ByProduct: The Laundromat

This is an additional interview that was not featured on the final video compilation.

 Sean Starowitz, artist & baker (currently Assistant Director for the Arts in Bloomington, IN) on his 2012 project Byproduct: The Laundromat: Partnering with a unique kind of public space & business to build cultural community

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The space

sean-videoSean: ByProduct: The Laundromat was a temporary cultural center over the course of one year that existed at the Walnut Place Laundromat in mid-town Kansas City. The project explored a variety of different public programs that could be done over the course of doing one’s laundry.

Community is one of those tricky words to define, especially in the art world. I mean, you could define community by how many people attended – the fact that we had 1300 people show up over the course of a year – or you could really define community by the relationship that Wale, the Laundromat owner, and myself have now. We’ve become very, very dear friends. We invite each other over for dinner all the time, we’ve been to each other’s birthdays, and I’ve been to his daughter’s graduation party. It’s… created a new sense of family for me in Kansas City, and a new community for me that I never knew existed.

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The relationships

I think for ByProduct: The Laundromat, one of the most interesting ways that partnerships were forged was asking people what they wanted to always do – but couldn’t do – and then do that in a laundromat. I think that was really exciting for a lot of the chefs that we got to work with, or the musicians, because Wale really allowed them to use the full scale of the Laundromat, and that’s something that’s really, really exciting…

I believe artists add a variety and contribute to communities in a lot of different ways – they can be active listeners, they can be incredible critics, and also think outside of the box, but I think that most importantly they create thoughtful communities.

Community Partner Wale Badejo, owner of the Walnut Place Laundromat

 sean-and-waleIt’s a two-way street

Wale: I am from Nigeria, and I came to Kansas City to study clinical science.

Well, this laundromat is actually my family laundromat, so I work here too.

You know how I met Sean, he used to be my customer. And one day he just came to me and he said ‘Well. I have a project. How can you help me?’ And I say, well just tell me what you wanted to do. And he told me that he wanted to set up community activities within this laundry, and I said that’s OK.

I was brought up in a way to think in a two-way street. Because we believe that if I help you, you will end up helping me in the long run. So it’s not a me-me situation. And that’s one of the reasons why I immediately said OK.

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Bringing people together

Well, the very first thing that happened I believe was… where Sean brought in some activities like you know cooking in the laundry, making soap in the laundry… and brought a lot of people, especially we get a lot of the students of the Art Institute here. And then we had a live band, a variety of live bands came into this place and have no cost to them.

Photo John Blumb
Photo John Blumb

In a community where you have different people with different ideas it’s a good idea to bring them together, so they will be able to learn, you know, what each and every facet of the community have to enjoy so to speak. And then that actually was this place here because we saw people with different walks of life…

Artists actually bring people together rather than divide the community, you know, because from all the projects that I’ve seen or that I’ve attended, it seems to me that is more or less of a social gathering, which this community actually needed too. Because a lot of people now they like to take care of themselves because of the Facebook or whatever. But the artists actually bring them out of their own cocoon, and then, you know, bring them together.

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Eventually that was our gain

I was exposed to a whole lot of people. Even to the point that If I had to charge him, I would have to think that, you know, I’m doing him an injustice – because of what we has done for me, you know, by exposing me to the community, was very highly tremendous and unquantifiable so to speak. So I really benefited very… honestly with it, and I would like to have more of that because of the exposure.

After the program, a lot of people were coming here because this was sort of what is called a library, to where people sit down and read and started discussing whatever they read in the book, you know, which was very intriguing too.

In the long run it ended up benefiting us because we have more customers than what we used to because they all came in to say I didn’t know there is a laundromat here… So eventually that was our gain.