An Immersive Exhibition Celebrates the Birthdays of Those Lost to Police Violence

Mohammad Gorjestani’s digital voicemail project, “1-800 Happy Birthday,” takes shape as a vibrant installation at the newly-opened Worthless Studios arts space in Brooklyn.

It took a village to transform Mohammad Gorjestani’s digital voicemail project, “1-800 Happy Birthday,” into an exhibition in Brooklyn replete with a park, bodega, 12 phone booths, a stoop, and a living room. Gorjestani started the online project in 2020 to honor the lives of Black and Latino people killed by police. The platform allows loved ones, along with the public, to leave and listen to voicemails on the victims’ birthdays. The focus on birthdays, and the positioning of the recipients as celebrants, rather than victims, flips the “reference point emotionally from death to life,” Gorjestani said in a recent interview timed to the exhibition’s opening as the inaugural show at Worthless Studios’s newly opened Brooklyn arts space.

In the following interview, Gorjestani is joined by Worthless Studios founder and artistic director Neil Hamamoto, and curator Klaudia Ofwona Draber.

Why does “1-800 Happy Birthday” feel like the right exhibition to inaugurate the new Worthless Studios space?

Neil Hamamoto: Immediately after listening to the first voicemail on the website, I decided it would be the next project for Worthless Studios. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that the project could grow and benefit from taking on a different shape that’s more immersive and sculptural.

Each '1-800 Happy Birthday' celebrant was honored with a personalized phone booth in the exhibition.

Why did you decide to emphasize birthdays?

Mohammad Gorjestani: Birthdays force you to revisit a person, and this show puts another flag in the ground of the movement that says no one will be forgotten just because the media has moved on. The movement will continue because people’s lives and futures depend on it, regardless if it’s in the news cycle or prevalent on social media. Having this space is a testament to the commitment of a community full of families, relatives, friends, and artists who will take up space to administer the change needed to abolish the system that made a project like this necessary.

What has it been like to see this project become a monument to the lives of the celebrants and loved ones?

MG: To me, it was inevitable because of the will of the families, community, and team we put together to make it happen. For the gravity of the voicemails to be felt, they needed to exist in the context of a reimagined world created from the language and aesthetics of the community. To see the families walk through the space for the first time was something I cherish. You could see them walk into a world that gave a sense of being seen in a new way, and allowed them to celebrate their loved ones.

Given your background as a filmmaker, how involved were you in the exhibition design?

MG: This project really felt like a continuation of directing except instead of making a film, it was storytelling in space. It felt like the role of a director in creating a play, to some degree, and I dusted off some of my theater background to engage with the fabrication team at Worthless.

Proceeds from the newsstand and nearby flower stand, which are both part of the exhibition, will be donated to the 1-800 Happy Birthday Family Fund, where celebrants' families can direct the funds to organizations of their choosing.

How did all the elements of the exhibition, like the 32-foot mural by Kenya Lawton (who goes by Art1 Airbrush), come together?

MG: Art1 created the Jam Master Jay mural in South Hollis, Queens. It’s one of my favorite murals in New York. I felt the space needed a large mural with the likenesses of the people we’re honoring to generate gravity in the room.

From my first call about this project with Gwen Woods, the mother of Mario Woods, I wanted the installation to have phone booths. Call it God or serendipity, but it was amazing that New York was getting rid of city phone booths and we were able to connect with Worthless. They secured the phone booths and became an incredible partner and home for this exhibition.

Other elements like the sky, flower store, and bodega were conceived by various members of the team. The living room felt critical to provide as a space for rest and processing. When I was making Happy Birthday Mario WoodsHappy Birthday Philando Castile, and Happy Birthday Oscar Grant, the films that inspired this project, I would always start and end the day in the living room. It’s a space of sanctuary and remembrance.

A 32-foot mural by artist Kenya Lawton, who goes by Art1 Airbrush, depicts Michael Brown and the 12 celebrants honored at the opening of '1-800 Happy Birthday': Dujuan Armstrong, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, Fred Cox, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Xzavier Hill, Donovon Lynch, Sean Monterrosa, Tony Robinson and Mario Woods.

How has the 1-800 Happy Birthday exhibition been received?

MG: Ultimately, we created a world where each person will write their own narrative based on how they engage with the space and how it relates to their own identity. That is what I think is special. I think, for Black and Brown people, this is a space of affirmation and honoring of spirit. For people who don’t live with the threat of state and police violence, it’s a mirror that asks you to dig deeper in what you can do to engage towards progress, reform, and eventually abolition.

Klaudia Ofwona Draber: The families we’ve had the honor of working with represent the community at the center of this exhibition. They have been at the forefront of every decision we’ve made while working on the show.

The reception and responses of the families and affected communities have exceeded my expectations. Some of the families didn’t know each other before arriving in New York (as they live in different cities across the country) and they’ve expressed that by bringing them together for the opening weekend and showcasing the lives of their loved ones lost to police violence, our team has created a healing space for them. One of the families mentioned that our opening was their first time, in the years since their loss, singing ’Happy Birthday’ with joy.

The major goals we had in mind, as relates to affected communities, were to bring people together, to support Black and Brown folks in their healing journeys and to empower them to find justice. For the general public, the exhibition has already raised awareness about the police violence and systemic racism disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities, while educating and inspiring action. We focus on humanity; who these celebrants were and how the voices and people who loved them shaped their way of being and inspired their unique sense of self. We’re keep their dreams, memories and legacies alive. I’m glad to see that all of this has resonated so strongly with viewers.

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