Four years after its creation in 2018, Worthlessstudios has found a new home in Brooklyn in a 10,000sq. ft warehouse at the border of East Williamsburg and Bushwick. Founded to provide artists with the resources, space and technical assistance to see their ideas come to fruition, the non-profit has been supporting projects in New York and beyond with popup exhibitions and traveling film series. Its latest endeavour will also be its biggest. Teased with a telephone booth popup at the New Art Dealers Alliance (Nada) fair this past spring in New York, 1-800 Happy Birthday (23 September 2022-16 January 2023) is Worthlessstudios’ first major exhibition and celebrates the lives of people of colour killed by police violence.
The exhibition expands upon a digital archive developed in 2020 by creative studio Even/Odd and its founder and creative director, Mohammad Gorjestani. As a digital project, 1-800 Happy Birthday acts as a repository for voicemails left by friends, family and strangers to celebrate the lives lost, referred to as celebrants rather than victims. The project is a memorial and a channel through which to continue conversations about racial and social justice long after public protests and media coverage fade.
The exhibition in Worthlessstudios’ new space gives physical form to the project and was organised in collaboration with the celebrants’ families. Curated by Klaudia Ofwona Draber with artistic direction from the non-profit’s founder, Neil Hamamoto, the impetus for 1-800 Happy Birthday mirrors the ethos of Worthlessstudios. “1-800 Happy Birthday is the ultimate embodiment of our mission,” Hamamoto says. “Transforming artist Mohammad Gorjestani’s digital project into a large-scale, interactive installation challenges the public by inviting them into the conversation about systemic racism through art and art-making.”
The exhibition takes the form of an urban community space, complete with benches, a bodega and a brownstone façade and stoop. Twelve phone booths similar to the one from Nada will surround a central gathering space, with the booth from the fair installed in a Brooklyn park to promote the exhibition to the local community. The phone booths will be adorned with commemorative souvenirs like flowers, as well as evocative personal items from the celebrants’ lives. The show honours Dujuan Armstrong, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Fred Cox, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Xzavier Hill, Donovon Lynch, Sean Monterrosa, Tony Robinson and Mario Woods. A 32-foot-long mural by the artist Kenya “Art1 Airbrush” Lawton featuring portraits of the celebrants will span the length of the exhibition space.
Visitors will be able to purchase items from the makeshift bodega to add to the memorials, including flowers, birthday cards and prayer candles, as well as classic newsstand items like candy and soda. Proceeds will be split evenly among charities selected by the celebrants’ families.
In addition to the interactive elements, the exhibition will include a living room that offers visitors a place to pause and reflect. The living room will also provide resources for healing and suggestions to take further action. The public exhibition opening on September 23 will be a community celebration complete with birthday cakes created by chef DeVonn Francis of Caribbean food caterer Yardy. Worthlessstudios will also host the celebrants’ families for public and private events throughout the weekend. Programming will continue through the run of the show.
“A hallmark program of 1-800 Happy Birthday will be Family Meeting: an open discussion with mothers and families who have lost loved ones to police violence,” says Marcia Santoni, Worthlessstudios’ executive director. “In this series of conversations, led by Reverend Wanda Johnson (Oscar Grant’s mother), panelists will share their stories of seeking justice, healing and memories of family members, as well as resources for ways the public can support the legacies of their loved ones.”
Worthlessstudios’ decision to open in East Williamsburg marks an important step to regenerate the creative community that dwindled as a result of the pandemic. “By opening here, we can support artists, fabricators and makers in a neighbourhood that has historically been home to such businesses and studio spaces,” says Santoni. “The pandemic occasioned artists and makers to exit Brooklyn in unprecedented numbers. By embracing, sustaining and building this creative community, Worthless can continue to support artists while engaging the public with large-scale projects and exhibitions.”
- 1-800 Happy Birthday, 23 September 2022-16 January 2023 at Worthlessstudios, 7 Knickerbocker Avenue, Brooklyn, New York.