.D., New Jersey City University (NJCU) Gallery Director, and is on view October 17 - November 26, 2019.  Participating artists include Noriko Ambe, Dahlia Elsayed, Kenji Kojima, Dominique Paul, Nyugen Smith, Yasunao Tone, and Sachigusa Yasuda. The exhibition coexists with Maps Everywhere held simultaneously at NJCU’s Visual Arts Gallery.

Patti Jordan is an interdisciplinary artist, writer, and educator based in the New York City area.

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