A Wash, a Rinse and a Lesson in Language at the Laundromat

| August 11, 2011 4:45 PM

There will be more than just detergent and fabric softener being dispensed at the Laundromat this summer.

Multimedia artist Hector Canonge was busy this past week, hard at work on final plans for his newest public art project: a language classroom for local immigrants inside Magic Touch Laundromat on Thayer street in Upper Manhattan.

Hector Canonge is offering English classes to local residents at the Magic Touch Laundromat in Inwood as part of a public art project. Manhattan Times/Petrushka Bazin.

Every day local residents enter the Laundromat to handle the tedious weekly chore and as a regular himself, Canonge noticed that some people have difficulty completely the task.

“There are a lot of newcomers [to the United States] in the area, and I see that they struggle with a lot of the concepts that we take for granted — the wash cycle, the spin cycle,” he explained. ”Sometimes they even have difficulty asking to buy soap or for change because they don’t speak the language.”

Throughout August, Canonge will teach two English classes for members of the community who commit to two one-hour sessions a week. The classes will take place on Tuesdays and Thursdays, the first session is from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., and the second is from 8:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

The Inwood Laundromat Language Institute, the title of Canonge’s project, is part of his artist residency with The Laundromat Project, an organization that supports public art projects in alternative spaces (many of them in Laundromats) for people of color living in low incomes neighborhoods.

Last month, Canonge spearheaded the Active Knowledge Academy at the Bronx River Arts Center. The month-long program brought artists out of their preferred medium to embark on an interactive learning journey with their peers.

Like the Active Knowledge Academy, Canonge said his new project, “was created to explore the connections we can make amongst art, the community and learning.” And really, what better place is there to explore those connections than in Magic Laundromat in Inwood?

Setting up at the folding tables in the center of the Laundromat, Canonge and his pupils will work on vocabulary central to the task at hand, learning words such as “clothes,” “pants,” “soap” and “machines.” Then, using flashcards and a brochure, Canonge will move on to more difficult aspects of the language such as possessives nouns (my sweater, your dress, his shorts) and verbs like the ubiquitously heard “wash” and “wait.”

The students who registered for the program were wary of “textbooks with a thousand verbs to memorize,” according to Canonge. But he is specifically avoiding that technique of teaching and hopes to cultivate a real-world vocabulary for his students.

“The environment itself becomes a tool. That will trigger familiarity for a lot of people and will allow me to construct a system that they can use in their day-to-day lives,” Canonge said.

Mike Mok, owner of the Laundromat and a first-generation immigrant from Korea, said that he has high hopes for the program.

“I think a lot of people have difficulty communicating with each other,” he said. 
”So this is very good for the community.”

The culmination of the project is a graduation ceremony for participants, scheduled to take place on Tuesday Sept. 6. At the ceremony, Canonge plans to unveil the compilation of experiences of his 20 students in the form of a multimedia interactive kiosk installment in the Laundromat, which will outline the process of the project and highlight the students’ individual experiences.

“This is where the project becomes not only a didactic experience but also a piece of oral history, and a real art project,”  said Petrushka Bazin, who works for the Laundromat Project.

And although it is an art project, its aim is also to serve a genuine community need, Canonge’s ultimate goal.

“A lot of people can just go to a public school or a community college and register for an English course,” explains Canonge. “But the people in this community may not have an ID or legal papers. So how do we serve a population that is so in need and so willing to learn?”

Stock up on your quarters; the Laundromat and its lesson plans await.

Read the full post at Manhattan Times.

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