January 2020

Addressing Opportunity: The Landscape of Inequality

This interactive art exhibit explores how the movement of affluent people to a few wealthy zip codes nationally affects income inequality.

by Mia Cinelli and Shoshana Shapiro

This series of postcards is designed to highlight the impact of individual actions on income inequality in the United States. This collaboration combines the interests and expertise of two scholars: Shoshana Shapiro, PhD candidate in Public Policy and Sociology at the University of Michigan, and Mia Cinelli, Assistant Professor of Art Studio & Digital Design at the University of Kentucky. Focusing on how the movement of affluent people to a few wealthy zip codes nationally (both within cities and between regions) affects income inequality, we wanted to investigate: Where do our respective interests overlap and how is this work actionable? How could we visualize the landscape of inequality? How might we disseminate this important information to a wider audience?

Borrowing their visual language of postcards, this series references desired locations, geographic movement, and brevity of communication across distance. As ephemera, postcards mark a familiar and democratizing space embodied in the American experience. Intimate and unpretentious, they represent cherished travels while embodying status and freedom of movement. They became a natural medium for this series, particularly for their social history and their ability to create compelling narratives, create community, and educate their viewers.

Subversively alluding to idealized imagery of mid-century suburban homes and maps, each postcard features information on income inequality relative to history, personal choices, and observed national trends. By recontextualizing images of quaint 1950s homes and adding subversive elements, these postcards address serious matters such as opportunity hoarding, redlining, structural racism, and curated communities. Visualizing perhaps otherwise inaccessible data for a general audience, this series seeks to inform and critically question its viewers.

Successful contemporary works such as Postsecret, a global community art project in which strangers share anonymous secrets on postcards, and Dear Data, a log of narrative data visualization sent between friends across an ocean, have already engaged this medium to construct narrative structure and engender involvement. Place-based social art, such as the Opioid Spoon Project, use their positionality in place to draw attention to a larger social problem. Originally imagined on the porch of a community coffee shop and developed over a summer of Skype calls, this piece was created in a liminal space between Michigan and Kentucky, two places that have witnessed social change and population movements in the last few decades.

Intended to be viewed as an interactive exhibit, Addressing Opportunity features postcards both as actionable objects and as a narrative structure. The piece includes take-away postcards to send alongside an educational brochure on references, resources, and measures one can take. 

Addressing Opportunity fits in the historical traditions of public sociology and visual sociology, examining how space, social consciousness, and populations interact. Sociology has historically been interested in the relationship between individual-level actions and community-level outcomes. Economics might view the same trends through the lens of collective action. This interdisciplinary project poses questions around belonging, communities, movement, and identity, while leaving the viewers space to engage with the work and draw their own conclusions about the trends highlighted in this piece. 

Mia Cinelli is Assistant Professor of Art Studio & Digital Design at the University of Kentucky.



Shoshana Shapiro is a PhD Candidate in Public Policy and Sociology at the University of Michigan. Together, they are interested in designed experiences and the insights gained through interdisciplinary collaborations.



Many thanks to Karina McDonald-Lopez for providing review and suggestions on early versions of the work.

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