The art collective Art Parley is inviting residents of Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Two Bridges neighborhoods to discover and share the many stories about immigration in New York City. Led by Art Parley co-founders Sue Jeong Ka and Melissa Liu, in collaboration with ArtBuilt, an arts and culture advocacy organization, workshops are taking place in a 150-square-foot ArtBuilt mobile studio, parked on the plaza just outside the Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library.
Art Parley’s artist residency began July 1 and runs through August 15. Activities include producing a trilingual (Chinese, English, and Spanish) newspaper, map-making, collecting oral histories, and the preservation of memorable documents and photos. For example, community residents can bring in ephemera and historical photos and have them scanned and preserved for their own use and, if they approve, for inclusion in the Lower East Side Heritage Collection of the New York Public Library. “We wanted to create an entry point for people to contribute documents and photos — it’s opt-in,” Liu said.
The program, ArtBuilt Mobile Studio in the Park, is part of a two-year grant coordinated by ArtBuilt in partnership with New York City Parks, the Queens Museum, the Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation, DreamYard, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, Seward Park Conservancy, and Immigrant Social Services. ArtBuilt helps fund arts and cultural programming in underserved communities in each of New York’s five boroughs.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, eight children, a parent, and Liu focused on folding small strips of paper in primary colors. As they folded, they learned about the Golden Venture, a cargo ship that ran aground at Fort Tilden beach in the Rockaways section of Queens in 1993. The ship carried 286 undocumented Chinese immigrants who were taken into custody and indefinitely detained in prisons while they applied for asylum. While they waited, the immigrants turned to paper folding to pass the time. Liu related the story to participants and shared reference material provided by the Museum of Chinese in America. The workshop sought to convey how art making can be an outlet for expression during challenging times.
“This project is [a] way to provide a context for cross-cultural solidarity, which is especially important during this politically charged moment,” Liu said. Through the program, Liu and Ka hope to encourage neighborhood residents to exchange ideas, memories, and experiences across perceived and real cultural and linguistic barriers. Liu said that despite the high population density in this pocket of lower Manhattan, people don’t necessarily engage with one another, sometimes because of these barriers. The collective’s mobile art studio is appropriately situated in a highly trafficked area — adjacent to the heavily frequented library and the park itself, classified as the oldest municipal playground in the US.
A key focus for the project is to publish a new edition of Round Robin, a trilingual inter-generational community newspaper, the contents of which will be based on the creative activities that take place during Art Parley’s residency this summer with ArtBuilt. Prior workshops last fall, supported by Create Change Fellowship with the Laundromat Project, produced the first edition of Round Robin, a bold, 24-page tabloid-style newspaper that features drawings, memes, poems, photo essays, and stories on current US immigration policies, food, social justice issues, and elements of oral history.
Liu and Ka aim to publish the second edition of Round Robbin in mid-September. “The conversations we’re having now will inspire the content of the newspaper,” Ka said. Such conversations include concerns about gentrification, current immigration policy, and an interview with Ivy Teng Lei, who publicly shared her story as an undocumented woman who advocates for immigrants.
“We see art making as an important tool to facilitate difficult conversations at this particular time,” Liu said. “We’re using the art-making process to communicate.” She cited a 95-year-old workshop participant who speaks Cantonese. Liu speaks Mandarin and was easily able to communicate with her. The end goal is to gather participants’ disparate opinions and share them in one place.
“Through the newspaper and tri-lingual [newspaper] project, we want to acknowledge and celebrate the myriad of different languages spoken in this area of the city, while also experimenting with the shared languages that exist between them,” Liu said. “We are trying to create conditions and provide creative tools that would allow local residents to express themselves in the ways in which they feel open and comfortable,” she added.
“Not only are there the different ethnicities of residents and immigrants rooted in the neighborhood surrounding the park — Black, Chinese, Puerto Rican, and more — but there is a diversity of class backgrounds, immigration statuses, and age groups,” Ka said. “We are using the newspaper to help connect vulnerable members of the community in the different groups to institutional resources and support.”