Roads We Walk: Jovenes Inc and Art Center College of Design

Images provided by Eric Hubbard of Jovenes Inc., taken by Art Center students.

“The road I walk every day,

it’s no game, I’m trying to make my way.

People see what they want to see. That’s not me.

Take a look, take a look…Take a look, I might surprise you.”

The catchy beat and chorus spilled out of headphones hanging down from the ceiling at the Art Center Wind Tunnel Gallery, like an anthem to the sprawling city landscape. Bodies swaying, heads-bobbing as audience and artists alike moved through the small and carefully curated space.

Now on its second year, the collaboration between Jovenes Inc and Art Center School of Design produced a captivating collection of “ARTifacts.” The collection includes an original song, interactive installations, videos, photographs, print work, and live performances that pieced together the stories of a group of Angelenos from very different walks of life.

The collaboration is a negotiated collaboration between young men faced with the every day challenges of homelessness and graduate students students in one of the country’s most renowned design schools. The unusual experiment sprung out of a professor /student mentorship. Eric Hubbard, Development Director at Jovenes Inc. was a student of Professor Elizabeth Chin during his time at Occidental College. Chin, a trained anthropologist, is now a professor at Art Center in their Media Design Practices track, which focuses on “designing media systems to facilitate the agency of citizens…social justice, and generating knowledge…”

The Monday evening art opening gathered urban young men in baggy clothes, rubbing their hands, and smiling nervously in a space visibly unfamiliar. In contrast the art students paced back and forth guiding their collaborators and audience members through a maze of interactive visual, sensory, and audio pieces.

“This project means a lot to me,” said Lorenzo, or Mr. LA, one of the youth collaborators from Jovenes. “I hadn’t done this before, but now I feel like a superstar…”

The digital chips on rectangular pieces of plexiglass triggered slideshow images on walls like a sequence of old memory projections playing inside ones head. A few  screens displayed looping videos of Jovenes and Art Center students talking about their life experiences while small flip books, pages filled with images and poetry, switched hands. The nervousness lifted giving way to pride and excitement.

“You can be creative in every way if you put your mind to it. It helped me not to be shy, it opened me up,” said Levi.

The piece of resistance included dangling headphones and footprint-cut-outs that triggered video projections when stepped-on to accompany four different tracks of the collaboratively written song “Step into my shoes.” Kevin (Lil’ Krazy aka Ghetto Boy), Marlon (Mr. Stranger), and Lorenzo (Mr. LA) wrote and sang the song produced by Cayla, Morgan, and Tina. Each set of foot-prints triggered a reel for each of the three rappers. The last set of headphones combined their voices into the finished song.

Recalling the experience Marlon said proudly, “this is about giving a message to young people, letting them know that there is another way out.” Speaking to some of the youth, a transformative sense of empowerment seemed to be taking shape as they spoke about their experiences.

In a city scarred by urban planning that has exacerbated human disconnection by centering on things rather than people, it is often hard to step out of one’s comfort zone or even simply travel into unknown territories. The collaboration required both groups to put comfort aside on many levels as they worked out of Jovenes in Boyle Heights and Art Center in Pasadena. For many this was the first time in either location.

As Morgen expressed, “[This project was] more than just their stories. It [was] the story of our collaboration because we all came to this with our own assumptions. We had our assumptions and they had their assumptions about us. There were points of collision where it was messy but through the process we learned to walk together and express a greater story of creative potential”

It is precisely this creative potential that shined brightly on the faces of the Jovenes youth. It is the learning to walk together that could have a deeper and long lasting transformative impact.