Removed Billboard Message Becomes New Public-Art Initiative

Jan 15, 2019

The phrase “There Are Black People In The Future” has a new future.

"There Are Black People In The Future" Artwork-in-Residence information session. 5:30 p.m. Thu., Jan. 17. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh -- East Liberty, 130 S. Whitfield St., East Liberty.

The words sparked public debate last year when a landlord ordered them removed from a billboard art project in East Liberty, leading to accusations of censorship and racism. But the text lives on in a unique public-art initiative.

The project is an Artwork-in-Residence, a play on the familiar “artist-in-residence.” Grants of $1,200 each will be given to 10 applicants for proposals to use the text in performances, classroom experiences or other creative ways.

Artist Alisha Wormsley, who coined “there are black people in the future,” hopes the new initiative gets people in the community thinking and talking about the meaning of the phrase.

“I want to give the community time to think about to think about if this [text] actually represents them, if this is actually what they want,” she says. The funded projects must take place in East Liberty or the adjacent neighborhoods of Bloomfield, Garfield, Larimer or Homewood. There will also be additional workshops and community conversations, says Wormsley.

Credit Courtesy of Alisha Wormsley

Wormsley is an acclaimed Pittsburgh-based artist who was last year's emerging-artist honoree in the Carol R. Brown Creative Achievement Awards. She came up with the phrase “There Are Black People in the Future” in 2011, during a conversation in which she was critiquing science fiction where all the characters are white. The phrase entered her art practice. In 2018, artist Jon Rubin invited her to display it as part of his The Last Billboard, which displayed provocative text on an East Liberty rooftop.

But in April, the building’s landlord – citing complaints from the community – ordered the text to be removed. The landlord later said the message could be reinstated, but Wormsley and Rubin chose not to do so.

Instead, later that month they held a public forum where speakers said they favored the billboard.  It was clear that many attendees saw “There are Black People in the Future” as a message not about representation in science-fiction stories, but rather such urgent topical issues as gentrification and equity in the immediate neighborhood.

East Liberty has been ground zero in Pittsburgh for concern about gentrification and the forced relocation of African Americans.

The Artwork-in-Residence was proposed by Wormsley and Rubin (both of whom teach at Carnegie Mellon University). The project is supported by the city’s Office of Public Art and funded by the Heinz Endowments.

In a statement, Wormsley acknowledged that the original billboard has caused some people “discomfort.” “Let’s begin to work on methods to constructively investigate that discomfort without using power over anyone or anything else,” she said. “An artist who inspires me told me, ‘Your job is to promote thought, not to tell people how to think. To provoke feeling, not to tell people how to feel.’”

To be eligible for the grants, Artwork-in-Residence projects may take any form, from incorporating the text into art classes to projecting it during a music performance and discussing it with the audience, Wormsley says. And anyone can apply for a grant, including students.

“I’m really excited to see what people come up with,” she says.

The application deadline is Feb. 11. Projects must be completed by the end of July.

An information session takes place 5:30 Thursday at the Carnegie Library in East Liberty. All are welcome, whether prospective grant applicant or not.

More information is on the initiative's website.