The neighborhood surrounding the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) buzzed last Tuesday as moderate-sized crowds mingled on Fulton Street in front of three newly unveiled public art installations. It was precisely the intended effect of BAMart:Public, an initiative to enliven underutilized public spaces with visual art (a fourth project is on view inside BAM’s Peter J. Sharp building). David Harper, the program’s curator, walked me through the installations and explained the project’s genesis along the way.
Forging “The BAM Cultural District”
The project’s impetus stems from the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership’s broader ongoing initiative to develop the Fort Greene neighborhood as a cultural hub (check out the map here). Progress towards implementing a master plan to create affordable performance and rehearsal space, mixed-income housing, and new public open spaces slowed during the recession. However, other components of the project are moving forward: new institutions such as the Theater for A New Audience are opening, BAM recently erected a new building, and there are plans to spruce up the sidewalks, plant trees, and improve the lighting, all of which will help. “We want people to know immediately upon exiting the subway that they are in a place where art happens,” Harper explains. Meanwhile, BAM, which stands to benefit from marketing the area as a cultural destination, decided to draw attention to all the cultural venues by placing art in unexpected places.
A call for proposals to activate dead public spaces spawned 120 submissions submitted from around the world, although the overwhelming majority came from Brooklyn. Four artworks were chosen by 12 jurors representing the local arts community, members of BAM’s board, local government offices, and arts professionals from New York City institutions.
Crossing Lafayette Avenue on a dismally gray day, a peculiarly blue patch of sky caught my eye. I had fallen for Ed Purver’s trompe-l’oeil The Always Season, a print adorning the otherwise dull, concrete, windowless sidewall of a building on Ashland Place. The artist took pains to match the patterns and texture of the concrete on his sand-textured, aluminum-backed vinyl. As a result, the background of the 25′ x 25′ print blends in almost seamlessly with its backdrop, making the image pop out, even from a great distance.
Less than a block away, Timothy Hull collaborated with Future Expansion Architects (Deirdre and Nicholas McDermott) to fill a nondescript space between two buildings with a structure vaguely reminiscent of culturally indistinct ancient architecture. In line with the rest of his work, Tim knew he wanted to make something that referenced antiquity. “It has something from the ziggurats of Babylon, it has something of the pyramids, the color of the material looks like a wall from Jerusalem or Byzantium,” he says, by way of explaining his inspirations. But unlike those formidable structures that have withstood the test of time, this artwork will disintegrate, collapsing into itself within a year. Belying its sturdy appearance, the “stone” is made from a mycelium mushroom and hemp fiber, a natural styrofoam substitute made by Ecovative Design in upstate New York for use as eco-friendly packaging. As Harper explains, “Underneath is an entire structure of aluminum rods that will be revealed as the material biodegrades, so we will witness an amazing transformation over the course of the year.”
Next door, a glorious orange sunset shines through all three stories of windows from within the BAM Harvey building. Sunset by Glen Baldridge consists of a continuous image, sourced by the artist, which measures 48 by 25 feet and has the effect of transporting viewers to far off dream-lands. Harper likes to point out that the building once housed the Majestic Theater, and fittingly the world “majestic” runs conspicuously across the building, as if describing the scene. Printed on perforated vinyl, the work appears opaque from outside, but is transparent from within, allowing natural light to penetrate.
For Harper, the thread connecting these pieces is that “they are all natural, organic things.” Indeed the patch of blue sky naturally compliments the sunset, which, placed next to the ruins, reinforces the popular mind’s eye image of a hot desert sun creating setting spectacularly over the pyramids.
The final installation, on view in the lobby of the Peter J. Sharp building, brings together ten street art-affiliated artists to redesign traditional newspaper distribution boxes.
Showpaper, a free print publication listing off-the-beaten-path cultural events around New York, commissioned (with funding from BAMart: Public) Adam Void & Gaia, Cassius Fouler & Faust, Leon Reid IV & Noah Sparks, and Ryan C. Doyle & Swoon to work in pairs on the newspaper boxes, which will eventually serve as distribution points for 60 local, national, and international publications on the streets. According to Harper, it serves a really important function by disseminating “more media, more culture, more idea, more artists, more writing, more, more, more.”
ACE: How is the public reacting?
DH: Everyone has an opinion and everyone becomes an art critic when you put art in the street. During installations people came up to us all the time to ask what we were doing. For the most part, reactions have been extremely positive. It makes people smile when they turn a familiar corner and see something unexpected. It makes you think about who put it there and why. The art is there to spur conversation, to pose questions, to challenge how we think about the best use of urban public spaces and to push the boundaries of what a cultural district should be. Any conversation that stems from this project is welcome. And when you see someone eating their lunch in the park on a gray day and they look up at Ed’s patch of blue sky and enjoy it, that’s enough. You don’t have to engage in critical discourse about everything.
ACE: Since when is the Brooklyn Academy of Music so involved in visual arts?
DH: As BAM has grown, it has taken an interest in the surrounding artistic community as a whole. There are so many artists of all kinds – visual, film, performance – living and working in Brooklyn that we feel almost an obligation to service them since they are our audience, they are friends of our performers, they design our sets, and they generally hang out here and BAM wants to ensure that all artists have a voice within the institution. Besides, visual arts are hardly new to BAM. Andy Warhol designed sets for Merce Cunningham’s performances in the 1960s while Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg were always hanging around here as the institution was being reborn under Harvey Liechtenstein. So really, BAMart, which encompasses rotating exhibitions in addition to the public art initiative, is simply a measure of incorporating the visual arts more formally into the programming.
ACE: Any parting thoughts?
DH: In ten years from now we probably won’t recognize the neighborhood, as new cultural spaces, condominiums, and other buildings go up. These obscure spaces won’t exist forever so we should make something of them while we can. If anything, it will remind people that this is the heart of Brooklyn culture. The brain might be in Williamsburg or Bushwick, the arms might be out in wherever, the legs down in Coney Island, but the heart is right here in the cultural district… This is the place where you can make things happen, whether you are a dancer, a filmmaker, a visual artist, or whatever. No matter what you do, this is the Brooklyn neighborhood where it all comes together.