Interactive NYC Art Installation Gives a Voice to America’s Immigrants

A black-and-white historical photo of Italian men awaiting admission processing at Ellis island. Ca. 1910.

Italian men awaiting admission processing at Ellis island. Ca. 1910.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Current research suggests that within 40 years, a third of American citizens will either be an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. New York City has exceeded that ration for years, and its eight and a half million residents speak nearly 800 different languages.

It’s this melange that artist Aman Mojadidi wants to highlight with his new public and interactive art installation, “Once Upon a Place.” With the support of Times Square Arts, Mojadidi has installed three refurbished phone booths. The booths, painted gray with tinted glass panels, are open to all. Step inside, pick up the phone (no pocket change necessary), and listen to one of 70 stories told by New York residents about their homelands.

One of Mojadidi’s goals is to unwind “immigrants” from being a monolithic entity to being the huge tapestry of wildly different life experiences that they are. Himself an Afghan-American, he collected these first-person stories during a recent residency with Times Square Arts. Some of the stories are in English, others in the first language of their tellers, but all are in their own words and voices. Some of these oral histories are quite brief, others stretch to ten minutes or longer.

Storytellers come from Bangladesh, Belgium, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Liberia, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Russia, Sierra Leone, Spain, Sri Lanka, Tibet, and Yemen. Some chose to remain anonymous, others contributed huge portions of their lives. What was not recorded can be read in the attached “phone books” inside each booth, along with historical context both about foreign countries and the ethnic communities within NYC.

Also in the ersatz phone books are blank pages—all visitors, from anywhere, are encouraged to add their own stories.

“Once Upon a Place” opened on June 27th and will continue until September 5th, 2017.

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