Angbeen Saleem, a graduate of Penn’s Urban Studies Program, has created an installation for the 2021 edition of DesignPhiladelphia.
The long-running ABC TV series Shark Tank inspired Angbeen Saleem's installation at DesignPhiladelphia.
Q&A: Angbeen Saleem
The ever-popular DesignPhiladelphia festival returns this fall with a timely public art installation by artist and writer Angbeen Saleem (C‘12), a graduate of Penn’s Urban Studies program, that will be on view at Cherry Street Pier from October 6-17. Produced through a partnership between Weitzman and Facilities and Real Estate Services at Penn, the work centers on a poem, “Black and Brown People on Shark Tank,” presented in the form of an interactive billboard produced at the Weitzman Fabrication Lab by Katie Maas. This fall, Saleem, who works in communications at the North Star Fund in New York, will also exhibit work at the Arts Gowanus Open Studios in Brooklyn. In an interview, she talks about her inspiration for the poem, the process of re-imagining the poem for public display, and how she hopes people interact with the piece. The conversation has been edited.
What was happening or what you were thinking about when you had the idea for this poem?
Honestly, I was watching a lot of Shark Tank. I was really obsessed with that show. And I just noticed a pattern in that show where brown and Black people are asked to say the most traumatic things about themselves in order to gain money or resources or connections. I also work in philanthropy now and I see similar patterns in philanthropy. So I thought, let me just write from the perspective of somebody who’s on the show and what’s underneath what they’re actually asking.
How did it go from being a poem to being a project with Design Philadelphia? Was it connected to your time at Penn?
Actually yes, it was. I was an urban studies major at Penn. I was required to do an internship as part of my major and I worked at the Fairmount Community Development Corporation with Rebecca Johnson. She’s now the executive director of the Center for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia. We’ve remained in touch through social media. I post about all the things that are going on in my life, whatever design projects I’m working on, whatever poems I’m working on. And she reached out and said, “Hey, do you want to put together a proposal for Design Philadelphia?” Before I talked to her, I thought it was like a poster or something. But then when I actually talked to the team I realized, this could actually be a whole different thing—a different way to experience the poem.
How did your experience in urban studies at Penn inform your work on this project, if at all?
I actually started off my career at Penn as an architecture major and then a visual studies major, so when I came into urban studies, I was already thinking about how physical spaces and objects can shape our experiences. Switching to urban studies taught me about how often marginalized communities don’t get to be a part of that shaping, and the history of that erasure. My major combined with working at the Greenfield Intercultural Center, gave me a birdseye view of, and names for, what I was witnessing and experiencing as a South Asian Muslim, as a first- generation college student from a low-income background, and as a Philadelphian: racism, classism, gentrification, and so much more. Of course, I’m still learning so much every day, but I feel like without that critical lens with which to view the world and question my surroundings, this poem would not exist.
Have you encountered poetry presented in this kind of public-art format before?
There’s definitely poetry in public-art forms. I think about Jenny Holzer: They’re not poem poems, but I do think there’s poetry in her work. There was a soundscape project on the High Line I think and there was poetry there. It’s not new to have poetry in public space. But I don’t think I’ve seen something that’s an interactive poem as public art, which is what this is going to be. And if it does exist I’d be happy for someone to tell me! I’m not trying to say I’m the only one doing this.
What’s the process of fabricating the billboard like?
I’m working with a fabricator in the Fab Lab at Weitzman, Katie Maas, and we’ve been going back and forth on what is actually possible, because when I proposed the idea, I was dreaming big--like, “What can we do?” And now it’s actually going out in the world, thinking about gravity and all of those things—how do we actually make this happen? It’s been a really interesting process working with Katie and trying to figure out how to make it work, what’s going to work visually, how it can be more accessible and exciting.
What were some of the design decisions you had to make about the legibility of the piece? What did you have to talk through in terms of how it was going to be seen?
Originally, the idea was that it would be like one of those children’s puzzles you can hold in your hand, where you move square blocks around and they make a picture, and that people would be able to move them around in different ways. But after meeting with the fabricator it was very clear that on a large scale that’s kind of impossible, because you have gravity working against you, and you need a lot more effort to push things around. So, how do we do this in a different way? What we ended up doing is, they’re still tiles, but instead of being able to move them around, they spin. So, it has a game-show, carnival vibe, which I also think makes a lot of sense, because at the end of the day, Shark Tank is a game show. It’s not that different from The Price Is Right. We can intellectualize it in certain ways and say, well, people are making things or whatever. But it’s still a game show and there is an element of randomness.
How do you expect or hope that people interact with it?
As with the poem, I hope people find it funny but also maybe a little bit heartbreaking. But also just fun. Poetry, for me, is like a playground of language and delight. And to turn this into kind of a playground object, where people can actually touch the words and interact with it, is really exciting.
I think people think of poetry as something other people do, that intellectuals do. That’s how I thought of poetry for a long time. I didn’t really start writing poetry until like seven or eight years ago, because I thought, “People who are way smarter than me do this. It’s not for me.” I hope people find it approachable and maybe find their own way into poetry. And I hope it makes them think.