Where, I wondered, does one without children find children? “Everyone asks that, and it’s funny because there are kids everywhere– if you try, how can you not reach kids?” Angelina Dreem found my question pretty funny. Dreem is the artist and the founder of Powrplnt, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing underserved kids (and sometimes adults) with access to digital tools and technology. Angelina recently dubbed it “a net art school for indigo children,” on Twitter. “I feel like there is a real invisibility in the hipster world of everybody else who lives in New York City– it’s like, ‘Well I don’t see them at the bars,’ but for real, there’s a lot of kids.” Touché.
But now I’ll have no excuse about wondering where to recruit children for dastardly deeds, because they’ll be all in one place: Powrplnt just landed an IRL place of its very own in Bushwick, the organization’s first permanent space. “We’ll be starting the first round of classes in January, when the kids get back to school,” Angelina explained. But first up, there’s a fundraising event tonight (featuring the inimitable Junglepussy, believe it or not) and some very orange walls to get rid of immediately after. “On Monday, I’m definitely gonna start painting it white,” Angelina said.
You may remember PowrPlnt from their premiere pop-up exhibition in tandem with Stream Gallery’s debut last year. There, Angelina set up a computer lab of sorts and an aquaponics system that she had to take down after just two months. “I spent a lot to build this garden and had to just take it down,” she recalled. “So I had to put that wing of the whole thing on hold until we got a permanent space.”
But this new space, a corner-building previously home to a Dominican hair salon, will give the organization all kinds of flexibility they’ve never had before, not to mention permanency. “I’m trying to challenge the idea of what learning spaces look like– how do we engage naturally and what’s an open environment?” Angelina said. And being free from partners, collaborators, sponsors, and overlords is exactly what she’s Angelina’s been working toward because now, Powrplnt can do exactly whatever it is they wanna do. “Being rooted in a place for longer than four months is gonna be amazing,” she said.
This particular block of Evergreen Avenue couldn’t be better for Powrplnt’s needs– you won’t find any fancy restaurants close by, just housing, an auto shop, a church. “It’s a real neighborhood,” I commented. “It’s not the Morgan stop.”
“Yeah,” Angelina agreed. “I guess I’ve always seen Powrplnt as a bridge, because some of these conversations are closed now because there are so many assumptions– there’s a lot of friction in areas like Morgantown or whatever. It’s kind of nice to be able to present a new idea of sharing space or holding space that’s more inclusive. ”
And fighting for inclusion is what Powrplnt is all about. The organization offers free tech-art classes for kids and donation-based ones for adults, with a mission of reaching underserved communities and people of color. “There are not a lot of African-American or Latino voices in the world of [graphic design and digital art],” Angelina said. “The design world is so white, it’s like insane, and I think that really affects the design you get out of it– what if we empower other people? Or provide tools and access for other people to get their ideas out there about how the world should look?”
It would definitely look different from the one we’re experiencing now. Graphic design is as big a part of our lives as ever, and with white voices dominating not just the design sphere but net art scenes too, it’s clear there’s a very narrow aesthetic vision clouding our field of vision right now. There also seems to be a lack of communication about internet inequality and the digital divide happening on the internet (and IRL for that matter), mainly because we have this (mis)perception that the internet is the most democratic place there is.
The unequal representation of people of color in these fields definitely has a lot to do with access. You might be surprised to know– you savvy internet blog reader you– that a 2014 study found that 27 percent of New York City households lack broadband internet at home while 17 percent of households don’t have access to a computer at home at all. And guess what? On the whole, people lacking these super important (almost vital these days) resources are less educated and unemployed. And a whopping 27 percent of black households and 26 percent of Latino households in New York City lack broadband at home.
The same study found that Bushwick was amongst the Brooklyn neighborhoods where 60 to 70 percent of households have broadband internet access, compared to Williamsburg and most of Manhattan, where over 80 percent of households have access.
But Angelina also thinks it’s important to foreground artists who are doing good work and have had access to these tools, but who happen to be under-appreciated and connect them with up-and-comings. That’s why she brings in real artists to teach courses and says she always keeps diversity in mind when curating exhibitions. “I just want to represent people who are underrepresented,” she said. “Because there are amazing people doing awesome things, but they’re not mainstream because mainstream has this idea of what is supposed to look like.”
There’s a sense of immediacy to doing something about digital inequality, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the importance of the internet to spreading information and awareness about injustice. “The whole thing with the girl in school getting thrown out of her desk, watching that… kids, especially youth of color are constantly at a threat of somebody attacking them or arresting them, or just seeing them in the wrong way,” Angelina said. “All these things really break my heart, and these are kids that have so much potential— because they are youth, youth has that glow of possibility. And I just want to have a safe space where everybody’s equal, we’re all just doing things and want to help each other.”
And as much as there is unequal access to the tools necessary to create digital art, once those tools become available, Angelina believes that things just flow from there. “With digital art, especially, anyone can do it— as long as you have access to it— and there’s no real limitation with what you can do,” she explained. “Painting has so many points of reference, and that art world is very limited, but with the internet, you can put your thing out there, and you can find so much success in that way. There’s a huge market, and if you do something and it resonates with people, it’s possible to succeed.”
