Citizens of Earth is an interactive, multidisciplinary installation centered around conversations about immigration, national identity, and global citizenry. The first iteration of Citizens was at FIGMENT NYC on Governor's Island in 2015.
Citizens of Earth functions as a platform for dialogue surrounding immigration by staging a passport documentation center for guests to receive their official passport for our planet, complete with a photo and official stamp.
The artist assistants, or 'Diplomats,' who run the installation engage visitors with their own stores of immigration while posing questions about what it means to be an immigrant in our city, country, and global community at large. The majority (90%) of these Diplomats are public high school students, many of whom are first-generation Americans or immigrants themselves.
Citizens of Earth has formed slowly and deliberately over many years. The ethos for this piece came from two very personal sources that I've encountered and dealt with in very specific ways.
First, as the child of a Syrian immigrant who came to the United States of America in the 1980s: Growing up, my parent forbid that we learn Arabic. This was rooted in the fear that our inevitable accents would lead to the same persecution that many face in this country. For my family, our immigration was to be erased. Our heritage forgotten. We were meant to blend in as just another American--the type whose ancestry crosses so many borders they've ceased to be uniquely from any other country.
This, of course, was easier said than done.
The second personal source that Citizens of Earth references is the plight(s) of the students who have worked as artist assistants on the piece. Their immigration stories are varied and resist all anecdotal summaries. Without fail, their participation in this project has proven to be a dynamic homage to the diverse narratives of what it means to be an immigrant and how national identity is forged. What I have learned (and what many participants take away from this piece) is that all immigration is wildly multifaceted and difficult to pin down in any singular manner.
Many participants in Citizens of Earth have said how their realizations in encountering this piece have been in stark contrast to most other conversations they've normally had in regards to immigration and national identity. A large part of that is the acknowledgement of words and phrases that make this topic fraught.
LEGAL vs. ILLEGAL
UNDOCUMENTED vs. DOCUMENTED
IMMIGRANT VS. EXPATRIATE
These kinds of overt words are loaded with polarizing connotations that are meant to divide our collective species. They are words which reinforce the narratives that feel familiar or common; ignoring the subtleties that make our stories unique while simultaneously demonizing alternate narratives as ' 'foreign' or 'Other.'
Ultimately, the personal immigration stories between facilitator and participant find a common denominator that can be utilized for a heightened social awareness of the infinite nuance surrounding these issues. Citizens of Earth is not just a matter of sharing perspectives, it's a matter of empathy.
Student Collaborators: Kaydee Acevedo, Tatiana Alfaro, Myar Alkhulaqi, Isaac Atif, Enmanuel Bencosme, Aliyah Brown, Vania Bravo, Breann Castillo, Kelvin De Leon, Kate Flores, Gabriel Garcia, Khirishana Koomar, Taylor Maseih, Jessica Ramcharan, Kayla Rosario, Jackie Tello, and Helen Zhuo.
Talk To Me
Adults and teens are often divided by a lack of common ground. They talk down, they misunderstand, they take things out of context, and they oversimplify each other. In this interactive workshop at Pioneer Works' first annual Summit on Pedagogy, we examined how we communicate and miscommunicate across age, race, and class.
With a team of high school students from Manhattan Hunter Science High School and educators Nick Kozak and Hallie Scott, we moved through a series of performative situations, that ranged from conversations to collaborative artmaking.
Kozak and Scott aimed to use group projects and activities that can help bridge these divides, and provide a platform to develop new strategies in cooperative learning both inside and outside of the classroom.
As we all became both facilitators and participants, we helped build a common language to empower and create social agency for one another.
We confronted rules, stereotypes and assumptions that we each carry around with us on a daily basis. And finally, we developed ideas on how to overcome cross-generational misunderstandings as we realign the way we are able to work with each other.
Student collaborators: Myar Alkhulaqi, Vania Bravo, Valerie Kornichouk, Kylana Laspina, Jesus Morales, Ashley Pichardo, Henry Prince, and Enrique Sherwood Caballero.
The Language Gap
The Language Gap was a student-led discussion examining the four areas out of which most miscommunications arise: Social Hierarchies, Social Norms, Accents/Dialects, and Cultural Diffusion. Four groups deliberated on each of the four areas, and teens from Nick Kozak’s classes at Manhattan Hunter High School led the conversations within each group. Investigating the gap between linguistic social hierarchies demonstrated the division between student leaders and adult participants, both attempting to be heard and understood.
“I participated in the Creative Chemistries event mainly because it was going to test my abilities to start conversations with adults. Another thing that prompted me was the discussion topic, and how my group had to talk about social norms. Being in a room with strangers and having insightful, personal conversations was and still is so different from the icy encounters with adults in my everyday New York life. The way the event was
set up so that we talked to several groups of people and not just one was also pretty good because we got to partake in discussions with different types of mentalities and convictions. There was no script to the discussion, and my friends entered the event without knowing what to say or talk about. It was all improvisation, but we knew that we had to talk about social norms and how mentalities and behavior changed as people grew older. One commonality between all the groups that we talked to as everyone explained social norms was that everyone gave anecdotes which was pretty awesome too.”
