…Or does it explode?

What happens to a dream deferred?

artist Dread Scott

Or Does it Explode by Dread Scott. Photo by Steve Weinik.

  • location 18th and Vine
  • Neighborhood

    Center City

  • completion date

    June 01, 2009

About the Project 

A wry smiling teen-age boy on a vibrant yellow background grabs your attention. Next to him is a portrait of a strong young woman, full of potential. Their voices speak to you. Their placement is tragically wrong—unexpected. They are horizontal to the ground, coffin like. There is an uneasy tension between the illuminated life-sized photographs of 12 Philadelphia youth and their presentation. The soundscape heightens this friction: the collection of voices articulate their dreams and reveal obstacles and challenges to those aspirations. “My dream is to be a social worker. That’s my dream… I’m not going to go to college because it would be too hard for me.” It mirrors the lives of so many youth whose promise is squandered and often suppressed. …Or Does it Explode? is part lament, part indictment of a society that hasn’t done better for our youth, part hope embodied in the faces and aspirations of the adolescents. The work reveals a potentially explosive contradiction. Viewers confront the faces, full of life and beauty as well as their insight and hopes and must position themselves in relation to the future that is being buried.


Dread Scott makes a portrait of an a Mural Arts student.

The title for the installation is drawn from the last line of Langston Hughes’ classic poem Harlem (which begins, “What happens to a dream deferred?”).

During an intensive 8-week residency with 14 Philadelphia-area youth, students discussed topical issues around realizing dreams and societal impediments to achievement. Students use these conversations as a basis for how they wanted to be photographed as well as developed interview questions that became the basis for the audio portion of the artwork.

Or Does It Explode, night view of installation. Photo by Dread Scott.


City of Philadelphia Department of Human Services
Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation
Carr & Duff
IBEW Local 98
Duggal Visual Solutions
Calumet Philadelphia