This past July would have been Philando Castile’s 37th birthday. He should be celebrating with his wife and daughter, but instead the entire country watched him die slowly at the hands of law enforcement just ten days before his 33rd birthday in 2016. Castile’s widely-reported death had been part of a painful pattern of abuse that countless black and brown people have faced at the hands of police in the United States and the pain felt by those losses remains. How do you honor a life properly if they met and end like Castile? How can you share the warmth of his smile with the world, if the last image we have is watching him lay lifeless in the drivers seat of his car while his child wept in the backseat. 

“1-800 Happy Birthday” is a voicemail project created in 2020 by Mohammad Gorjestani, an Iranian-American director who has been making indie movies since 2007. The ongoing project, which started online, was recently transformed into a large-scale exhibit that now sits in a 10,000 square-foot space called WorthlessStudios, at 7 Knickerbocker Avenue.

Gorjestani’s show at at Worthless Studios includes twelve repurposed phone booths, each standing 7ft tall and weighing over 500 pounds. In November, Gorjestani installed another phone booth at McCarren Park (above), which also “invites passersby to stop and listen to voicemails left for all 12 of the celebrants honored in the 1-800 Happy Birthday exhibition.”

Gorjestani’s piece is made of twelve upcycled New York City pay phone booths, each standing 7ft tall and weighing over 500 pounds, arranged on a few patches of turf. The repurposed phone booths, which will on display there through January 16th, are meant to honor  the lives of 12 people Gorjestani identifies as victims of police brutality: Philando Castile, Dujuan Armstrong, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, Fred Cox, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Xzavier Hill, Donovon Lynch, Sean Monterrosa, Tony Robinson, and Mario Woods.

According to Gorjestani, the booths were all designed in collaboration with the families of the those people. Each is dedicated to one of them and features portraits of them, their family and their friends. At each one, people can listen to voicemails left by those loved ones and even leave some of their own voicemails too.

The show also features short films that Gorjestani put together that depict each of their subject’s birthday celebrations, which I think really captures the essence of the spirit of each of them. Visitors can also view a recreated news stand equipped with birthday cards to potentially fill out and leave there. 

This physical manifestation of Gorjestani’s once-digital project also includes a large mural, equipped  with flowers and balloons. The mural also depicts each of the twelve people, made out of things donated by their family and friends. 

A translucent facade, with an opening that leads to what is supposed to be a family living room sits toward the back of the exhibition. That space is something of a resource center: filled with photos and other ephemera. Per a press release from the studio: “the exhibition design imagines a world that is just, where streets are safe for Black and Brown people to just be.”

It’s the little details that Gorjestani includes – like Philando Castile’s favorite book or Xzavier Hill’s graduation cap – that give visitors a glimpse into the personal milestones, interests and personalities of these people. Chosen by the family members, these artifacts illustrate the divide between how the public remembers victims of police brutality and how their families remember them. “We want to remind folks that these celebrants are much more than a headline—they were friends, fathers, brothers, sons, and neighbors who had their own dreams and aspirations,” Gorjestani told Art Newspaper back in May.

“1-800 Happy Birthday” will be on display at WorthlessStudios until January 5th. The studio is open Thursday—Sunday.

All images courtesy of Worthless Studio’s Instagram page.

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