Chelsea Hernandez Stages a Project on Student Loan Debt, in the Unlikeliest of Places

On her first artist residency, Hernandez explores the student debt crisis — and builds a culture of communication about it


Student debt figures scribbled on neon sticky notes are posted on the wall of Chelsea Hernandez’s residency suite at The LINE Hotel in downtown Austin: $140,000, $85,000, $43,600.

Hernandez, a documentary filmmaker, is Big Medium’s current artist-in-residence at The LINE, a boutique hotel. For her “Untitled Student Loan Debt Project,” Hernandez stages weekly musical jam sessions and records live podcasts. She’s also created an ongoing, interactive installation, part of which part involves the sticky notes.

“Untitled Student Loan Debt Project” considers the financial and emotional impacts surrounding the student debt crisis in America, which now stands at $1.5 trillion of outstanding college loans.

Hernandez is the third Austin artist to participate in the inaugural LINE residency, which provides six weeks of studio space in the boutique hotel. (Steef Crombach and Adrian Armstrong also had residencies.)

Applying for the LINE residency seemed like a stretch at first for Hernandez, who had never created any art objects. An Emmy-winning director, Hernandez’s career began when she was nine when she hosted an educational television program that was produced by her mother. For three years, Hernandez was the primary editor and co-producer of “Arts In Context,” a documentary series produced by Austin PBS affiliate KLRU-TV.

Her first feature documentary, “Building the American Dream,” which uncovers the harsh working conditions of immigrants employed on construction projects, premiered at SXSW 2019.

But just as the residency opportunity came up, Hernandez found herself being sued by a private loan trust over her own student debt. The loan trust company is itself in trouble and has been fined by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for its to unlawful collection tactics.

Hernandez has discovered that establishing her hotel studio as nexus for conversation has allowed people to open up about their student loans and how debt has affected their life. Photo by Mary K. Cantrell.

“It has been really helpful to be able to process my own emotions while going through this, because I had gotten served the lawsuit when I was finishing my feature documentary. So I haven’t really dealt with it until now,” Hernandez says.

The debt wall of sticky notes is Hernandez’s way of materializing the stigmatization of student debt. It is also a brainstorming exercise for her next documentary which will be about the student debt crisis. Hernandez has been gathering footage of herself talking about her own struggle with student loans and chronicling the happenings at her residency space.

“I realized when I talked to people they felt better speaking about it, and even just saying the amount of debt that they were in, they felt a little relief,” Hernandez continues. “It’s something I feel like people are really embarrassed about and don’t talk about. I thought if we could have some sort of installation that was a little interactive, it may be therapeutic for people.”

The sticky notes connect to job titles via black yarn, all materials carefully considered by Hernandez. The everyday desk supplies are a nod to the dull office jobs people get to pay off student loans instead of seeking careers in the creative yet lower paying fields they may have studied in college. Other job titles tacked up include family minister, math teacher and railroad clerk.

The debt wall of sticky notes is Hernandez’s way of materializing the stigmatization of student debt. Photo by Mary K. Cantrell

“I also love the screenwriter, who’s also a bartender and the $104,000 that they’re in debt,” says Hernandez. “You’re seeing that juxtaposition of occupations.”

Strings of paper clips hang from the ceiling of the hotel studio, too. Visitors are encouraged to walk through the metal curtains, and feel their weight, a symbol the $1.5 trillion student borrowers owe in America.

Hernandez has discovered that establishing her hotel studio as nexus for conversation has allowed people to open up about their student loans and how debt has affected their life.

“It was just really cool for everyone to be like, ‘Hey, we can be in control of our destiny, but we have to talk about it because it is so isolating’,” says Hernandez. “But hopefully, an exhibit like this, or having a podcast and producing a documentary, can get people to just start having conversations (about student debt), whether it be in big rooms or people’s living rooms.”

The yet-to-be-named podcast — sticky notes with suggestions “fuck it,” “indebted” and “scar” occupy part of the studio wall space — feature Hernandez and a changing roster of guests. Hernandez plans to keep recording episodes and make them available on her website in 2020.

After interviewing primarily millennial-age guests, Hernandez says she’s learned just how many factors can contribute to an individual’s debt and how important it is to educate young people about student loan best practices.

“There’s just so many layers, like how someone grew up. It makes a difference in how they handle their debt, or the financial resources their parents had or didn’t have, or even just High School counselors being available to talk about how you’re going to pay for school,” says Hernandez. “We realized in the last podcast just how deep debt issues are.”

With the upcoming 2020 election looming and candidates campaigning on platforms that promote free college and loan forgiveness, Hernandez says it’s been timely to get people’s thoughts on whether they think forgiveness is obtainable and realistic.

“That was why I put ‘fuck it’ up there too, because we said that during the podcast once, ‘you know what, we’re not going to pay our loans because we would rather be happy, you know, making our art and not having a nine-to-five job or whatever and being creative’,” Hernandez says. “But there’s definitely consequences with that.”

Being an artist-in-residence at a chic hotel also gives Hernandez access to a community of service workers that have engaged with her project. She describes friendships formed with the bellhop, a housekeeper and AV workers, who have all popped into her studio to discuss debt and see what she’s working on.

“Yeah, I’m being sued, I’m in a lot of debt, but then I’m at this fancy hotel where every day I park here, it gets valeted,” Hernandez laughs. “I guess I discovered another community that maybe I cross paths with before, but because we’re all connected to the hotel we can meet here.”

Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell
Mary K. Cantrell is an Austin-based freelance writer and journalist. She has journalism and women’s and gender studies degrees from the University of Texas and a fondness for covering local arts stories.

Related articles