Chelsea Hernandez sets up student debt project, in most unlikely places – Sightlines

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Student debt numbers scribbled on neon sticky notes are displayed on the wall of Chelsea Hernandez’s residence at the LINE Hotel in downtown Austin: $ 140,000, $ 85,000, $ 43,600.

Hernandez, a documentary maker, is Big Medium’s current artist in residence at The LINE, a boutique hotel. For his “Untitled Student Loan Debt Project”, Hernandez organizes weekly music jam sessions and records live podcasts. She also created a continuous interactive installation, part of which involves sticky notes.

“Untitled Student Loan Debt Project” examines the financial and emotional impacts surrounding America’s student debt crisis, which now stands at $ 1.5 trillion in outstanding college loans.

Hernandez is the third artist from Austin to participate in the inaugural LINE residency, which offers six weeks of studio space in the boutique hotel. (Steef Crombach and Adrian Armstrong also had residences.)

Applying for the LINE residency at first seemed like an exercise for Hernandez, who had never created works of art. An Emmy-winning director, Hernandez’s career started at the age of nine when she hosted an educational television show produced by her mother. For three years, Hernandez was the principal editor and co-producer of “Arts In Context,” a documentary series produced by Austin PBS subsidiary KLRU-TV.

His first feature-length documentary, “Building the American Dream,” which reveals the difficult working conditions of immigrants employed on construction projects, premiered at SXSW 2019.

But just as the residency opportunity presented itself, Hernandez found herself sued by a private loan trust for her own student debt. The loan trust company itself is in trouble and has been fined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for its illegal collection tactics.

Hernandez found that establishing his hotel studio as a conversation link allowed people to talk about their student loans and how debt has affected their lives. Photo by Mary K. Cantrell.

“It was really helpful to be able to deal with my own emotions while going through this, as I had been sued when I was finishing my feature documentary. So I haven’t really treated it so far, ”says Hernandez.

The sticky note debt wall is how Hernandez materializes the stigma of student debt. It is also a brainstorming exercise for his next documentary which will focus on the student debt crisis. Hernandez has collected footage of herself speaking about her own struggle with student loans and recounting the events in her residence space.

“I realized that when I talked to people, they felt better to talk about it, and even just saying the amount of their debts, they felt a bit relieved,” Hernandez continues. “It’s something that I feel people are really embarrassed about and not talking about. I thought if we could have some kind of a little interactive facility that could be therapeutic for people.

Sticky Notes connect to job titles via black wire, all materials carefully considered by Hernandez. Everyday office supplies are a nod to the boring office jobs people get to pay off their student loans instead of looking for careers in the creative but lower paying fields they may have studied at. university. Other job titles selected include Minister of Families, Mathematics Teacher and Railroad Clerk.

The sticky note debt wall is how Hernandez materializes the stigma of student debt. Photo by Mary K. Cantrell

“I also love the screenwriter, who’s also a bartender and the $ 104,000 they owe,” Hernandez says. “You see this juxtaposition of occupations.”

Strings of paperclips also hang from the ceiling of the hotel’s studio. Visitors are encouraged to step through the metal curtains and feel their weight, a symbol that student borrowers of $ 1.5 trillion owe the United States.

Hernandez found that establishing his hotel studio as a conversation point allowed people to talk about their student loans and how debt has affected their lives.

“It was really cool for everyone to be like, ‘Hey, we can control our destiny, but we have to talk about this because it’s so isolating,'” Hernandez said. “But I hope that an exhibition like this, or having a podcast and producing a documentary, can get people to start having conversations (about student debt), whether it’s in big rooms or in people’s lounges. “

Chelsea Hernandez, right, interviews those facing student debt for a podcast in conjunction with her residence at the LINE hotel.  Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hernandez.
Chelsea Hernandez, right, interviews those facing student debt for a podcast in conjunction with her residence at the LINE hotel. Photo courtesy of Chelsea Hernandez.

The unnamed podcast – sticky notes with suggestions “fuck it,” “in debt,” and “scar” take up part of the studio’s wall space – features Hernandez and a changing guest list. Hernandez plans to continue recording episodes and make them available on his website in 2020.

After interviewing mostly millennial guests, Hernandez says she learned how many factors can contribute to an individual’s debt load and how important it is to educate young people on best student loan practices. .

“There are so many layers, like how someone grew up. It makes a difference in the way they deal with their debt, or the financial resources their parents had or didn’t have, or even just the high school counselors being available to talk about how you’re going to pay for school ” , explains Hernandez. “We realized in the last podcast how deep the debt problems are.”

With the next 2020 election looming and candidates campaigning on platforms that promote free colleges and forgiveness of loans, Hernandez says it’s time to ask people if they think the discount is achievable and realistic.

“That’s why I put ‘damn’ there too, because we said once during the podcast, ‘you know what, we’re not going to pay off our loans because we’d rather be happy, you know , do our art and not have a nine-to-five job or whatever and be creative, ”Hernandez says. “But there are certainly consequences with this.”

Big Medium’s LINE residency program offers six weeks of studio space in the downtown Austin boutique hotel. Photo by Mary K. Cantrell.

Being an artist in residence at a posh hotel also gives Hernandez access to a community of service workers who are committed to his project. She describes the friendships made with the bell boy, a housekeeper, and audiovisual workers, who have all come to her studio to discuss the debt and see what she’s working on.

“Yes, I am being sued, I am very in debt, but I am in this chic hotel where I park here every day, he is a valet”, laughs Hernandez. “I guess I discovered another community that I may have met before, but because we are all connected to the hotel, we can meet here.”

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