Some years ago, I reached the end of my patience. At that time, I had a toddler and an infant and a husband. I was working as a graphic designer in addition to my art practice and managing the bulk of the unpaid domestic labor in our home. This was clearly not a sustainable way to live. So, I started researching, as is my way, and here are just a few things I found out:
- Cooking, cleaning, childcare, and eldercare responsibilities often still default to women, which keeps them from advancing at work and in society.
- Volunteerism, which can be seen as caretaking of the larger community, also falls disproportionately on women.
- Recent data tells us that women in the United States still shoulder over 4 hours of unpaid work a day, compared to 2.5 hours of unpaid work reported by men.
And so The Carrying Stones Project was begun as an ongoing series of data visualization art works that explores the inequities surrounding women’s paid and unpaid labor.
These days, we’re all inundated with facts, news, fake news, and data. I felt that if I could present what I was learning about women’s labor in a fresh way that could catch people’s limited attention, I had a real opportunity to give voice and space to the topic.
My latest large-scale sculpture pieces from the Force of Nature series are 100-work-hour data visualizations. Here’s how the process works…
I begin by finding project participants, women of diverse backgrounds who are willing to track what they do in their waking hours. I developed a custom timekeeping app for the project and participants input what they did each hour of their day—paid work, unpaid work, or non-work. I also talk with participants about mental and emotional labor and make sure they know to add those to their work hours.
After I receive the participant’s data, I translate it into a large-scale sculpture that abstracts and encodes the numbers of labor hours into a form that’s fully readable as a graphic. And it’s very important that the piece be LARGE. Since the whole point is to give voice and space to women and their work that goes overlooked, or underpaid, or taken for granted - the bigger the better!
After the sculpture is finished, I cross from data visualization into more storytelling. I take a photographic portrait of the subject lifting and carrying the sculpture of her hours so she’s “shouldering her burden” in a real, physical way. I feel like this is where the project is the most poignant and expressive.
The aesthetic choices I make in these visualizations-- the materials, the form and arrangement of the data points - are taken directly from the subjects’ lives. I incorporate their personality, their style, whatever I can do to best represent them.
Still, I wanted visitors to the Force of Nature installations to understand the data in an even more personal, visceral way. So I developed an activity - a social practice piece - to accompany the installations. It’s called The Weight of Your World and it is a lot of fun. (Social practice art is about participatory collaboration with individuals and communities, and it’s a great way to allow people to place themselves in the context of the art.)
The Weight of Your World lets visitors to the Force of Nature installation step into the role of the participants. People estimate how much time they spend on paid labor and unpaid labor in a customized version of the Carrying Stones timekeeper app. If they report, for example, that they spend 56 hours out of every 100 on paid work and 32 hours on unpaid work, they are handed 56 POUNDS and 32 POUNDS of stones to carry. They then have their portrait taken wearing or carrying this custom-generated sculpture of their working hours.
The event is play and it is a lot of laughs, but it also gives people genuine insight as to how they fit in to the larger labor landscape. Some people are absolutely shocked at what their data looks like.
In order to give The Carrying Stones Project the legs to do the work it’s talking about, I donate a portion of proceeds to organizations that are already hard at work on legislative issues affecting working women, families, and children. Maybe you’ll consider doing something like that. But right now, I ask you to commit to seeing unpaid labor - women’s and men’s - and recognizing that unpaid work is work, and understanding that unpaid labor is not free but actually comes with a great cost, especially to the worker doing it.