Marisa Jahn: Art in Unexpected Places

In the late night “telephone talk show,” Claro Que Si, (Convo with Clara) the pop back-up dancers Las Burbujitos (“The Bubblies”) sing songs about the wonders of eco-friendly cleaning products. Los Pulmones (“The Lungs”) make an appearance to impart a message about workplace safety. An evil virus talks about health. Designed to broadcast important information for domestic workers, the show is the latest public art piece — at the intersection of the fantastic and the public safety announcement — by MIT alumna Marisa Jahn, a current fellow at MIT Open Doc Labs.

The media project is set up like a late night talk show, although each episode is accessed by dialing in on an ordinary phone. “I’m turning the phone into a broadcast device, since most domestic workers face challenges accessing the internet, don’t have smart phones, have a low print literacy level, and need discreet ways to receive information like this,” says Jahn.

The series is being developed in a class taught by Jahn, which brings together tech-savvy MIT students with Northeastern law students. The class is sponsored by the NuLawLab, an innovation laboratory at the Northeastern University School of Law, whose aim is to “apply design thinking to the field of law,” says the NuLawLab’s Executive Director Dan Jackson. Community partners include Boston’s Brazilian Immigrant Center and the MA Coalition for Domestic Workers. For Jahn, this project is “art with teeth,” a form of creative production that, when coupled with legal expertise, also doubles as a form of advocacy and community organizing.

The television show builds upon Jahn’s ongoing piece, “Project NannyVan.” The bright orange NannyVan is, according to Jahn’s website, “a roving public art project accelerating the movement for domestic workers’ rights,” which provides mobile workshops and informational literature for children and their parents and caregivers. Part of Project NannyVan is the interactive know-your-rights hotline “New Day New Standard,” hosted by real New York nanny Christine Lewis, where anyone can call in to hear about New York State’s 2010 Domestic Workers Bill of Rights — in a humorous and engaging way. “It’s like NPR’s ‘Car Talk’ but for nannies,” Jahn says.

Jahn is interested in artistic interventions in non-art contexts, which is the subject of her book Byproduct. Her art is a form of serious play that demonstrates the value of injecting creative thinking into the the bloodstream of workaday culture. She introduces a trickster-like humor into public spaces and discourses, and yet it is a humor edged with political potency. With her often zany characters and alter-egos — such as the masked story-eating avenger Bibliobandido (“story thief”) who helped heightened literacy rates in a rural Honduran village — she presents disruptions into established narratives; when one voice is not enough, she invents new personas to speak through. This use of fiction allows her to say many things at once, in many voices, as she navigates between academic, artistic, legal, and vernacular languages and forms of knowledge to create real change in the world.

The project comes at a critical moment. On November 12, Massachusetts domestic workers testified before the State House to introduce the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights to the state legislature, following on the heels of New York and California. “Right now is a really exciting and empowering moment politically for domestic workers,” says Jahn, “Massachusetts domestic workers are on the move and galvanized.”


Posted on November 22, 2013 by Anya Ventura