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Performance Artists Make Statistics Real Through Grains of Rice


Population statistics are hard to visualize, but an art exhibition in Los Angeles makes the numbers easier to grasp. Mike O'Sullivan reports that the exhibition, called Of All the People in All the World, uses grains of rice, each representing a person.

In three galleries of the Skirball Cultural Center, there are piles of rice, some small and some huge.

Jake Oldershaw is part of a performance group from Birmingham, England, that put together the exhibit.

"In the Skirball currently, we've got 900 million grains of rice," he said. "Each grain of rice represents one person, and that figure represents the population of North, South, and Central America. And during the whole of December, we're separating those individual grains of rice into different population statistics."

Some statistics are thought provoking. One large rice pile represents the number of people in South America who live on less than $2 a day. Another pile represents all the people born in the world today, and all who will die. The two piles show that the world is growing by 200,000 people a day.

Another section shows how crowded some nations are, and how much open space is found in other places.

"We've separated out these stats by people per square kilometer in each nation, so Canada has just three grains of rice, three people per square kilometer in Canada," he noted. "And moving on up through the nations, the USA is pretty high there. The UK is even more densely populated, right all the way up to places like Singapore and the Gaza Strip."

Those places have thousands of people per square kilometer.

Some important individuals have their own display, including U.S. civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. King is shown making his famous "I've Got a Dream" speech on the National Mall in Washington in 1963. The scene, with a massive crowd, is recreated in rice grains.

Other displays are light-hearted. One shows a grain of rice representing Hollywood actress Elizabeth Taylor and seven grains of rice representing her current and former husbands.

"They're kind of lining up," he explained. "They're just next to different stats, just like people getting married simultaneously under water off the coast of Thailand in the year 2000. I never knew about that, really. People married at the Elvis wedding chapel in Las Vegas last month, which is a pretty significant amount of people."

Another part of the exhibit looks at wealthy people.

"We've begun with the millionaires, just in the USA, actually, and that's quite a staggering figure in its own right," he noted. "But we move it through to billionaires to Bill Gates, right on his own. Also the unmarried male billionaires in the world, if anyone is interested."

He says the world has about 100 unmarried billionaires.

Visitor Rick Brous of Livingston, New Jersey, is visiting with friends. He is impressed with the exhibition, but would like to see some numbers to learn how many grains of rice are in each pile.

"We would love to get quantity on these things as we walk around and see big piles, we would like to know if that is hundreds of thousands or millions," he said.

Hillary Schmitt of Dallas likes the display the way it is.

"I like the fact that the numbers aren't listed on here and it's just a visual comparison. You know, the actual number of grains or rice, or people, aren't listed," she said. "I like that."

Visitor Marsha Brous says the rice piles illustrate some points better than statistics.

"The homeless population as depicted in the United States, as well as in L.A., was quite overwhelming," she said. "Our family is quite involved with social action, so my eye was tuned in immediately to those kinds of things."

Jake Oldershaw's theater group is known as Stan's Café, pronounced "caff" in the informal British style. It was named after the Birmingham coffee shop where the group started. The troupe has traveled the world with their unique approach to statistics, but Oldershaw, wearing a lab coat and sweeping up grains of rice, explains he is an actor.

"I describe myself at the moment during this show as pretending to be a scientist/mathematician/statistician/cleaner for a month long period," he said. "I'm taking on those roles for a month rather than for an hour during a show."

He says Stan's Cafe, in its rice displays, is serving up statistics to make them digestible.

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