“Data isn’t passive”: Artist Jer Thorp Uses Raw Data to Tell Human Stories
With the Office of Creative Research, data artist Jer Thorp and his team sought to “physically bring data into public space.” One of their final projects was We Were Strangers Once Too, a massive data sculpture that highlighted New York City’s rich history of immigration, installed just as President Trump’s original travel ban was announced. Now with the reinstatement of the ban, public art with a conscience—like Thorp’s—is more necessary than ever. In a recent visit to the Lavin office, Thorp described what the sculpture entailed (33 15-feet steel poles, for one) and the sentiments that emerged after its installation.
“It encourages people to ask their own questions, and puts their stories front and center.”— Jer Thorp
“They’re each inscribed with the immigrant population of a particular country in New York, some of them are inscribed with more than one country. From the side, or from the back, it looks like a bar chart. Then when you come around the front to a specific viewing angle, we used a one-point perspective trick to make it form a perfect heart.” Installed in time for Valentine’s Day, Thorp explains that it was “meant to be a love letter to immigrants from us, forming a really beautiful, iconic New York heart. But from another angle, it looks like data.”
New York City has the highest number of immigrants of any city in the world, so to Thorp it was the perfect place to install the sculpture. “We were strangers once too is actually a quote from scripture,” he explains. “Obama used it in a speech about immigration, and we really wanted to make a pointed statement about how different his rhetoric was from the [newly inaugurated] president.”
The sculpture was seen by 20 million people in physical form over the month of February and by 800 million people worldwide through media impressions. “One of the things we loved about that project is that it’s not where you expect to see data. You expect to see it in a newspaper or a magazine or a textbook or on a website. You don’t expect to see it in a public square.”
A former Data Artist-in-Residence at The New York Times and Artist-in-residence at the MoMA, Thorp conveys data in a comprehensive way, making it beautiful. In talks, he illuminates the exciting potential of his projects and what they mean for society. Thorp’s award-winning work has been exhibited, read, and implemented in Europe, Africa, Asia, North America, and South America. He has over a decade of teaching experience, and has presented at The Ford Foundation in New York City, the National Academies, and the Library of Congress.