Happy Hour on the Fringe: Rachel Gita Karp and Joseph Amodei, Packing and Cracking
In this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Marketing Manager Raina Searles talks with Rachel Gita Karp and Joseph Amodei whose production Packing and Cracking will run from September 23-September 30 as part of the 2020 Fringe festival. Packing and Cracking will be presented via zoom, and is an interactive mapmaking event which explores how politicians choose their voters through gerrymandering. Packing and Cracking combines critical cartography, gerrymandering history, and interviews with today’s politicians and reformers to reveal how easy and disenfranchising gerrymandering can be and to ask participants the critical question of “what, if anything, we should do about it?” Listen to Raina, Rachel, and Joseph discuss the making of Packing and Cracking, Gerrymandering in Pennsylvania, and what you can expect as a participant in Packing and Cracking.
Raina Searles: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. Fringe Arts is Philadelphia’s premiere presenter of contemporary performing arts. My name is Raina Searles. I’m the Marketing Manager at Fringe Arts. And today we invite you to pour one up and enjoy our conversation with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence. Today on the show, we’ll be speaking with Rachel Gita Karp and Joseph Amodei who will be presenting their piece, Packing and Cracking as part of the 2020 Fringe Festival this September. Packing and Cracking will be presented via Zoom and is an interactive mapmaking event which explores how politicians choose their voters through gerrymandering. Packing and Cracking combines critical cartography, gerrymandering history, and interviews with today’s politicians and reformers to reveal how easy and disenfranchising gerrymandering can be, and to ask participants the critical question of: what, if anything, we should do about it? Welcome, Rachel and Joseph.
Joseph Amodei: Hi.
Rachel Gita Karp: Hi. Thanks for having us.
Joseph: Yeah, happy to be here.
Raina: So our first question of Happy Hour on the Fringe is always, what are we drinking? Whether or not it’s a happy hour drink or it’s a normal non alcoholic drink.
Rachel: I’m currently drinking some iced coffee that I got this morning and that is no longer particularly iced, but is still very useful to me.
Joseph: Yeah, and I’m balancing a mix of coffee and water to stay focused and hydrated.
Raina: Just like drinking both at the same time?
Joseph: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Not mixed together, but yeah.
Raina: I was going to say your coffee with water. Sounds like Rachel’s iced coffee that’s no longer iced. I am having orange juice because it is always a great time for orange juice in my opinion. But yeah, so for our listeners, Joseph, you work as a new media artist, theater designer and activist. And Rachel, you create performances around politics and public policy. So how did the two of you first meet and how did you come to start collaborating on this piece towards art and activism?
Rachel: Sure. So Joseph and I went to grad school together at Carnegie Mellon. I was getting an MFA in directing and Joseph in media design. And I started wanting to make a performance about gerrymandering around 2017 when there was a Supreme Court case called Gill v. Whitford that people thought would maybe make a big impact on gerrymandering across the country. That’s sort of the first time I really heard about it and heard how egregious it can be and thought: this is a complicated issue and I like to take complicated political issues and spend a lot of time trying to understand them and talk to other people to understand them and then create some kind of performance that lets other people think about them, too. And I knew Joseph from school and knew that they were also interested in making work about politics and also that they had a personal connection to gerrymandering. And so I asked if they would want to make something together.
Joseph: Yeah. Early on in our time at grad school, Rachel and I sort of both realized we made sort of like politically and socially engaged artwork. And yeah, gerrymandering has been something that has been in my field of vision for a long time. I grew up in North Carolina, maybe only be like one of the other most gerrymandered states in the country outside of Pennsylvania. And so when Rachel asked me to sort of conceive and work on this project together, I was quite excited because I’ve been doing… I first encountered it back in like 2012, 2013, when I was an undergrad at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And I noticed all these budget cuts to this publicly funded university that I was attending. And then it was like, why is this happening? Like, we all just elected Obama. And then it turned out there was all these Republican supermajorities that were sort of cutting funding to education. And were sort of in power in sort of dis-alignment with the actual vote due to gerrymandering. And eventually my research led me to sort of uncovering that that was what was going on.
