Packing and Cracking: An Interactive Mapmaking Event

The Process Series (online)

Friday, Oct. 23 & Saturday, Oct. 24, 7:30 p.m., free 

Once, politicians could keep the chicanery, intrigue, and villainous fun of gerrymandering legislative districts all to themselves. But no longer: In Packing and Cracking, Joseph Amodei and Rachel Gita Karp’s offbeat interactive livestream performance for UNC’s Process Series this weekend, audiences get the chance to play along at home.

“They give you a map in one of the exercises and say, ‘Okay, do your best to gerrymander it this way,’” Joseph Megel, the series’ founder and artistic director, notes. “Then they rate your ability to do it most effectively.”

Gerrymandering is the notorious practice of tweaking legislative maps to maximize one political party’s advantage and deny voters equal representation. Methods include the techniques referenced in the show’s title: “packing” voters of the same party into one district to reduce their voting power in surrounding areas, and “cracking” open a region where a party already has a clear majority, so its voters are split into smaller, weaker groups in surrounding districts.

It may seem counterintuitive for activist artists to combat the practice by schooling audiences in the specific tactics politicians use. But if knowledge is power, Karp, a theatrical director long interested in making work about U.S. politics and public policy, and Amodei, a new media artist whose designs graced a series of superior stage productions in this area during their undergraduate years at UNC-Chapel Hill, are intent on redistributing that power as widely as possible, in works that double as acts of civic self-defense.

In 13 self-styled map-making games, the duo probes North Carolina’s long and continuing history as one of the most gerrymandered states in the U.S. Then they unpack some of the finer—and sneakier—points in the practice and encourage virtual viewers to play with them. “A relatively simple way of drawing groups of dots together ends up being a really clarifying moment,” Amodei says. “People see how easy it could be to do this with people in districts across state geography.” Along the way, video interviews with the local legislators and civic activists fighting demographic disenfranchisement reinforce the real-world stakes involved.  

“Maps seem neutral,” Amodei says. “When local municipalities use them to outline school districts or delineate days for garbage collection, they “appear to be some neutral breakdown of a task that has to be done to meet the needs of people in an area.”  

But critical cartography, the analysis of mapping practices that investigates the information that is revealed or concealed in traditional topography, shows that maps reflect—and can be used to perpetuate—the power relationships among different groups. “In fact, they’re these culturally heavy-laden documents that have all the biases of any other sort of cultural institution built into them,” Amodei says.

A conventional paper map has to remove the third dimension, height, just to fit on a two-dimensional sheet. But in practice, political maps often remove multiple dimensions found in the lives and diversity of a region’s people. “Part of what we try to do is re-dimensionalize these lines that are often invisible and make them visible in communities,” Amodei says.

As a North Carolina native who grew up in Chapel Hill, Amodei became aware of gerrymandering during college. “I started noticing some extremely partisan policies that were passing in the state legislature, but weren’t in line with the purple state that we are,” Amodei recalls. “That’s when I first discovered that the maps had been drawn in ways that guaranteed Republican supermajorities.”

Though Democrats in North Carolina did the same for most of the previous century, Amodei notes that gerrymandering reached “a point of extremity” during the 2010 election. “For the first time, computers could use algorithms to analyze data down to specific houses,” Amodei says. “They could think about where potential voters might move, model the future, and create districts that were extreme in a way that hadn’t been possible when it was just people doing it.”

Karp says it was the 2017 Supreme Court case Gill v. Whitford that put gerrymandering on her visual field. “That’s when I really learned how manipulative redistricting can be in our country,” she says. “It’s at the root of a lot of the problems of our country: the extreme partisanship, that disconnect between the values and views of elected officials and what their voters want.”  

“I like to say that if you care about immigration, the biggest immigration rights issue is gerrymandering. The biggest reproductive rights issue is gerrymandering,” Karp says. “As long as things are gerrymandered, we’re not going to be able to elect people who actually agree with us on those issues.”

One of the project’s first research questions was: What does gerrymandering feel like? It’s a difficult question, but in centering the experience around participants’ lives, the co-creators “try to help people feel how it affects them and the issues they care about.”

Megel says the resulting performance gives audiences direct engagement with the impact and effects of gerrymandering. “You understand it in a material way, but you feel it in a visceral way. It’s a very dynamic experience.”

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