“The luddites are losing,” declares Angelina Dreem, founder of the new digital art “collaboratory” Powrplnt in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Like a cyberpunk shaman, she explained how we must free ourselves from the shackles that are our screens and engage with technology using a newfangled tactile approach. It was beguiling to hear someone rhapsodize about technology without spouting off a post-apocalyptic vision or an allusion to class war via Google bus.
Dreem considers herself an entrepreneur with a bent for social justice, but she is no hyperbolic TED talk turd. Located at Stream Gallery on Myrtle Avenue, Powrplnt resembles neither a Silicon Valley start-up playground nor a crusty DIY workshop with smelly bathrooms. It’s foremost a collaborative art space, providing teenagers free access to iMac computers packed with creative software in a setting that pairs “post-internet” art from the likes of Analisa Teachworth and Terrell Davis with aquaponics. At a time when the liberal arts are losing their footing to vocational specialization, Powrplnt is an important alternative where artists teach teens valuable digital skills without subverting creative self-expression. Weekdays are reserved for drop-in lab hours and classes like All Girls Ableton. On Saturdays the space transforms into a pop-up shop offering local designer gear from Whatever 21 and Ore Apparel.
The art charity organization Fractured Atlas is the project’s primary sponsor, otherwise funds from Powrplnt’s Indiegogo campaign go towards fall programming. Despite the shoestring budget, this type of technology-based training is not unheeded. Like an unofficial postscript, the Times ran the op-ed article “How to Get Girls Into Coding” the day after Powrplnt opened doors. In the piece, Nitasha Tiku outlines how the gender gap persists in technology-related fields despite the increase of coding instruction in schools across the U.S. through nonprofits like Code.org. If coding really is the new literacy frontier, the horde of businesses (Facebook, JPMorgan Chase, Google) peddling the coding curricula makes you wonder for what ends. Maybe Powrplnt’s crowdsourced fund-raising effort is commendable after all.
Down the street from Powrplnt, Angelina and I sat in Freedom Triangle below a neglected World War I monument to discuss the creative future. A week after classes began, it was clear that the project is as much a learning process for her as it is for the artists and students involved.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
What’s your background with art and technology?
I’ve always had a computer state of mind and I’ve always been working with music and MIDI instruments—technology based stuff, like setting up VCRs was always really fun. Technology has been a part of my life and it’s advancing so quickly right now it’s apparent that a lot of people are going to be left behind. Even with Google Glass and 3D rendering, there are tons of people that still don’t have their own computer to even know what’s going on and that just feels like a social injustice to me. That will greater stratify the social classes because you either have a computer and can advance yourself or you don’t. I know it’s really simplistic—there are a lot of other things that are connected to that, but the overhead is pretty low and you can go as far as you want. It’s a really powerful democratic tool.
Do you think that the curriculum offered at Powrplnt is missing at conventional arts institutions?
Yeah, that’s what I was thinking in the first conceptualization of it. A professional artist needs to know more than how to hold a paintbrush. That’s not where the creative professional career skill set is at anymore. Yeah, you want to be a professional painter, but you’re probably going to have to do mock-ups. There’s a lot more that you’re going to have to know. I didn’t go to art school. I went for international studies, but I took art classes. Photoshop was on the curriculum, but I was more shocked when I got out of school and Photoshop was necessary for every single internship that I wanted to do. The fact that I couldn’t get an internship because I don’t know Photoshop was really shocking. So then I think about other people. You can give them a leg up by introducing this early on. And everybody really wants to do it now and there really aren’t that many educational places that are not super hard to get into or expensive or not flexible. I like to think that we are pretty flexible as far as I want people to just come and use the space or come and take a class. I want it to be really open and with the artists in mind—by artists, for artists. That’s why the whole curriculum I developed is really art-based and interest-driven. I want artists to be the teachers leading how the kids think about this technology.
So how did you get artists involved?