Raina: Interesting. So one thing you mentioned, Rachel, is kind of taking these complicated issues and turning them into these works. So is the goal to kind of make it a little bit more easily digestible for audiences? You know, after kind of taking all that research and then pulling it together so that people can read into it a little bit easier?
Rachel: Yeah. I will spend like months to years really trying to understand as much as I can and then synthesize things and figure out how to express them in a way that makes them more accessible. Like gerrymandering- more and more people know about it now, which is so great. It’s like we’ve even seen how people… as we’ve worked on the project… you know, early on, we’d say like we’re working on a show about gerrymandering. A lot of people would not know what that is. And now we bring it up and pretty much everyone does, which is really amazing. But we still… It still is like a pretty weedsy issue and so we try to figure out, like the most important things and how we can make it understandable and interesting. And I like to say that I aim for three ‘E’s in my work which is to educate, entertain and encourage corrective action if people don’t like what they learn.
Raina: Awesome. So I’m kind of curious if for our listeners who may be familiar with gerrymandering but possibly not know as much about Pennsylvania specific history. Can you speak to that a little bit more about what Pennsylvania looks like?
Joseph: Yeah so Pennsylvania it’s something of a purple state, it has a mix of Republicans and Democrats. So you’d expect that mix to be reflected in who gets elected. But the last time maps were scheduled to be redrawn in 2011, the districts were drawn by the party in power which was the Republican Party. And it put in place basically a permanent 13-5 split in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation. So even though party registration wise, the state is pretty purple, the congressional delegation that was sent was consistently 13 Republicans and 5 Democrats.
Rachel: And it’s important to say, since we’re talking a lot about Republicans so far, that gerrymandering is not something that just one party does. Democrats do it, too.
Joseph: Yeah, that’s right. But in Pennsylvania last time in 2011, it was Republicans. And something that really changed things in that round was that for the first time, computer modeling was able to be used to draw maps very, very specifically, like down to individual houses on a street, deciding this house goes in this district, but these two on either side of it don’t. And not only that, but also people use computer modeling to anticipate where certain types of voters would move over the decade so that these majorities that were put in place would hold even with the natural movement of people. And to do this, they drew these incredibly ridiculous shapes. There’s one district that sort of sliced up all around the greater Philadelphia area. And it was… It looked to a lot of people like Goofy kicking Donald Duck.
Rachel: Yeah. Because there are these like two kind of masses that sort of look like these cartoon characters. And they were very narrowly connected in certain places. And that was like the foot. Because districts in Pennsylvania and in most places have to be contiguous, which means like all the points have to be connected, but that can be used very expansively. And so it can be like just a restaurant as a connecting point or like a cemetery or a hospital. And so that’s the kind of stuff that happened in Pennsylvania at the beginning of this decade.
Raina: Wow. Well, that is really crazy to hear, and I I had the chance to see your show during the Fringe Festival preview night and kind of see a little bit more about that. And so I remember seeing that graphic and it’s definitely mind blowing to think about how people are just kind of drawing those and even more to think about the computers and the modeling involved in that. And it gives you a little bit of a reminder about how that kind of tech can really be destructive when used by the wrong people or put in the wrong hands. So one thing that Packing and Cracking uses notably is critical cartography as one of the tactics to expose gerrymandering and how it operates as its instrument to disenfranchise certain voices. Can you talk a little bit about what critical cartography is?
Joseph: Sure. So critical cartography is thinking about sort of the power that maps have, not just as like, you know, tools for like keeping track of voters, but or like tools for going from place A, point B, point A to point B.
Rachel: There’s a lot of power and maps and how maps are drawn. And I think when we first learn about maps, when we’re growing up, we we don’t really learn to question them. I mean, there’s a ton of issues with education in this country that are beyond the podcast but that’s certainly one of them. And there are these texts in critical cartography that make that really clear, that ask who who is drawing the maps? What kind of world did they want to create or perpetuate? And what do we need to do to stop… Keeping that from happening?
