Finding Sanctuary with The Laundromat Project
Tim Donnelly March 7th, 2017
Twelve years ago, The Laundromat Project set out to break down barriers in the art world by bringing installations out of the galleries and into some of the most common—and often unremarkable—spaces across New York City: laundromats. Since 2005, the Harlem-based organization has worked to make more folks feel included in the art world and bring creative projects directly into the already high-trafficked spaces like laundromats and public plazas, while also developing its own slate of artists. The Project is bringing its community-building expertise to the David Rubenstein Atrium on Thursday, March 9, for Sanctuary, a free, hour-long creative discussion—hosted by Buzzfeed's executive editor for culture, Saeed Jones, and featuring six of the project's artists—on how to open, share, and hold safe spaces that support the idea of refuge. We talked with the project's executive director, Kemi Ilesanmi, along with Ayesha Williams, director of strategic partnerships, and Melissa Liu, development and communications coordinator, about why safe spaces—and laundromat-based art—are so important right now.
Tim Donnelly: What is it about a laundromat that makes for a different art experience than a gallery or a museum?
Ayesha Williams: In a museum or gallery, there's an invisible barrier. Sometimes there's a sense that, "I don't belong in this space because I don't speak the talk, or it's not speaking to me." This is a place where it's embedded in a community, so it's already a part of what you do. It's a way to amplify and show there's creativity in everything. It's expanding the idea of what art is and seeing it in the every day.
Melissa Liu: We also bring art to a space where you meet people where they are, bringing art into everyday life. It just opens up the possibilities that art becomes a part of our lives rather than sort of reserved for a space like a museum or a gallery or for people who the world calls an "artist."
TD: What were The Laundromat Project's goals when it was first founded?
AW: The Laundromat Project has been doing consistent programming for a decade. Risë Wilson, our founder, started thinking back in 1999 that she wanted to figure out ways to engage with the community in a creative way. We work at the intersection of arts and social justice, with the thinking of really celebrating the creativity that's within local communities. [A laundromat is] a community space, it's a place where people come together and they spend lots of time in there. You're standing next to your neighbor when doing laundry, you're having conversations about your life. Everybody needs to do their laundry, laundry is a given for everyone. Our tagline is "Make art. Wash clothes. Build community."
TD: The discussion at the event this week is focused on providing sanctuary and "places of refuge"—topics on a lot of people's minds right now given the state of national discourse and the rise in hate crimes. How much is this event in response to current events?
AW: For us, it's deeply connected to what we're doing from a programming standpoint. How do you hold space, how do you share space, what do you consider a place of refuge, in both a metaphoric and symbolic and literal way as well? It was inspired by what's happening right now, definitely.
Kemi Ilesanmi: At this particular moment in time, the idea of sanctuary resonates even more highly than it normally might. We work with artists of color, we work with immigrant communities, we work with LGBT communities. Our artists really do look like New York City in many amazing and beautiful ways. We've been hearing from lots of our artists: "What's going on? Where can we meet up together? How can we connect as humans in this time?"
What at this moment in time does it look like to build community together as a space of safety, as a space of turning to each other for strength and for resources and for affirmation?
TD: What does the idea of "safe space" or "sanctuary" mean to you?
AW: For me, a safe space is where you can just share your concerns, your fears. You can get support, you can share your joy literally where you just express who you are and what you do in a free and unanchored way.
ML: For me, it always comes from a space of having to react to precarity, especially for communities that are marginalized, whether that be people of color or LGBTQIA. People are falling into this place where their lives are in danger, families are being torn apart or people can't openly be who they want to be. For me, that's what sanctuary is for, a response to that.
KI: The theme of "sanctuary" very naturally and organically rose to the top as something that seemed to resonate at this moment for the community of artists that we serve, and by extension the community that we serve through them. What at this moment in time does it look like to build community together as a space of safety, as a space of turning to each other for strength and for resources and for affirmation?
TD: What kind of action do you hope the event inspires in people, or what kind of message do you want them to leave with?
KI: Because accountability is something The Laundromat Project is really interested in, I hope that people will think, how can I step up to this moment? What does it mean to me personally to create sanctuary? Does it mean that I make eye contact, does it mean that I take bystander training, does it mean that I get involved in my own community, does it mean I stand in solidarity with a different community that isn't mine because my body and my time would be valuable if I show up for them? It's recognizing the space that the arts and artists occupy in building sanctuary and refuge and connective tissue in a time when divisiveness seems to be very much on everybody's mind.
TD: Are you worried at all that we might be losing laundromats as a truly common space in New York City? Many have been disappearing due to real estate prices while many new buildings come equipped with their own laundry facilities.
ML: I've experienced that. I've lived in Harlem over four years now. I noticed there was one laundromat when I lived north of Columbia's campus. They've been revitalizing that street with trendy restaurants. What you see is something to be considered as different folks are [coming] in the neighborhood and different agendas are being pushed. Are the needs of the people in the neighborhood still being met for those of us who can't send out their laundry or don't have machines in the basement of their building? Do we need to have another restaurant on the corner that serves wood-fired pizza? How do we play an active role of being in that process and making our needs vocal?
Tim Donnelly is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist and former editor of Brokelyn.com whose work has also appeared in the NY Post, Vice, inc. magazine, and elsewhere.