Art

Reading the Numbers of Stop-and-Frisk

'Mendi + Keith Obadike, "Numbers Station [Furtive Movements]" (2015) (all images courtesy Ryan Lee, New York, unless otherwise noted)
Mendi + Keith Obadike, “Numbers Station [Furtive Movements]” (2015) (all images courtesy Ryan Lee, New York, unless otherwise noted)
In 2013, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin issued a ruling which effectively dismantled the New York City Police Department’s (NYPD) racist stop-and-frisk policy. Scheindlin’s decision, in the class action lawsuit Floyd, et. al. v. City of New York, was a clear victory in a decades-long fight for the reform of a policy that disproportionately affects Black and Latino communities. The numbers show this, and the numbers don’t lie.

According to an analysis conducted by the New York Civil Liberties Union, 2,592,646 individuals were detained by the police under stop-and-frisk between 2009 and 2013. On average, 88% of those stopped were innocent. In 2009, 510,742, or 55%, of those stopped were Black, while 180,055, or 32%, were Latino. Two years later, those numbers stayed relatively steady: 350,743, or 53%, were Black; 223,740, or 34%, were Latino. Two years after that, they still hadn’t changed much: 169,252, or 56%, of those stopped were Black, while 104,958, or 29%, were Latino.

After each stop, the officer is required to fill out a form recording the details of the incident, assigning it — and the person involved — yet another number. Through such interactions with the police, millions of individuals have been reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet, nothing more than data points. This data was the subject of a recent performance and new sound installation, “Numbers Station [Furtive Movements],” by Mendi + Keith Obadike at Ryan Lee Gallery.

Mendi and Keith Obadike performing "Numbers Station [Furtive Movements]" (2015)
Mendi and Keith Obadike performing “Numbers Station [Furtive Movements]” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic
On September 10, just before the show’s public opening, a small crowd gathered in the back of the gallery to witness what had been announced as a performance employing “the radical misuse” of this data. With little fanfare, the Obadikes took their seats at a small table, placed on their headphones, switched on a radio transmitter, and began to read aloud the logs of stop-and-frisk reports from over 123 NYPD precincts. The performance was simply the sustained recital of the numerical tags of the many self-reported incident forms. Each number was read individually, the Obadikes alternating between themselves. After a log was read in its entirety, the artists would take a short breath, flip the page, and begin anew. For 30 minutes, the cryptic nature of all those abstract numbers — the assigned marks of supposed criminality — became public in a new way.

Mendi + Keith Obadike, "Numbers Station [Furtive Movements]" (2015) (click to enlarge)
Mendi + Keith Obadike, “Numbers Station [Furtive Movements]” (2015) (click to enlarge)
No names were read. There was no way to link each set of data points to any one person. However, knowing that an overwhelming majority of that data represents actual black and brown people was a frightful reminder that the truths about inequity cannot be hidden, even when they’re masked by bureaucratic numbers. The Obadikes’ staccato, monotone reading voices made it clear that the subject of the performance was indeed the data, not the artists themselves. For the duration of the exhibition at Ryan Lee, audiences will have the opportunity to listen to a recording of the performance.

The practice of using statistics to represent Black bodies (and more emphatically, Black trauma) is nothing new. From slave manifests to lynching reports, the codification of Black lives has long been employed by institutions as a means of regulation and suppression. “Number Station [Furtive Movements]” explicitly names the NYPD as another abettor of such fear-inducing mechanisms. The numbers don’t lie.

Mendi + Keith Obadike: Numbers Station [Furtive Movements] is on view at Ryan Lee Gallery (515 W 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 10.

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