A Portrait of U.S. Linguistic Diversity, in Sound and Sign

Kweti, dwa, tatlo, four.

This is how one version of the generative artwork “A Counting” begins: different voices each saying a number in a multiplicity of languages — in this case, Lenape, Polish, Tagalog and English — creating a kind of chorus counting to 100.

Produced by the artist Ekene Ijeoma and his group Poetic Justice at MIT Media Lab, “A Counting” is an ongoing participatory project that invites people to call in and record themselves counting to 100. These recordings are made into sound and video portraits, with city-specific editions for New York, Houston, Omaha and St. Louis, so far, as well as a national version.

Last week, coinciding with National Deaf History Month, the group put out a call for participation for a nationwide sign language edition. People can now record themselves signing to 100 in any sign language; the videos will be remixed and stitched together.

As more and more people participate in all the versions of “A Counting,” each one will keep growing, not into a single video but many. Using a custom software, the recordings are mixed and sequenced in real time. (Even as the languages shift, however, one thing stays static: “One” is always spoken in an Indigenous language.)

“A Counting” was originally born out of Ijeoma’s thinking about the U.S. census. “The census has historically misrepresented the linguistic and ethnic diversity of the U.S.,” Ijeoma said in a phone interview. “As people of color, we haven’t been counted as a whole, and when we have been counted, it’s been used against us. I started thinking about what it would mean to count to a whole in a way that uses everyone’s voice.”

So, Ijeoma began asking people to count to 100 — a statistical whole — and piecing together their voices. People can call (844) 959-3197 to record themselves, or for the sign language version, visit the website a-counting.us/sign to record through an embedded video platform.

Everyone will be heard or seen, Ijeoma said, adding that the artwork would constantly evolve “into a more whole representation of society.”

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