A Blue and White Explores Prentis Hall
By Joseph Milholland
I am sitting in a room slightly smaller than your average first-year double containing a green screen, a ladder, a 3D printer, a cot, and a kettle. Projected on the screen is a movie about “a new-age activist cult who worship water in a future where it’s been privatized,” according to its creator, Columbia MFA student Jonah King.
King produced his $1,000 budget movie in Prentis Hall, Columbia’s antiquated, decaying building on 125th Street where around half of the MFA arts students practice their crafts. On the inside, Prentis is part-warehouse, part-apartment building—filled with cramped corridors and exposed pipes. Evidence of its art student tenants is everywhere: one studio door had an anarchist “A” scrawled on it, another had a video screen, and a third had a chalkboard listing “Giant Cock?” (circled) as a possible prop.
Prentis’s colorful history isn’t limited to the presence of its artists. The Manhattan Project— before operations were moved to New Mexico–used space in Prentis Hall. But even after atomic testing left the building, there was a minor controversy in the 1980s, when the Spectator reported that radiation still remained.
Nowadays, however, Prentis and its MFAs face a different sort of dilemma: Prentis sits at the edge of the new Manhattanville constructions, where an imposing steel frame demands the attention of everyone around it. And its students have unwittingly become the face of Columbia’s controversial expansion in their placement.
“Imagine in five years, the folks who work here in staff positions will have to move to Queens, and they’ll have to commute into Harlem so they can work. That’s insanity,” says Sondra Perry, an MFA student whose projects often focus on race and politics.
Perry’s identity as a tuition-paying Columbia student frequently comes in conflict with the causes she champions. For example, in November, after discovering that most of the clothes in Columbia’s bookstore were made in Indonesia, Perry bought her own union-made t-shirts, painted “Columbia” on them, and sold the shirts in the neighborhood with mixed results. “You can be part of this really complicated institution that is slowly forcing out Harlemites from their homes, but you can do it guilt-free because your t-shirt that symbolizes the powerful institution you’re a part of was made in a union factory!”
Still, the shortness and rigors of the program limit how the MFA students can impact the university, and Perry believes any discussions MFA students have with each other about Manhattanville could be disregarded as soon as they graduate. “There will be no talk, there will be no conversation at all.”
The physical plant may weather the expansion, but it’s hard to imagine the Prentis community staying the same. The current MFA students are starving-artist activist types, many of whom have anti-establishment views that don’t exactly line up with Columbia’s ideal transplant. King tells me that students have been to the “Black Lives Matter” protests, and that “there’s been a lot of talk about” Manhattanville; quite a contrast to the technical, administrative theme of the planned Manhattanville campus.
In the end, Prentis remains a symbol of a neighborhood in flux. “Change happens,” Perry says. “The city is constantly evolving. I just wish it could do so more responsibly.