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Interactive Portals Take Viewers Inside the 'Broken Windows' Theory

New media artist Elizabeth Mputu explores “police brutality, surveillance, and resistance,” in a series of multimedia portals.
Screencaps by the author

That African Americans experience a disproportionate amount of surveillance and police brutality is a documented phenomenon. But within this demographic is another subset—marginalized groups who experience similar policing because of gender identity or non-normative sexuality. New media artist Elizabeth Mputu, who has creatively taken up these and other issues like racism and cultural hijacking, explores this type of policing in her recent newhive Broken Windows, a series of multimedia portals exploring “police brutality, surveillance, and resistance.”


Broken Windows alludes to the broken windows theory, which suggests that a disordered environment full of vandalism, litter and graffiti sends a signal that the area is unmonitored and rife with bigger crimes. Mputu’s interactive web browser digs into the social control that grew out of this theory, both informal (community) and formal (policing).

Broken Windows by Liz Mputu

Broken Windows transports viewers through a series of clickable guides or “windows,” allowing them to explore how law enforcement has “weaponized surveillance” with policies like "stop and frisk,"which Mputu calls the product of broken windows theory. These windows also allow viewers to see the reactions of a public in reaction against it. On the page titled glass, viewers can click on a virtual Macbook screen, which links viewers to an article on how the broken windows theory emerged at the same time the NYPD raided a gay bar on Times Square in October of 1982.

“Everything you see on the desk of this page is a virtual version of a resource I used to develop Broken Windows,” Mputu tells The Creators Project. “It is important for me to speak on prison reform and police brutality through the lens of a queer black femme in order to offer one example of how varying markers of personal identity cause different responses from the system.”

“I feel that the common idea that this theory and the conduct that has evolved from it has largely impacted black and brown people (namely cishet straight men), while very true to an extent, fails to take into consideration the intersections of gender, class, orientation and perceived ability for example,” Mputu adds. “Ultimately simplifying the depth of the discrimination at work here and this is something I aim to challenge.”


glass by Elizabeth Mputu

Mputu hopes that Broken Windows will provoke the feeling of vulnerability that arises when we think of the contextual imagery around broken windows. The context here being the “hood” or urban areas commonly “disheveled by lack of upkeep or abandonment,” which makes people feel uneasy or signal the presence of criminal activity.

“We’ve been conditioned to be on high alert when in these environments—whether by just locking our doors as soon as we enter them, or if we’re living in them, by being more suspicious of those who come around,” she adds. “Or, if we’re on the outside looking in, by demanding that those areas be even more heavily policed based on our own false notions of security.”

altar-natives by Elizabeth Mputu

The multiple themes and realities at play in Broken Windows enlighten instead of overwhelm the viewer. Mputu illuminates the experience of marginalized and non-normative groups, and tackles one of the great problems of broken windows theory; that disordered neighborhoods are absolute danger zones that don’t just need a little cleanup, but a prescription that calls for gentrification at the expense of a true understanding of what’s really going on.

Click here to see more work by Elizabeth Mputu.


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