Raina: Yeah, I think it’s so interesting because it does feel like by using cartography, like I would imagine your work is hoping to kind of use this idea of interactive map making to emphasize like how… And really to kind of subvert the oppressive purposes that it served before. I think about like learning about Africa, where, you know, there’s so many different tribes and different peoples who, you know, when, you know, European colonialists kind of came in, they just decided which land belonged to who and how to split that up. But it also didn’t always align with what was there naturally. And so they started creating these borders that caused a lot of conflict between different groups of people during history, which has been so problematic. And in the United States, like we can talk all about the displacement of, you know, Native Americans and you know what that’s meant here for the different tribes who were, you know, forced out of their homes because this is becoming this new state or this is part of this country now. And so I’m curious that, you know, when you’re creating this performance, how are… how are you using that to subvert those different ideas that mapmaking has had previously?
Joseph: I mean, a lot of it is sort of like trying to sort of like call into question this sort of like neutrality of the map, you know, and point out the things that sort of it has negatively affected and people it’s negatively affected. So, like, you look at a map of voting districts and you’re just like, oh, this is just a thing. This is just a thing. Like, this is just, you know, a useful thing so people can vote for their elected officials. But oftentimes, in fact, what is also going on is it’s like, you know, it’s taking away the sort of rights of voters by putting people of one party, like in a really clumped area or like splitting up minority communities so their numbers within a district aren’t high enough for them to be able to elect the representatives they want, who may reflect their lived experiences. Like it’s actually all these other things, but wrapped around in this sort of like neutrality and sort of this… sort of cultural acceptance of maps as like fact-bearing objects when in fact they’re created by people and have all these human lines built into these sort of more material lines.
Rachel: Yeah, there’s a quote we like that is: “maps show us human lives without showing us human people” like the maps around us, even like the very… at every level affect us all so much. But we never see the actual people drawn into the map. And so we start off by having people think about maps in a very personal way, like draw all the places you’ve been in the past month. And validating that, making that even more important since it’s the thing that we do first, than these other maps that politicians have drawn and also empowering people to think like I can draw a map like I just did draw a map. There’s no reason why politicians have to be the ones to draw maps for us. We can do it and ours can be more honest and more human.
Joseph: And once you learn about the sort of like human-ness that’s involved in mapmaking, it sort of then hopefully leads people to sort of… and we open the question of, well, then who’s drawing these maps and what are their motives?
Raina: Right. Yeah. So Packing and Cracking has been presented in the past, though, in person, correct?
Rachel: Yes, we presented it twice in person. The first time very in-process, last August in New York. And then based on that, we presented a fuller version in January in New York. And we also presented like an in-person snippet at Carnegie Mellon before the world shut down.
Joseph: And this in-person version was like a very… so like when we say, interactive like that can mean a thousand things. But for us it means it’s like a… it’s a series of games that people play with each other: drawing games, map making games, sort of voting games, polling games. And these used to be like people sitting around a physical table and sort of talking to each other and passing each other markers and paper and opening up maps and like looking for things and putting puzzles together. And that sort of sentiment is really important, but much of that sort of actual physical construction is really like kind of the last thing you want to be doing right now, like passing markers with strangers, you know, normally like maybe in the before times, really like a nice, warm, fulfilling way to meet a person, but just kind of too dangerous now so… We were actually in process to put this show up in person… In person in March when everything shut down, including, you know, pretty much all performance and theater at that time. We sort of decided that we would try and make an online version of this project because the timeline for maps being redrawn hasn’t really changed that much. It’s still going to happen next year once the census is done being collected. We now are like, OK, how can we make a version so no matter what the state of public health is, we can sort of still try and do that.
Raina: Right. And so in transforming this online I’m curious about what elements you’ve been able to keep, what you’ve been able to improve on, what might have been restricted in that transition?
