Apr 17, 2017
The IRL and Online Worlds Meld at POWRPLNT, a Tech Education Space in Bushwick
We tend to live our lives online or off, in a perpetual binary state of existence. But, it can be difficult to meld those worlds effectively, in a way that does not feel distracting, or that diminishes real life encounters. Bushwick’s POWRPLNT, however, might succeed in doing just that. It describes itself as a digital arts collaboratory, which is probably the best overview of what this art space, both physical and digital, offers to teens for free, and anyone else who walks through its doors. It is a chance to symbiotically expand your tech skills and your network, online and in-person. The space occupies a small, electric-blue storefront along a residential stretch of Evergreen Avenue, and is equal parts classroom, computer lab, gallery, and event space. The agreed-upon sentiment for those who’ve been there? “I really wish I would have had this as a teen.”
The collaboratory itself also looks like a virtual landscape come to life. Its white walls, checkerboard-tiled floors, and plastic tables with desktop Macs give the room a modular, open feeling, the equivalent to a create-your-own-adventure translated into a physical space. Broad, leafy green plants and a bearded dragon and its aquarium make the room feel like Brooklyn meets a terrarium. Founder Angelina Dreem and her team of volunteer teachers offer classes and programs that teach you what you wish you knew, or, more specifically, the tools that you need to be a young creative in 2017. A sampling of classes available: Intro to Adobe Premiere, GIF-making, building a site in Github, how to make a flier in Photoshop, and more. Classes are always free for teens and available on a sliding scale donation for anyone else who’s interested. The gallery’s volunteers can use the studio space during off-hours and receive access to the network of teachers, artists, designers, and programmers that come through.
Angelina Dreem, Brooklyn resident of seven years and founder of previous venues such as the yoga studio-meets-event space Body Actualized Center, came up with the idea for POWRPLNT after a culmination of experiences. Upon graduating from the University of Washington, Dreem realized she didn’t have the qualifications for the jobs she wanted. So, she “went rogue with everything” as she describes it, teaching herself video editing and more, and moved to New York to start making music and putting on events.
“After getting pretty deep into New York nightlife and events and the underground scene, I wanted to do something with more of a lasting impression and not so transient,” Dreem says. “It became pretty clear to me that I loved Brooklyn and wanted to stay here. I met this lawyer on Craigslist and he drove us to a festival. I told him my idea and he was like ‘Let’s do that.’ It was all very serendipitous.” Originally, they envisioned the space at 2nd Street and A, right next to a power plant—hence, the origin of its name. But then, a friend sold them the space on Myrtle and Broadway. “We made flyers and recruited a bunch of artists that I had been working with in nightlife,” said Dreem. “It just grew from there.”
On POWRPLNT’s site, the first words underneath the header image are “Access to technology is a right, not a privilege.” That sentiment is the main thrust of what defines POWRPLNT as an organization, both as a static, physical space and as a community of people. Dreem and her volunteer teachers are doing their part to bridge what seems like an ever-widening technology gap. “If all the people who are programming are so over Photoshop, can you even imagine other people who don’t have cell phones or computers?” she says. “There’s such a gap, and it’s only getting bigger. I just think about that all the time when we’re at these VR or tech conferences, and I think, This is so far from so many people’s reality.”
On a cold, gray Thursday afternoon, things are quiet during POWRPLNT’s after-school program with Sonic Arts For All!, a relatively new non-profit offering an alternative to the traditional music classroom for grades K-12. Jaydee DeLeon and Eliza Walton, teachers with SAFA!, are sitting by their laptops and equipment, waiting for kids to arrive. Sometimes it might just be one kid who gets a lot of special attention that day; other times, it might be eight kids making drum machines out of Arduinos and Play-Doh.
“We’ve had some success here with kids in the neighborhood just kind of walking in and joining us,” DeLeon, a nu-metal musician when he’s not teaching, says. “We give them music, not through violins or pianos or cellos or choir, but through these different music apps that are digital versions of actual real-life synthesizers. We have a physical keyboard or drum pads that connect with it. We have very simple drum machines where the kids can come through, and we record them and post it on SoundCloud so they can have it afterwards.”
Walton, who makes electronic music, found out about SAFA! through her curiosity about POWRPLNT. “Angelina told me to come by, and Max, the founder [of SAFA!] was here and invited me to teach,” she says. As we’re talking, DeLeon spots some kids and their parents walking by outside. He jumps up and runs out the door to tell them they can come make music for free.
“It’s the best when the kids are walking by to go play basketball, and we’re like ‘Hey, come make music with us,’ and they’re like ‘We’re going to play basketball,’ but then they come back later,” Walton says. “And we’ll be here for them. The world kind of sucks, and I want the kids to have a good time.”
POWRPLNT’s most recent big project was a series of DJ workshops launched on International Women’s Day with Intersessions, another DJ workshop and network for women and the LGTBQ+ community. Started by rapper Chippy Nonstop, Intersessions’s workshops have taken place in Vancouver, Los Angeles, and now, this past March, in Brooklyn. Last Saturday was the final DJ showcase and panel on creating spaces and community for women and non-gender conforming people within the music industry. Dreem says the Intersessions residency has been her favorite example of how POWRPLNT merges life online with actual, in-person connection.
“They’re a group of four girls with gender non-conforming identities that just started posting on social media about these DJ workshops,” Dreem says. “They get people from all over to teach, and it emerged really organically from their social networks and connections. People meet IRL and, at the end of the workshop, everybody’s like ‘What’s your handle?’ and like ‘Yeah, come to our party next weekend.’ It’s very much an integrated lifestyle.”
POWRPLNT’s team now consists of Salome Asega, assistant director and, as Dreem describes, an “amazing VR artist and programmer and designer,” and Marcha Johnson, the space’s outreach coordinator. Anibal Luque, the lawyer that Dreem met back during that fateful Craigslist ride-share, is now vice president. POWRPLNT might not be Dreem’s forever project. “I’m an artist,” Dreem says, “This is part of my career and social practice, but I also have other realms of work that I want to experiment with.” She wants to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to allow the collaboratory to evolve and expand, not just to the other boroughs, but to cities like Los Angeles, Miami and Mexico City, places where there’s a complicated but intense and interesting relationship between art, technology, and who can access either of those worlds.
“I feel like it was all led by this idea of being able to create a concept using the tools that we are trying to teach,” Dreem says. “It’s a medium-size ship now, and I want it to go places. The whole idea is to build a model that can be implemented with school funding in other locations around the state and the world. I want to create a franchise of computer labs that can inspire all of those creative people who have no real, tangible outlet for how to be a creative today.”
A lot of good ideas don’t work out in the long run, at least not enough, perhaps, to leave a lasting impact on the neighborhood around them. Angelina is hoping to change that with POWRPLNT. “New York is a very transient city, and people are very suspect like, ‘Where are you gonna be in 5 years?’ she says. “I live above POWRPLNT right now, and that reinforces the idea that I’m here, you know?”
Upcoming events at POWRPLNT include Art Future: Youth Mode, a program curated by Parsons Scholars Pre-College program. Youth Mode is a multimedia platform organized by teen artists for teen artists. On April 22, there will be a panel discussion hosted by Nadia Williams, assistant professor of diversity and inclusion and director of Parsons Scholars program. “Visionary Worlds,” on April 29, will feature a lineup of live performers—young poets, dancers, musicians, and more—as well as an open mic.
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