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Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens
Warren Lehrer, "Woodside through Leaded Glass", 2003 photograph.

PURCHASE, NY.- Immigration issues are being hotly debated throughout the nation. A timely exhibition at the Neuberger Museum of Art/Purchase College, which examines the immigrant experience, adds yet another dimension to the discussion. Titled Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new america, this dramatic multi-media traveling exhibition presents portraits, sounds, and stories of dozens of new immigrants and refugees living in Queens, New York, the most ethnically diverse locale in the United States. Crossing the BLVD was created by documentary artists Warren Lehrer, (photographer/writer) and Judith Sloan (sound artist/oral historian). It was organized for the Neuberger Museum of Art by Dede Young, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

“At a time when immigration patterns are re-shaping American culture, Crossing the BLVD shares the stories, sounds, and images that reveal the human toll of the pre- and post-Cold War and 9/11 worlds,” notes Sloan, who, with Lehrer “traveled the world” between 1999-2002, trekking through the streets of their home borough in search of migration stories and a deeper connection to their diverse community. While preparing their project, Lehrer and Sloan conducted storytelling workshops in libraries, high schools, and community centers throughout Queens. Extended interviews were held in bodegas, family-owned restaurants, places of worship, public housing projects, and private homes. Their project resulted in a book (W.W. Norton) and traveling exhibition comprised of a photographic series, audio sound stations, “soundscapes,” a mobile story booth, and a multi-media performance.

“While Congress is discussing immigration in terms of economics, the English language, and terrorism, our exhibition presents an alternative panoramic portrait of personal stories of why and how people leave their countries, and discusses the experience of living in America,” says Lehrer. “The show portrays the largely invisible lives, images, sounds and stories of new immigrants and refugees, creating a group portrait of a multi-ethnic, multi-racial community [in Queens] that portends the future of America.”

Ninety photographic portraits by Lehrer portray the humanity, beauty, and struggle of individuals who have crossed through war zones, over borders and oceans, and through cultural divides. Some portraits are juxtaposed with others to form group portraits of families, neighborhoods, co-workers, teammates, classmates, fellow exiles or band-members. Portraits are paired with short narrative excerpts of the subject’s own words; contextual maps of the country or countries of origin overlaid with maps of Queens neighborhoods; panoramic landscapes of Queens and important objects and images that Crossing the BLVD participants carry/carried with them from home to home.

Audio sound stations produced by Sloan enable visitors to hear the voices of the individuals photographed for the show, and the sounds and music of their neighborhoods. Audio pieces include text/audio compositions by Sloan and Lehrer, original music by composer Scott Johnson and participants in the exhibition, as well as Crossing the BLVD radio documentaries produced by Sloan and Lehrer for public radio. An ambient soundscape of people praying, voices on the streets, found and composed music, is heard as one enters the exhibition.

The Mobile Story Booth provides a point of access to the Crossing the BLVD story archive – an online collection of first-person narratives, and extends that archive to Museum visitors, who can contribute their stories and photographs to the Crossing the BLVD Web site. The design of the booth draws on references common to the immigration experience including a passport photo booth, call center booths, airport and custom checkpoints.

In the multi-media performance on Thursday, September 28, 4:30 pm, at the Neuberger Museum of Art, Lehrer is the tour guide, providing wry commentary on U.S. immigration policy and the follies of living in Queens, while Sloan, a mesmerizing performer, “channels” dozens of interviewees. Their performance is illuminated by projected portraits of the subjects photographed by Lehrer, objects they have carried with them from home to home, landscapes and maps, and a soundtrack of original music, sounds and voices.

A panel discussion "Your Huddled Masses: America as Refuge, Then and Now” on Sunday afternoon, December 3, 2006, at the Neuberger Museum of Art, will be hosted by Brian Lehrer of New York Public Radio's “The Brian Lehrer Show.”

Warren Lehrer is a writer, designer, and photographer whose pioneering books and theatrical works celebrate the music of thought and speech, the complexity of character, and the relationship between social structures and the individual. His books, acclaimed for capturing the shape of thought and reuniting the traditions of storytelling with the printed page include The Portrait Series: a quartet of men; GRRRHHH; i mean you know; versations and FRENCH FRIES. He has won numerous grants and fellowships including the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), New York State Council, Foundation for the Arts, Ford Foundation, The International Book Design award, and three American Institute of Graphic Arts book awards. Lehrer is an associate professor of art at the School of Art and Design at SUNY Purchase, and a member of the graduate faculty at the School of Visual Arts’ Designer as Author program.

Judith Sloan is an actress, oral historian and audio artist, whose multi-character solo performances combining humor, pathos and a love of the absurd include Denial of the Fittest, Responding to Chaos, and A Tattle Tale: eyewitness in Mississippi. She has received grants from the New York Foundation on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Her work has been produced throughout the United States and abroad in such venues as The Public Theater, The Jewish Museum, the 92nd Street Y, and The Smithsonian Institution. Her plays, commentaries, and essays have been published by Second Story Press, the Forward, and The New York Times. Her audio pieces have been heard on National Public Radio. Sloan is a member of the faculty at the Gallatin School at New York University, where she teaches theater arts, performance, documentary art, and oral history. She is also the director of Cross-Cultural Dialogue Through the Arts, an arts mentorship and training program creating collaborations between disparate communities.

Lehrer and Sloan are co-founders of EarSay, a non-profit arts organization “documenting and portraying lives of the uncelebrated.” A project of EarSay, Inc., the Crossing the BLVD exhibition was originally commissioned by the Queens Museum of Art with support from The Ford Foundation, the New York State Council on the Arts, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Queens Council on the Arts. The four-year Crossing multimedia project received support from: The Rockefeller Foundation, the Greenwall Foundation, Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, New York Foundation on the Arts, the Puffin Foundation, and a V-Day Award. The Web site and Crossing the BLVD Mobile Story Booth were designed in collaboration with dotsperinch.

For Crossing the BLVD Lehrer and Sloan received The Brendan Gill Prize, and The Innovative Use of Archives Award, and the book was on several best books of the year lists including Publisher’s Weekly and the Utne Reader.

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