RAND Corporation launched their RAND Art + Data residency program in June of last year and has since supported three information designers across several data visualization projects. These artists include Giorgia Lupi, Morcos Key, and, most recently, Gabrielle Mérite.
For Mérite’s first project with RAND Art + Data, she used images of dollar bills stacking up to physically represent the cost of prescription drugs in the US. In her latest work, however, she explores the radicalization and deradicalization of extremists by collaging snippets of text from interviews RAND researchers conducted with former extremists and their family members to create three visual narratives.
Mérite elaborates on her “Describing (De)Radicalization” project below.
How did you come to this text collage concept as a means of representing RAND’s radicalization and deradicalization research?
As an information designer, I tend to focus on quantitative data. But in the case of this subject, violent extremism has been treated many times with this angle of faceless figures: numbers of crimes, numbers of victims, numbers of financial impact—remember the focus on the physical damages after the assault on the Capitol?
Upon reading RAND’s report and their collaboration with two nonprofits dedicated to families affected by violent extremism, it was clear that RAND researchers had put a lot of care into avoiding this path. Their research didn’t focus on the numbers. It embraced the concept of radicalization as an individual experience defined through the words of those who lived or still live through it. The report gave voice to those who went in and out of radicalization and their families. They also drafted the insights in purposeful, non-judgemental words. No numbers would be true to these voices; only words could be. And only together, with words from the people and from the researchers, could a complete image be created.
I first came up with the idea of drafting two visual narratives—one of radicalization and one of deradicalization read parallel to each other. But after executing the first draft, I realized it felt like it wasn’t representing the complexity of extremism and how some factors that would radicalize one person would deradicalize another and vice versa. Thus, I created a third version merging both letters. The team decided that we couldn’t choose the separate narrative or the merged one. Altogether, the three collages create the most realistic portrait of the report’s insights into radicalization.
Mentally and emotionally, what was it like for you to work with this type of subject matter? Do you have any personal connections to radicalization/deradicalization?
I don’t have a direct connection to radicalization in the sense of knowing someone currently radicalized at the point of falling into violence. But I do know people have been victims of extremists. I also folks injured during the terrorist attack of the Bataclan in France in November 2015.
After this attack and the one on Charlie Hebdo, I remember a bit of fear, but mainly a sense of bewilderment. I wondered, “How could someone support values so adamantly that it justifies taking someone else’s life, someone they have no relationship with?” Since then, the government in France has been filing individuals considered to be a serious threat to national security under a “fiche S” status. I remember a government official explaining in an interview how these people, often young people, end up flagged “S.” Their mothers, desperate and devastated at the news, would call the authorities on their sons and daughters. It really touched me; radicalization impacts not just one person but often their family and friends. They are left with no other choices than hoping our institutions would rescue their loved ones, sometimes with severe consequences like jail or police intervention.
Reading the testimonies in RAND’s report, I felt the same way. One could almost hear the despair and pain that led to this turn toward extremism. I had to read it in small chunks because it was overwhelming at times. With sadness, but also joy, too—reading about what made some of these individuals turn back to a more peaceful life.
What do you hope a viewer experiences when viewing this project? What message were you trying to communicate?
First, I wanted people to know the signs of radicalism.
I believe everyone knows someone close to them who utters remarks that are profoundly dehumanizing about a person from a different ethnicity, with beliefs other than theirs, from another gender, or people in other political circles—someone who could one day turn to violence. It was really transparent in the report that radicalization could touch anyone. We all should be able to identify those signs. But more than this, and why the report felt so important, is how it conveyed vital information that would empower families and organizations about how to fight and prevent radicalization in their loved ones. That was a message that felt urgent to communicate.
The pandemic, but also the climate crisis and racial inequities, are highlighting tremendous fissures in our societies, fissures galvanized by blame and intolerance for the “other.” It seems to only get worse. RAND’s work shows that systemic and institutional actions may not be appropriate for this type of issue—a human, personal, and kind approach is. Testimonials, as well as patterns identified by the study, showed kindness and non-judgemental dialogues make powerful tools to bring peace to those susceptible to following radical ideologies. Radicalization is born, first and foremost, out of suffering.
Why have you chosen information design as your artistic practice? What about information design and data visualization excites you?
I never consciously chose to become an information designer.
I’ve always been creative at heart, writing poems and drawing, but I was also a science-head. I pursued a career in human biology first. It was, of course, fascinating to learn about how our bodies work. But also how impactful scientific progress could be for all of us. Since I was a child, I’ve always wanted to have a bigger purpose, and I think I already knew that research wouldn’t work for me during my M.S. in immunology. The results were not immediate enough, and I felt like it didn’t feed my soul the way creativity did. I would always spend more time designing the layout of the report or the graphics of my presentation than actually spending time on the research itself.
I stumbled on the concept of information design through the work of Nadieh Bremer, Eleanor Lutz, and Giorgia Lupi. It was an immediate career crush! I decided to make the jump and went to night classes to learn design. It just felt like a perfect match for both the right and left sides of my brain. Information design allows me to feed my curiosity while sharing these important scientific discoveries to create a better world. I hope to share information in a way that allows people to develop more empathy towards one another. It is my language of change.
What has your experience within the RAND Art + Data artist-in-residency program been like so far?
Incredible and challenging, but in the best way! I’ve been very intimidated by the idea of being the third artist of the residence, following in the footsteps of the amazing Giorgia Lupi and Morcos Key. But the RAND team has been wonderful to work with, ensuring that their research would get faithfully translated. It’s always rewarding to work directly with those who have done the research, who were on the ground for it, and wrote the reports, but also with those who work so hard to communicate it to a larger audience.