Kaleidoscope Dream: Brooklyn Navy Yard

Artist: Mensen
Youth Artists and Volunteers: Tricia Browne, Marcos Diaz, Cianni Martin, Brayan Ramales, Nathaniel James, Roger Aguilar, Maleek Joseph, Amber Smalls, Safiyyah Wilkerson, Michelle Tineo, Jazmine Perez, Khandakar Risterlatullah , Erick Orduna, Bryan DelValle, Dakota Austin, Michael Toledo, Tiberius Perez, Jonell Santiago, Kaianna Griffith, Shauntell Jennings, Dajean Aiken, Tiberius Perez, Vinik Ernest, Sky R., Justina England, and Kokayi Snowden.

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The theme of this installation is “Today’s Workforce” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. We began the design sessions by exploring our individual relationships to work, discussing what messages we’ve learned about work through our families and media, and exploring the representation of work and labor in public art. Then we delved deeply into the prominent industries currently operating in the Navy Yard (film, green manufacturing, food/farming, fashion, fine art, small business). We closely studied the videos and promotional materials of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, visited their museum, took a small group to tour the yard and met with the Director of Workforce Development.

We chose to represent “Today’s Workforce” at the Brooklyn Navy Yard by evoking the archetypal imagery of hands at work. The representation of working hands has a long-standing tradition in both art history and the representation of labor (particularly in social movement posters and public art), and functions as a visual shorthand. By remixing this trope, we created a sense of active, multi-faceted productivity that centers on human dexterity. Inspired by the vibrant synergy between industries that coexist at the Yard, we created graphic, symbolic icons related to the many sectors and industries. These symbolic icons, designed by the youth, are arranged in kaleidoscopic patterns in bright colors that evoke the undulating, high energy of work at the Yard. We also incorporated symbols and elements aesthetically reminiscent of architecture and structures at the yard.

In the early stage of the design process, the group held intimate discussions and drew imagery regarding their perceptions about work and labor. For many of the young artists in our group, this is their first job, and many of the youth come from working-class families. The complicated and expressive conversations and creations we shared revealed many of the hopes, fears, anxieties and dreams around work and labor as these young artists prepare to enter higher education and/or the workforce. I am of the opinion that these are extremely important conversations to facilitate with young people, particularly as transparent discussions of class and its relationship to work and labor are often mystified. These early conversations set a tone of critical engagement from the beginning of the project, and as we struggled through the research and design phase due to limited access to interactions with actual workers and tenants at the yard, the youth frequently engaged in discussing the relationship of race and class to today’s work and economy, particularly here in gentrifying, de-industrialized Brooklyn. Also, rather than strictly enforce a top-down hierarchy, we worked toward trying to create a more horizontal way of working together. The youth artists worked together to create a questionnaire for yard workers, and used dialogue and consensus models to finalize it. Similarly, the team organized themselves in terms of group responsibilities and daily jobs. By de-centering the lead artist, and by continually re-orienting group dynamics to be youth-generated and youth-led, we can begin to create a space where youth are encouraged to be self-driven, to take accountability for their work and one another, and to offer a space to practice collectivism and self-direction. In contrast to top-down models that emulate “chalk and talk” classrooms or the rigid hierarchy of low-wage service industry jobs, approaching work this way not only prepares young people for greater leadership, but it increases their sense of ownership over the process and product of their work, as well as their accountability to one another. By the end of the project, the group dynamic was strong enough that nearly all participants were open to giving and receiving honest critique of the process, but still seemed to feel proud and invested in the work they had created together.