Greeting visitors at this week’s New Art Dealers Alliance (Nada) fair in New York is not a glitzy, blue-chip sculpture, but rather a decades-old, upcycled phone booth playing powerful, beautiful and moving voicemails celebrating the birthdays of people of colour killed by police violence. The popup installation, 1-800 Happy Birthday, is presented by Worthlessstudios and expands upon the ongoing digital project of the same name that was created in 2020 by creative studio Even/Odd as a repository of birthday wishes to honour and remember the lives taken. The phone booth installation is also a prelude to an exhibition that will take place at Worthlessstudios in Brooklyn in September.
Standing over 7ft tall and weighing over 500 pounds, the phone booth acts as a physical monument for the lives lost. As both a public and personal memorial, 1-800 Happy Birthday shares messages from the families and friends of those killed, referring to them as celebrants rather than victims, while also contributing to important conversations on racial injustice and police violence. The messages, never to be heard by their subjects, are heartbreaking. Loved ones recall past birthdays and share how they would celebrate if the person were still alive. Strangers offer condolences, prayers and their own stories of police violence, as well as words of empowerment and activism.
“There is a new generation rising up against the system, a generation that is continuing to do the work on the frontlines today,” says Mohammad Gorjestani, founder and creative director of Even/Odd. “By listening to voicemails and giving people the chance to leave their own, we want to inspire our society to remember people killed by police violence as much today as we did 12 years ago, just like those who love them do.”
The exhibition that will follow the Nada popup will take place in September at Worthlessstudios’ 10,000 sq. ft space in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The show will include 12 upcycled New York City phone booths, short films of the celebrants’ birthdays directed by Gorjestani, a recreated newsstand with informative materials and resources, as well as a space for visitors to leave their own voicemails. People who are unable to attend the exhibition can always contribute their voicemail messages to the ongoing online archive. While the digital project includes many more names, the exhibition will honour a selection of celebrants in collaboration with their families, including Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Eric Garner, Oscar Julius Grant III, Xzavier D. Hill, Sean Monterrosa and Mario Woods.
“It has been an honor to work with these strong families, to be allowed a chance to amplify the fight they undertake against white supremacy, and for human rights,” says exhibition curator Klaudia Ofwona Draber. “Celebrating birthdays of those whose lives were lost to gun and police violence is a way for their loved ones to bring their local communities together. It’s a way to respectfully commemorate the lives killed, to continuously process pain, to grieve, and to heal.”
Shifting the focus from the individuals’ deaths to a celebration of their lives, the project encourages visitors to connect with the humanity of those killed. “We want to remind folks that these celebrants are much more than a headline—they were friends, fathers, brothers, sons, and neighbours who had their own dreams and aspirations,” says Gorjestani.
Reverend Wanda Johnson’s son Oscar Julius Grant III was fatally shot in 2009 in Oakland, California by a transit officer. “As a mother, you look forward to celebrating birthdays and milestones, but for me that was cut short,” Johnson says. “No longer can I celebrate with Oscar. 1-800-Happy Birthday gives me an opportunity to keep celebrating Oscar’s birthday and his legacy through friends, family, and supporters.”