When you pick up the receiver at a phone booth celebrating the life of Philando Castile, a father murdered by a St. Paul police officer during a traffic stop in 2016, his aunt’s warm voice jumps out.
“This message is for my nephew, Philando. This is auntie Beverly, wishing you a happy happy happy heavenly birthday. Wanted to let you know we love and miss you so much. I can see you right now sitting in front of the TV playing your games. So happy birthday from all of us to you.”
Castile is among 12 Black and Brown people celebrated in 1-800 Happy Birthday at WORTHLESSSTUDIOS, a Brooklyn exhibition uplifting the lives of those murdered by police. The interactive art installation features more than 30 hours of voicemails sent to Castile, Dujuan Armstrong, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, Fred Cox, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Xzavier Hill, Donovon Lynch, Sean Monterrosa, Tony Robinson and Mario Woods.
The show turns Iranian American filmmaker Mohammad Gorjestani’s digital voicemail projects into a large-scale, interactive art experience. In 2020, Gorjestani launched a virtual voicemail project with the same name, which let people listen to birthday messages left to the deceased and leave their own. Through his production studio Even/Odd, Gorjestani created a trilogy of short films that follow the families of Castile, Grant and Woods celebrating the men’s posthumous birthdays.
At the telephone booths, decorated with photos, balloons and flowers, you can pick up the ringing phone to hear voicemails left for those killed by gun violence. (Photo courtesy WORTHLESSSTUDIOS)
WORTHLESSSTUDIOS transformed its 10,000-foot warehouse into an entire city block. There are the 12 phone booths, each dedicated to one celebrant — here, it’s always “celebrants,” never victims. A newsstand sells balloons and birthday cards, which raises money for an impact fund that goes directly back to the families’ pockets. An airbrushed mural by the street artist Kenya “Art1” Lawton portrays all the celebrants against an ethereal, heavenly gradient. One enclave is a dedicated screening room where one can view Gorjestani’s short films. There’s a brownstone stoop where, every other Friday, live music energizes the atmosphere. Through its doors is a cozy family room where people gather to leave voicemails, flip through photo albums and get to know the celebrants’ further through their personal artifacts.
At the phone booths, the first voicemail always comes from a celebrant’s close friend or family member. A friend of Fred Cox imagines the party raging in heaven. A chorus, made up of Stephon Clark’s two children, sing “Happy Birthday” into the receiver. Some messages, like one left for Castile, are almost incomprehensible, the words distorted from sobs.
Curator Klaudia Ofwona Draber worked closely with the celebrants’ families to create each booth. Each of the three-sided structures’ vitrines glow with photo collages, inspiring messages, their nicknames and their birthdate. On Robinson’s booth, nicknamed “Rells,” we see that he once wrote in blocky, energetic handwriting: “I’m going to be great. I’m going to change the world.”
Notably, there are no death dates anywhere in the room. This show only features the celebrants’ joy and accomplishments.
“This is about who they were as unique individuals, and trying to honor and bring light to who they were as people. Not bury them in headlines and speculation,” Neil Hamamoto, founder and artistic director of WORTHLESSSTUDIOS, said in an interview with Next City.
The family room allows visitors to learn about the celebrants in a way the news never communicated. The photo albums depict love stories, sports championships and graduation ceremonies. Physical mementos add another level of realism to the experience: Sandra Bland’s trombone teaches us that she was a talented musician, and Castile’s Xbox controller shares his love for gaming.
Artist Mohammad Gorjestani, artistic director and Niel Hamamoto and curator Klaudia Ofwona Draber at the opening reception for the installation. (Photo courtesy WORTHLESSSTUDIOS)
Draber traveled across the country so that she could ensure that these precious objects were safely hand delivered to New York City. “Every visit was different, but it always started and ended in the living room,” Draber said, so she concentrated on the elements that make the space universal. It was always a place of rest, recharge and refuge.
The national spotlight has turned every celebrant’s family member into an activist. The constant exposure, though necessary, has also become exhausting.
“I think the biggest thing for me was just learning about trauma and realizing how body related it is, how heavy it is,” Draber said. “So a big part of the [exhibition] program focuses on healing.”
The events will focus on grief, mental health and recovery through the lens of Black and Brown people. The community can come together for reiki, yoga and healing walks that wind through the exhibition while allowing moments for reflection. There will also be performances and conversations, including a poetry session with Tony Robinson’s aunt, Lolo Lature, and a panel on art and activism with Terrence Floyd, George Floyd’s brother.
1-800 Happy Birthday will keep the party going until Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They’ll wrap the exhibition with a large party that features family, friends, neighbors, activists and allies.
Even with a pause for celebration, the families’ fights for justice continue.
“It’s not just every day, it’s not every hour,” Draber says. “It’s all the time making the decision to keep doing this work. It’s not by choice, but you have to keep talking.”
Renée Reizman is an interdisciplinary artist, writer and curator. Her writing appears in Art in America, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, Vice, Teen Vogue, InStyle, Chicago Magazine, Slate, Hyperallergic, ARTNews, The Awl, and more.