— Leo, Manhattan Hunter Science High School
“I was able to relate to my topic on social hierarchies in language mostly because I’m a teenager. When talking to my teachers, I address them as Mr. And Ms. and do not use their first names as a sign of respect. However, they do refer to me by my first name, which establishes my role as a subordinate.
The adults in the workshop related a little differently though; there were more women than men attending, so many brought up their experiences with misogynistic language, but there was also mention of race and age. Most were just there to enjoy the conversation we facilitated. However, there were a few in each group who did dominate the conversation, and shared more than they listened.
At the end I was a little disappointed that after a long talk with several groups about hierarchies created by language based on age, many of the adults still came up to us and told us that we facilitated conversation very well, and that ‘they were surprised.’ Of course sometimes they can’t control it because they’re so used to hierarchies based on age, but it did feel a little demeaning, because it seemed to imply that because of our age we don’t have the capability of creating an educated discussion.”
— Henry, Manhattan Hunter Science High School
Student collaborators: Michelle Abreu, Myar Alkhulaqi, Artie Claudio, Kelvin De Leon, Tiffany Fermin, Kylana Laspina, Leo Loyola, Jesus Morales, Henry Prince, Luís Rodriguez, Enrique Sherwood Caballero, and Orlando Villarraga.
NYC Dept of Nature
In 2016 I was invited to create a temporary piece of art at Governors Island that dealt with bureaucratic institutions. At the time, the National Park Service was promoting their centennial celebration, which in pure bureaucratic fashion was serving up a national media campaign called “Find Your Park.” This was complete with hashtags, social media blitzes, new collaborations, and projects that were encouraged from the top down. I participated in this centennial celebration in two ways: one as an artist with a critical and comical stance, and another as an educator, where my intentions were definitively more altruistic, (see next page).
I’ve always been interested in investigating the social connections and controls that exist between people. Particularly the systems of governance, and how social responsibilities are delegated out into respective branches that end up redesigning the places we occupy and the ways we interact with each other.
I was inspired to challenge bureaucratic functions, like I had witnessed in Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International or Referendum; and I was determined to make it sardonic and lighthearted, as I had seen in the work of the Yes Men. This is how NYC Dept of Nature came into focus. A new government branch exclusively dedicated to encouraging the public to engage with the natural elements of a given site, in this case, Governors Island. In addition to signs that I fabricated which were meant to reference the MTA, I the artist, was on-site dressed as an ‘official’ park ranger. In this ‘crunchy-bureaucratic’ persona, I encouraged visitors to engage with the various plants and animals on hand. Even confusing some of the island’s actual staff who approached me several times, assuming I was an authority over this patch of grass.
NYC Dept of Nature may come off as a cheeky riff on our city’s tendency to over-promote public services, but these bureaucratic decisions guide much of our cultural awareness, permeating relationships, professions, and all the other spaces between who we are and where we live.
Taken for Granted
Planned congruently with NYC Dept of Nature, this collaboration with the National Park Service involved the park rangers from General Grant National Memorial (aka, Grant’s Tomb) located at on Riverside Drive at 122nd street.
Attendance is rather lacking at this NPS site compared to the more popular Ellis Island, Federal Hall, and more recently, Hamilton Grange. Additionally, Grant’s legacy as a general and president is often overrun with misconceptions and misrepresentations. Together with park rangers, 40 students trekked through history to uncover fascinating truths about Ulysses S. Grant, finding that he had helped to introduce civil rights legislation half a century before the rest of the nation ready to have that discussion.
The culminating project for this exploratory collaboration in US History took the form of making corrective and comedic videos celebrating our 18th president and the post-Civil War era. The collection of these films was debuted at a festival in the school called Taken for Grant-ed. Student videos feature historical reenactments in Manhattan townhouses, rap battles of different Grant impersonators, and even a documentary in the style of Camille Henrot’s summative work, Grosse Fatigue.
Students started this project not really sure how our nation’s historic sites and memorials tie into actual history. Through this unit they gained a better understanding of the roles that presidential figures play in the present and how they’re remembered, as they become the past.
Spectrum of Visible Light
In 2014, Manhattan Hunter Science High School commissioned Spectrum of Visible Light, a large-scale installation by artist-educator Nick Kozak. This piece looks at the existing architecture of the MLK Educational Campus and aims to redesign it in a manner that is both aesthetic and logical.
The layout of Spectrum augments the visitor experience of a public high school through a gradient color scheme. Composed of over one thousand individual cube-honeycombs, Spectrum interacts with the original concrete ceiling from the 1970s design, transforming the institutional schoolscape into an aerial color wheel. Throughout the entirety of the school's hallway, the piece shifts slightly from one hue to another, providing an unexpected visual occurrence for both students and teachers as they navigate the school.
Spectrum of Visible Light is a permanent piece at Manhattan Hunter Science High School and can be viewed from the street as well as within the school building, creating an immersive mirage from a once static space.
in 2016, Spectrum of Visible Light was expanded to two more floors in the MLK Educational Campus, specifically at the High School for Law, Advocacy, and Community Justice; and the High School for Arts and Technology.