Vassar student’s ‘Listening Lab’ featured in the Whitney

On March 17, Naomi Young ’24 invited me to her exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. The “Listening Lab,” a multidisciplinary art project that Young began working on last summer, focuses on amplifying youth voices on the topic of the COVID-19 pandemic. Young was one of eight Listening Lab co-founders who interviewed strangers throughout the five boroughs on their pandemic experiences. As she described it, “We set up a table and two chairs in different parts of the city, and we just had people come up and talk to us. And it revolved around like, ‘How has your life changed since March 2020?’” The exhibition at the Whitney aimed to showcase the Listening Lab in an engaging and interactive way. 

Young came to the project through her youth counsel employment at the nonprofit organization, The Door, which helps young people in New York City by providing legal and immigration services as well as a health clinic with free STI testing, free glasses prescriptions and regular checkups. “I was a part of it because they helped me get my first job,” Young shared. “The way I see it, The Door was like an incubation space for the Listening Lab.” As The Door is well-established in New York, Listening Lab had access to many resources that kickstarted the project. 

The exhibition was simple and elegant, set up in an open room with floor-to-ceiling windows. The walls were paneled with Listening Lab quotations in white text. Headphones connected to iPads lined the perimeter, playing audio clips from the interviews Young and the other Listeners facilitated. “We missed the human element. I don’t have friends. All my classmates, none of them are my friends,” one interviewee from Queens said. Another interview from Brooklyn commented, “Sometimes we question ourselves. Like, why this, this is happening to me, you know? Life can be hard sometimes, you know?” 

In the center of the room, chairs were set up in rows, facing a table with two microphones. Every hour, for half an hour each, a Listener sat down at one chair and invited anyone from the room to speak into the opposing microphone, replicating the conversations they held in spaces across the city. “I think that was the most interesting part,” Young said. “We had had a previous exhibition, and it was much smaller. And it was good, but someone can go through that in five minutes. But seeing a live conversation…that added a really interactive element of the exhibit and made it a very memorable experience.” 

Hesitant at first, I found the courage to approach the table. Anonymously, in front of a collection of strangers, I spoke about my experiences since the beginning of the pandemic: my parents’ divorce, graduating high school and moving away from home. Talking out loud in this manner was much easier than I anticipated, and, in many ways, freeing. Slowly, others started to walk up to the table as well, sharing their stories into the microphone. 

On the topic of interviewing strangers, Young said, “I’m just naturally a conversationalist, so it wasn’t too hard for me to get into it. It was more so just like, being fine with waiting. Because we could set up a table and wait for thirty minutes, and no one [would] sit down.” Once she got someone to join and talk, however, Young was completely in her element. “Honestly, sometimes [the rest of the group] would get mad at me because I would go on for too long,” Young laughed. She mentioned that she enjoyed the conversations she had with strangers and was very comfortable continuing the discussion. She especially appreciated it when people really opened up. “There were a bunch of times where I would be talking to someone, and they’d start crying.”

Young mentioned that such emotional experiences were just as important to her as they were to the interviewees. “It was helpful to them, and I’m glad that I could help them, but it’s also helpful to me, that I could find empathy within myself and find the ability to give people space,” she said. “The project has helped me become a better listener.” 

Overall, Young’s experiences with the Listening Lab were overwhelmingly positive. “I started for the money, and then I stayed for the experience,” she explained. She’s incredibly proud that the project made it to the Whitney. “From the beginning, that was our biggest goal. We were like, we can’t even reach this goal, that’s how big it is—we’re going to try our best, but it [was] just something to motivate us,” she explained. 

The collection of Listening Lab conversations can be accessed on their official website

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