Rachel: Yeah, we basically had to change most things because the experience of being in person, drawing around a table is just so drastically different than looking at other people online and like having to draw within a web browser. The main thing that stayed the same is that we’ve done a lot of interviews with people across Pennsylvania who either work in redistricting, like who helped draw maps for politicians who are politicians or who are working on redistricting and gerrymandering reform. And those have translated really well from in-person to online. We’ve actually gotten some feedback that those are more interesting to watch on a computer because we’re actually just more primed to do things like that on a computer. But all of the interactions we’ve had to… we spent a lot of time play testing with some really nice friends of ours who will give us time to figure out, OK, like if we used to sit across from each other and try to draw maps of like what we’ve… where we’ve been for the past month, like how can we do that online? We’ve also made the experience shorter in certain ways. Like the runtime is pretty similar, but just the length of time it takes to do things online it can be much longer than in-person. And so we’ve cut down on the number of games. That’s been really great, though, because I think it makes us really focus and really get clear about what we’re trying to say. What are the most important things to say and how to say them as distinctly and powerfully as possible?
Raina: Yeah. So I don’t know, like, have you been thinking about doing it where audience are, you know, still breaking out their own markers and pens and pencils and drawing, you know, on a piece of paper right in front of them? Or has it moved totally online?
Joseph: So it’s… we built a lot of sort of like teaching of how to use the online drawing tools into it to sort of make it as accessible as possible, no matter your sort of comfort and familiarity with technology. But we do always say, like, if your computer’s glitching you know, or there’s like a rainstorm and your internet goes out, like it’s OK to just, like, follow along with a pen and paper. And we think, we think that’s it’s still really, a really meaningful experience in that way.
Rachel: Yeah, we we try to provide the analog way of doing all the digital stuff as people may want to access it in different capacities.
Raina: So in our our recent global pandemic series that we were doing on our podcast, one of the overarching discussions that we were having has been about the role that art has played in activism, how they are so tied together and really how they can have an impact on each other in a very cohesive fashion. And as you mentioned, you know, the census is taking place this year and that’s going to mean a lot for budget allocations, funding. And yeah, like mapmaking following all of this coming up. So it is like a really super important time for this to come up. So can you talk a little bit about, you know, how you would hope that this work can impact people and, you know, maybe more broadly how you see the arts contributing to these social movements?
Rachel: Sure. There are a lot of ways. We talk about the census in our show, we tie it to the importance of fair districts and we give people time to fill it out within the show if they haven’t yet.
Raina: Oh, awesome.
Rachel: We added that in earlier at the very… at the show we did in New York at the beginning of the year. And the inclusion of that has only gotten more and more important as there have been all these efforts to limit people using the census. And then people just have not been home and thinking about filling out the census. So this show happening at the end of September is a really great time to get a final census push in since the last day to fill out the census is September 30th. In terms of other potential changes, I think are great hope is that people really start to think about the maps around them and think about who to elect in November and make sure that they are electing people who will draw maps that they think will be fair. And then when maps are redrawn next year, they watch because we’re going to need a lot of attention on this map drawing process to make sure that the maps that come out are not like the ones that we describe happened in Pennsylvania back in 2011 and 2012. The process… so the maps themselves in Pennsylvania have changed over the decade because of court cases but the process that is used for drawing maps hasn’t. And so we need a lot of public engagement so that we don’t get the kinds of maps that we got last time.
Joseph: And I think there’s already… like to a certain extent, there’s already been some successes as far as like the amount of light that be put on the map making process. There’s like many organizations out there, Draw the Lines and Fair Districts P.A., who have been working to build bipartisan and nonpartisan coalitions to sort of like take the… make the process more open and sort of take politicians out of the process and put people in its place. And, you know, we spoke with them- interviewed with some people in those organizations and some of the politicians that they work with in our shows. So you can learn a little bit more about that but… and that’s, you know, even in the face of really, like, incredibly frustrating and challenging sort of systemic inaction across like so many issues in these days, like activism and art tied together can sort of help amplify at least a sense of hope.
