The Voicemail Art Project honors the color of those killed by police

For her son’s birthday, Gwen Woods left a voice mail message to Mario Woods, which he would never have heard.

Mr. Woods was shot badly in 2015 By police officers in San Francisco, but to celebrate her birthday on July 22 of last year, Ms. Woods called him. She left the message through “1-800 Happy Birthday”, an online audio art project that honors the lives of people of color who were killed by police.

In her message, Ms. Woods imagined what she and her son would have done for their birthday: go with grandma, go shoe-shopping, maybe even buy some music.

“Obviously, we’re doing something amazing,” Ms. Woods said in the message, adding that she would cook him a cake because “what’s a birthday without a birthday cake?”

The project allows people to hear and leave messages for people of color who have been killed in encounters with law enforcement. It was conceived by a California studio and production company Even / Od, under the creative leadership of which Mohammad Gorjestani directed a short film in 2016 “Happy Birthday Mario Woods.” It features Ms. Woods to share her son’s life story and celebrate her birthday with loved ones.

Mr. Gorjestani, 37, who lives in San Francisco, has also directed two similar short films, “Happy Birthday” Philando Castile” and happy Birthday Oscar Grant, “About those who were fatally shot by police. They decided to expand the idea using an approach that was more accessible and, he said, indifferent: voice mail messages.

“One day, it just hit me,” Mr. Gorjestani said. “I wanted people to understand two things: one, what a measure of an epidemic this is; and two, to really think of people in a way that was just a cause for grief and to honor and celebrate I was more. “

When a man of color is killed by police, Mr. Gorjastani said that he is often disappointed that this coverage emphasizes a greater death than what happened before.

“What is lost in it,” he said, “is the humanity of each person – the fact that each of these people had their goals in life, the day they were planning that day, the next day.”

When Mr. Gorjasthani got the idea to use voice mail messages, he started saying how it would work. From an artistic point of view, the messages offered indifferent sentiment to the “pre-iPhone era”, he said.

Mr. Gorjestani launched the 1-800 Happy Birthday Project on July 22, the 31st birthday of Mr. Woods. To visitors Dozens of people killed by police will be found. They can listen to voicemail messages that other people have left, and leave their own by calling one of the phone numbers assigned to each victim.

Mr. Gorjestani said that the concept was not driven by the coronovirus epidemic, but that the format suited the era of social-restriction. He said that people can connect with their homes in this project.

“When technology works well, it democratizes things,” Mr. Gorjestani said. “I think in this case, we were able to create an experience that the barrier of entry, the barrier of participation, was very low.”

By focusing on birthdays, Mr. Gorjestani said that he hopes to bring out a more personal side of the victims and provide an opportunity to heal their loved ones.

Ms. Woods described the project as catharsis. Police said her son Mario was armed with a knife and officers shot him at least 15 times, refusing to obey police orders to release it. Video footage of the confrontation circulated widely online, prompting a San Francisco police chief to call for his resignation.

“These individuals, they are not just one-dimensional. They are human beings,” Ms. Woods said. “It’s all the hardness that you have left, but what happened to Mohammed, how you smooth the sharp edges.”

In a message for his son Oscar Grant III, Rev. Wanda Johnson shared his dream that they would work together in ministry. That dream came true, he said – not in the way he had imagined.

Ms Johnson said in the message, “I thought it would be back to back, not realizing that I would be here in the ministry and you are with me in the ministry, but not physically here.”

Mr. Grant was shot badly in 2009 By a transit officer on a Bay Area rapid transit platform in Oakland, California. Ms Johnson left the message on February 27, which was her son’s 35th birthday.

“Oh, Oscar, you’re missing so much,” she said. “Not a day goes by until you’re on my mind.”

Mr. Gorjestani said he hoped his work would serve as a call to action, especially for those who have not felt the pain of losing someone in a violent encounter with law enforcement.

“I think for the white people, or the people who are not from these communities, this is a way to hold them accountable in a new way,” Mr. Gorjasthani said. “If you listen to these voice mails and they don’t move you, it’s up to you.”

In a message to George Floyd, who died in police custody last year Countrywide protests against police brutality, One caller expected “good changes”. Another promised to keep fighting for him.

“You don’t know me, but of course I know you now,” the caller said. “I’m praying that you get a pipette.”

Mr. Gorjestani described the 1-800 Happy Birthday project as a work of progress, with the hope that it would become a physical art installation in a museum. He said that he has also considered recording outside the city hall across the country.

“There are literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other families who have had to endure it,” Mr. Gorjestani said. “Just because you haven’t heard of this person, doesn’t mean they weren’t equally loved.”

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