Within the next year, a child of unknown nationality, gender, religion and race will be born. This child, however, will not just be another of the approximately 470,000 babies born around the world each day — he or she will be our planet’s seven billionth inhabitant. And, according to the organizers of the Seven Billionth Person Project, it is up to us to welcome him or her into the world and teach him or her about the current state of humanity.
This is the premise behind the project, an international multimedia effort initiated by World Fellows Director of Programs and Admissions Valerie Belanger, Ezra Stiles college seminar lecturer Leora Kahn, and 2009 World Fellows Jian Yi, Claudia Lopez and Ali Hakan Altinay. The basis of the project is a blog that solicits and posts reader submissions from around the world. Posts have come in the form of letters, poems, videos, paintings, and photographs, from countries as varied as Kenya, Israel, Bangladesh and Colombia. The accompanying exhibit opened Thursday evening at New Haven’s Parachute Factory Gallery, with Kahn and Belanger as co-curators.
Submissions carry messages including, “let your work be a gift to the 7 billionth baby,” “look at the world from a different perspective,” and “cockroaches have been here since the beginning and they’ll be here until the end, so embrace them.”
The inspiration for this project was an essay that Altinay wrote for the Huffington Post in 2009, in which he asked readers to “take 15 minutes as we ride the bus to work, run on our treadmill, or sip our coffee, and imagine what we would say to our seventh billion fellow human being.”
In his essay, Altinay told the seven billionth child to expect a longer life, better health, more schooling, and greater gender equality than at any time in history. But he qualified this by reminding readers that this child will also face the problems of climate change and genocide, and that “chances are, nobody will come to her rescue.”
According to Belanger, Altinay’s idea inspired the other 2009 fellows, who decided to pose the same question to the whole world.
At the exhibit, amateur artists’ work is beside those of professionals, with each submission given equal prominence. The project aims to be as democratic and egalitarian as possible, said Debbie Hesse, the Director of Artistic Programs and Services at the New Haven Arts Council.
“We wanted to throw these big questions out there and just see what happens,” she said.“We wanted to change the context and change the dialogue by mixing amateurs with artists.”
When developing the gallery exhibition, Hesse, Belanger, and Kahn used the theme of artistic egalitarianism as the basis for their decisions. The exhibit, which consists mainly of photographs, but also includes Twitter posts, videos, and letters, forgoes captions and credits in order to let viewers form their own opinions about the message of each piece.
Kahn, who teaches “Human Rights and the Media” this semester, also explained that the Parachute Factory Gallery, which shares its space with the Greater New Haven Community Services Network and the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health, is the ideal location for an exhibit like this one. The Parachute Factory aims to make art more accessible for marginalized communities, whether community members participate as artists, viewers or subjects, Kahn said.
Visitors were also encouraged to participate — the curators invited visitors to write a message to the seven billionth child and guess where the child will be born on chalkboards around the gallery. India and China were popular guesses.
Yi’s own message, he said in an e-mail, would be: “It’s a world full of contradictions, crises and potentials to do good. Never before have human desires been so unleashed and celebrated, and we have not learned to tame them yet.”
Eddie, a visitor at the exhibition opening, went with a simpler message: “Welcome to our wonderful world.”
The Seven Billionth Person Project will be at the Parachute Factory Gallery — 319 Peck St., Building One — until January.