Angelina makes an important distinction between many non-profit arts programs out there and Powrplnt’s model: “I feel like so much non-profit stuff is in the art therapy vein, so I want to try and be a little bit more vocational,” she said. “So much of being an artist is about being an entrepreneur or being multi-talented, and representing yourself. You need all these skills to do your own marketing.”
Angelina hopes this new ground-level, open-windowed location will offer a “slow-growth” opportunity of people passing by and eventually coming in to see what’s happening. And while Powrplnt has had some help from other institutions in the past, like Hunter College for example, Angelina is excited to be free of “Ughhhhh institutional rules,” she moaned. “I’m so anti-authoritarian that I’ve always felt stifled, so this is going to be really fun. Because I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m in charge.’”
Angelina is one of the founding members of the deeply-missed Body Actualized Center, which started in 2010 and closed fall of 2014. Powrplnt is strikingly different from that healthy-hedonism playpen for adults. That might have something to do with the fact she says she’s a “retired party girl” now. But the non-profit still reflects her passions. For Angelina, art and activism are inseparable.
“For me it’s like you have to do something and that might be my view of art, because I think it’s a good medium for engaging with social justice issues– but other artists give their soul, and that’s a way of giving back too, there are just different ways,” she explained. “But for me, it has to be something that engages with people or community– I like having that energy around, I like people being expressive and being themselves.”
She said she defines this as “social practice,” but also “sculpting.”
Angelina’s own experiences as an autodidact gave her a deeper understanding of what it’s like to feel like you’ve missed out on something. She always wanted to be an artist, but before she moved to New York City (she grew up in the Midwest and went to school in Washington) she never understood the arts as a viable career choice. “It started from me needing these tools– so if I needed it, then someone else would need it. And what could I give that I feel like was lacking?” she said.
Powrplnt will continue to offer classes similar to the ones they’ve run in the past: basic Photoshop courses, digital tools of fashion design, music production, programming, web design– all taught by working artists and professionals. Multimedia artist Martha Hipley, for example, taught a web design class at the Harlem space.
The space itself will be mainly an educational center, but also a co-working space, and hopefully a small café with “snacks,” but definitely dollar coffee. The idea is for the places to remain spacious and open for multiple purposes like art exhibitions in addition to classes. “It’s going to be very modular– I’m not going to build any permanent walls, I want it to be really adaptive,” Angelina explained.
Powrplnt will offer the opportunity to pay a monthly membership fee which offers access to any one of ten computers loaded with software. There will also be several iPads for “quick Internet stuff.” Over the first two months, Angelina says they’ll conduct a lose survey to gauge how much people are willing to pay for a membership.
Oh, and of course: the plants. “There will be lots of plants,” Angelina said gleefully. “The plants are gonna be chill.” For her own art work, Angelina makes use of Arduino— an “open-source electronics platform” according to their website– to create plants that are reactive to touch. She’s hoping to offer courses that connect nature and digital art. “There’s a lot of new stuff coming out with biofeedback stuff, garden-tech is definitely something I want to put at the center of it– it engages the whole conversation about food deserts, access to food, and healthy kid stuff that Michelle Obama really brought into the mainstream. I feel like when you’re healthier, you learn better– it’s tied to a lot of stuff.”
The new space also has an enormous basement that Angelina hopes to use for aquaponics that could maybe even help supply the café– eventually. “I have this whole idea of growing vegetables in the basement under lights, doing like aquaponics stuff,” she explained. “That was the original idea: having good food and digital learning, because that just seems like the future to me.”
Overall, Angelina seemed overjoyed to even have the space. “It’s expensive to have space in New York and the people who get it are definitely the rich, white guys, so for me to do this, and this is who I’m going to represent…” she trailed off. “I think it’s so important for us as a culture and to grow as a city— and to show people in Kansas City or whatever— that everybody has a right to a space, and right to a voice and a platform. I really want to create a model for giving people platforms. I really want to create a model for giving people platforms,” she said. “And in that way, take down capitalism or whatever. It’s kind of Marxist, I guess.”
This kind-of Marxist thinking is definitely in line with Angelina’s goal of eventually working the Powrplnt model down to an open source program that anyone who’s willing and able can tap into. “My main goal with this is to get it set up, have a system, and just be able to check in every once in a while, I kind of want it to be its own thing,” she explained. “I want to create a manual so somebody in Detroit can start their own thing with like $5,000 and train people to have a beginner budget and have Powrplnts all over.”
“It’ll be like the McDonald’s of learning centers,” she laughed.
Angelina might joke, but she’s dead serious about her radical ambitions. “My landlord was like, ‘I don’t even know what you’re doing in here, but I trust you’– and I’m like, ‘What? Cause I’m a nice white girl?” she laughed. “I’m gonna be doing some radical shit in here! You don’t even know!”
Get to Powrplnt (562 Evergreen Avenue, Bushwick) tonight, Friday, Oct. 30 at 10 pm for their Halloween party and fundraiser. Details are here; it’s $10 (sliding scale) and holy shit Junglepussy’s gonna be there.