Raina: Mm hmm. And it is really on the local level, too, because it’s not necessarily the federal government drawing these lines, it’s typically by the state legislature. Right?
Rachel: Yeah, it’s different in every state. But in Pennsylvania… In Pennsylvania, there are two processes, which is confusing. So there’s like a committee of five people, mainly politicians, who draw the State, House and Senate districts. And then it’s the general State, House and Senate who draw and approve the congressional districts at the federal level. And the governor has to sign off on congressional districts. Its this Legislative Reapportionment Committee of five that draws the more local lines. And it’s like wherever the lines are It affects everything, like up and down, you know? So like who… what the lines are at the State and House level affects who’s elected to the State and House and then those are the people who draw at the congressional level. And so it affects who’s in Congress. And that’s like the biggest sort of like most zoomed out. But gerrymandering happens really low like there’s a… we talk to the people at Common Cause, Pennsylvania, which have done a lot of great work around voter suppression and reform. And that was a big point for them, that, like city council districts are gerrymandered and it just keeps affecting everything.
Raina: Well, there is so much more to dive into, and I definitely encourage all of our audiences to check out Packing and Cracking so that they can hear a lot more about this, more in depth. But before we go, I would love to get from each of you one of our staple questions is what are your highbrow and lowbrow inspirations when it comes to art making? So what are the things that you watch or read or consume generally? And I will not define high brow or low brow for you. You can choose where you put the media that you consume.
Rachel: OK. What comes to mind for me… my high brow is like the really extensive research that I do. Which will be a lot of sort of archaic period text that I will read or… I’m working right now on a different project about the history of abortion, and I’m reading like a very detailed, long history of abortion in America from 1800 to 1900 and that… It feels super niche, but I find it like the most amazing thing. And then my low brow is like I feel really inspired by, like cooking shows these days. And actually for quite a while. And these sort of like friendly, competitive. So, like, I like the friendly ones, not the very cutthroat ones, but these are friendly, competitive TV shows.
Raina: Have you seen Nailed It on Netflix?
Rachel: I’ve seen some of that. Yeah. Stuff like that because it’s like joyous. And sort of there’s community. And that I think is like what… something… one of the many things but something that we could really use more of and that I like to infuse in work that I make.
Raina: Yeah, I love that. Joseph how about you?
Joseph: Yeah, let’s see here. I mean, some of my, like, high brow things are like… I’m always… a lot of my work revolves around like taking technology at the forefront of its development and sort of like using it to connect to political ends. And a lot of that research is like very fun for me and very not fun and like technical and detaily so I’m like, you know, poring through the Internet, looking at new tools that people are making. And, you know, I listen to a lot of policy podcasts, like I’m just having a good time, like, you know, really like zoning in on the details of how these structures are at play and are going on. But at the end of the day, like… and you know… I love critical theory so I have a lot of, complicated feelings about high versus low brow… in that there’s any sort of value difference. But a big sort of inspiration for me when I think about making work is I think about its accessibility and understandability in a way. I like… compared to most people I know who do theater performance, I came into the art making like not until my early 20s, pretty late in the game. And so I always think about… and it’s just because I didn’t know about it. Like, I come from a pretty low income background, like I just like wasn’t exposed to. I didn’t know people had jobs in this type of thing. And when I found out that that was an option, it really changed my life. So I always think about, like work that my mom can understand and participate in and you know, get a lot of joy from. So that’s really something that’s key to my practice.
Raina: Great. Well, thank you so much, you both. And how can our audiences support your work?
Rachel: We have a website which is the name of our show, packingandcracking.com, so you can find out more about the show and our history in making it there. And we also have links on it to the Fringe Festival and to get tickets for our Fringe Festival shows.
Raina: Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. You can follow Fringe Arts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram and download the Fringe Arts app and make sure you go check out fringearts.com/events/packingandcracking and hear more about their show on.
Joseph: Thanks so much.