I just made a call on my Facebook. I have pretty big Facebook network. The fact that it was unpaid and people still volunteered was really heartwarming, but I think that says something about our artist community in New York specifically. I think that a lot of people moved here, especially Bushwick, and they are very aware of the community that’s here, but don’t really know how to not be an outsider. This is kind of a way to be like, “Okay, I’m not just here occupying space. I am also contributing.” I think that giving is a really important part of being human. When you move to New York you kind of forget because you are so busy surviving for yourself. I made it really easy—three hours once a week. It actually has a big impact and [the artists] are really stoked on it. Everybody is really excited. The artists are kind of the most important part. Just to show how these tools apply to real life. That’s a disconnect with school a lot—you don’t see how what you’re learning applies to real life. These are pretty hard, solid tools and skill sets.
What artists are involved and what classes do you offer?
Mitch Moore has a stop animation class. Mitch Moore makes a lot of videos. He made videos for Mykki Blanco and Hood By Air. He’s a DJ—he is an amazing person. Hunter Hawes, he’s in this band Vensaire and he DJs at Club Yes. He’s doing a “Beats Like Drake” Ableton class, teaching everybody how to make beats. [The kids] are really into that. He’s Ableton certified. Whatever 21, Brian Whatever, he’s going to do our branded class. It’s going to be on how to set up your brand and make T-shirts. Doorways Le Sphinxx, she performs as Le Sphinxx and she’s from New York. It’s cool cause she’s from New York and she’s like, “If somebody would have given me this opportunity when I was lost and pissed I would have been so much better off.” So she’s relaying that into a kind of Ableton punk course with the girls. Shayne from Hood By Air said that he would come and give a little talk about how Photoshop has helped, how he uses that. Kay Rizz is going to come and just talk about female empowerment and music.
How do the artwork and the indoor garden at the space fit in with the project?
I wanted to create the ambiance. The fact that you’re in a gallery space, that there’s work on the walls. This is kind of the trend of where this technology is being used right now or how it’s being used in a creative way, this is the aesthetic. I am putting subliminal cues as to the art history of digital art, just having it be around in the ambiance. The vertical garden I wanted to see be a part of a tech space. It can go too chrome too much and that’s the macho, penis vibes of technology. So for me it was balancing that out and creating an indoor green space because everything should be a green space now. It shows technology can be used in an innovative way for lots of different things. It’s like a little Gaia, a little Mother Nature vibe.
Was Bushwick a particular consideration for this project? Did you want Powrplnt to be in Bushwick?
Bushwick is kind of my community. I’ve been living in Bushwick for five years now. I opened Body Actualized center down the street. I know how to maneuver the zone and how to make stuff happen here. Bushwick is kind of a very special place for the fact that young entrepreneurs can start something here if only for a temporary time. All these people are doing what they want and it’s only going to be like this for a short period of time. It’s cool to do it and have it live and air out a little bit. But I do think that for the [project], areas where gentrification is an issue are good spots for it to go in as a pinpoint of a bridge. Technology is something that is very [associated with] white people. Apple is all owned by white guys. I think technology and computers kind of represent that world a lot. So coming in and just being a free space or an open space where everybody has access to it is a good way to create a bridge. It equalizes it.
What has been the most difficult part of getting Powrplnt started—the organizational things or dealing with the larger implications and questions you have to confront?
Well, the implications and questions are kind of my favorite part. That’s the fun part. It’s translating that to action and getting yourself up in the morning and not being afraid of things and being brave. I’ve had to tell everybody that’s working with me when I can feel they are [apprehensive], “It’s for Powrplnt; Powrplnt is for being brave. You have to be brave right now.” We are doing something that hasn’t really been done before—that we’ve never really stepped out to present to the world. It’s important. It’s hard work to be out with the intention of meeting new people that you probably don’t have anything in common with, meeting with teenagers—who [can be] terrifying to a lot of people. That has been the hardest thing to overcome. Otherwise it’s just making sure you show up, dotting the T’s and stuff. Getting past the psychology of doing something bigger than yourself has been the hardest part, but also the most rewarding.