Social Justice in the Studio and in the Street: Art and Activism at Franklin Street Works
Acting On Dreams: The State of Immigrant Rights, Conditions, and Advocacy in the United States at Franklin Street Works
June 13 to August 30, 2015
41 Franklin Street
Stamford, CT, 203 595 5211
Over the last few years, Connecticut has passed progressive policies regarding in-state tuition for undocumented students, drive-only permits for undocumented residents, and protections for domestic workers. Franklin Street Works, located in Stamford, one of the state’s most immigrant-heavy cities, is currently exhibiting “Acting on Dreams: The State of Immigrant Rights, Conditions, and Advocacy in the United States.” This group show is curated by Yaelle S. Amir and tackles immigration issues through a variety of political and visual tactics, creating an engaging and moving viewer experience.
The Index of the Disappeared: 34,000 Beds (2015) is a multimedia installation by Chitra Ganesh and Mariam Ghani that features a poignant and expansive archive of immigrants who have disappeared since the attacks of September 11, 2001. In shelved binders that viewers are encouraged to flip through, the archive materializes both the scope and the invisibility of the disappearances. The binders’ official documents, secondary literature, and personal narratives highlight systems of deportation, as well as the nature of the language and protocols used. Selected passages are collaged in an accompanying light box, as well as in take-away postcards. Around the shelves are 34,000 silkscreened beds, representing the detention bed quota required by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The prints recall Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, which depicts car crashes, electric chairs, and other disasters in similar, brutal repetition.
A few weeks before the show’s opening, the Connecticut legislature passed the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Marisa Morán Jahn’s (Studio REV-) project CareForce: Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers, Families and Allies United for Sustainable Care Solutions (in collaboration with the National Domestic Worker’s Alliance and Caring Across Generations) utilizes tactics of empowerment, advocacy, and education. The display features an informational video, pocket resources (including Rights and Responsibilities Under the Massachusetts Domestic Bill of Rights & Other Laws, 2015), as well as a photo corner where participants are encouraged to take pictures of themselves as superheroes. Brightness and effectiveness coexist in Jahn’s display. Imagining domestic workers as superheroes and asking viewers to don masks for a photo booth is as playful as it is political. Considering that only seven states have enacted the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights since the first, in Massachusetts in 2004, and even the limited scope of what recently passed in Connecticut, the CareForce remains relevant and timely.
Through photographs, paintings, and souvenirs, Jenny Polak’s work depicts activist efforts against a for-profit detention center in Crete, Illinois. A background in urban planning gave Polak a particular entry point to a case where the decision about the detention center came down to the city’s planning committee. Her multi-media paintings capture city’s mobilization and the hearings (Under-painting for a History: Citizens and Immigrants Converge on the For-Profit Detention Center Site, 2015 and Under-painting for a History: The Village Council Discusses the For-Profit Detention Center Plan, 2015); photographs capture the activists and their allies ((n)IMBY, 2012); and 3D-printed souvenirs ((n)IMBY—Souvenirs, 2012; (n)IMBY—Souvenirs at Home, 2013) capture an effort to historicize the successful campaign. As with the ongoing work of CareForce, keeping for-profit detention centers out of communities across the country continues to be an important endeavor.
Queerocracy’s 2011 Columbus Day action (in collaboration with Carlos Motta) sought to publicly vocalize a timeline the queer migrations, spanning from 1492 to 2013. Newsprint copies of the timeline piled alongside the projection of the action (A New Discovery: Queer Immigration in Perspective) served as a gesture of connection and physicality. The timeline’s extensive historical, policy, and organizing milestones communicate how the vulnerabilities of queerness and immigration have constantly intertwined. The piece’s audio — the voices of the action’s participants dictating the events on the timeline — echoes powerfully through the gallery.
Another collective in the show is CultureStrike, co-founded by Favianna Rodriguez, whose Migration is Beautiful monarch butterfly icon has become ubiquitous with immigrant rights. The show includes Migration Now!, a diverse and stirring portfolio of posters by CultureStrike and JustSeeds with messages such as “Dignity Not Detention,” “Deporting and Detaining Parents Shatters Families,” and “Stop the Raids,” as well as a station encouraging the coloring-in of one’s own wings (Migration is Beautiful Coloring Activity, 2013) .
“Acting On Dreams” is insistently interactive. It asks the viewer to not just to look, but to take — to flip through binders, to color, even. Through takeaways like the CareForce resource cards, the Migration is Beautiful monarch, and the queer migrations timeline by Queerocracy, the viewer becomes the recipient of a reminder — of evidence that makes the issues expressed difficult to ignore. The show demonstrates an understanding of mass — mass migration, mass organizing efforts, mass deportations — and couples it with an understanding of individual agency and experience. Although diverse in its media, tones, and approaches, the show retains cohesion.
Perhaps most striking are the ways in which “Acting on Dreams” consistently encourages personal connections to issues that are too often abstracted and made impersonal. It respects and successfully highlights the visual and textual language of activism and couples systemic analysis with individual expression. As Connecticut and the nation continue to address complex immigration issues, the perspectives offered by the works in the show are bound to remain pertinent.