Census Art: Anita Glesta Reflects on the History of Counting

A view of Anita Glesta’s landscape intervention at the US Federal Census Building. (photo by Sacha Lecca) (click to enlarge)

In 2004, Brooklyn-based artist Anita Glesta was commissioned by the General Services Administration’s Art in Architecture Program to create a permanent seven-acre landscape intervention at a cost of $500,000 for the Census Bureau Headquarters Building in Suitland, Maryland. Six years in the making, on July 12 Glesta will inaugurate her artistic meditation on the idea of counting and numeric order with a global perspective.

Sketches by Anita Glesta for the numeric aspects of her “Census Project” (2010) (via the artist) (click to enlarge)

“I like to create a kind of environment … where people feel like they are participants in this environment. So, very often they include a participatory touch or feel or something that includes the viewer to transform just the observation of a visual art into something that’s larger than that,” she explains. Glesta says that her public works often have an educational aspect, which informs people about art and this one is no different.

“I’ve never worked with data, per se, but I do work with history and memory,” she says about the work’s artistic foundations. “I’ve addressed the notion of census and what that has meant for humans on this planet, all the way back to Sumerians and the Romans … people were always using the census to count their crops, count each other, or know who is crossing their borders. So, my only way of addressing this is not in terms of data but using numerical symbols that represent the history of humans and particularly the ethnic diversity of this country.”

A view of some of the figures in Glesta’s “Census Project,” including the disappearing figures. (photo by Sacha Lecca) (click to enlarge)

In addition to the more widely known numeric systems of the Arabs, Sumerians, Ethiopians, Mayans, Persians and others, Glesta made a point of incorporating Native American numeric traditions, which are not widely known to the American public. The Native Americans, Glesta explains, often used phrases that also meant other things. For instance, the Zuni people of the New Mexico region used the term “hai” for both the number three and the phrase “equally dividing one.” Glesta played up these metaphoric possibilities for numbers and their meanings. Her research into the census in America also uncovered some fascinating stories that she used as inspiration for her work. One case from the 1800s involved a group of southwestern Native Americans who produced bundles of twigs for the US census workers to denote their numbers. “The Native American people gave bundles of twigs to the census takers,” she says. “Some [of the sticks] were forked in the end, and those represented the women, and some were small, and some were old. And that was their way of describing the members of the family, and I was really fascinated by this. I really questioned where those twigs and those numbers ended up going, and whether it was acknowledged at all. That had a lot of input in this work and how I was going to effect some kind of statement about what census might mean.”

A detail of “Census Project” (2010) (photo by Sacha Lecca) (click to enlarge)

She also explored the margins of personhood and being counted as part of the census by including figures who were half there, as she describes them. These fading or emerging — depending on your perspective — people are, for Glesta, both a metaphor for the disappearing people and those who may not be counted, like the undocumented people of America. “I actually was very interested in doing this project because I felt that I had an opportunity to speak as an artist about counting the under counted in the United States, and drawing attention to who is the population of this country. So, it was really great to think about the census in a humane way and to hope … and I do believe from the sense I got from the census … that counting the people right now in 2010 can make a difference to this country … to know who are becoming the new profile of this ever-changing nation.”

As part of her project, she tried to take into account the 10,000 employees who work in the million square foot Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Census building. Her humanizing of the space included adding benches, landscaping, and small nooks that make the area appear fun to explore. “All I can do is hope that my role as an artist can effect some kind of other thinking about census, even from the employees, who look at these symbols everyday and might think ‘gee, this is actually more than data, this is about the history of counting humans’ and ‘who are the people of this country,’” she says.

The “Census Project” (2010) is Glesta’s biggest commission to date, and she says the event is as much to familiarize the workers inside with the project as anything else. She hopes to answer their questions as to what it all means. “I think the inauguration will clarify for them that this is a user-friendly piece of art, as well as, an informative one about the history of counting,” she says. “[I was] looking at the census on a human level.”

For more photos of Glesta’s “Census Project” (2010) visit

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