The story of gentrification is both too complicated and too simple to be told well. There’s no proper shape for it, nothing to support its weight, and no good ending. For though the details call urgently to be remembered – what’s changed, what’s lost – the pages they’re written on are crumpled by futility. What is there to do, really? (And anyway, the new café down the street serves excellent coffee.) Even so, the burden of responding somehow to gentrification and its weary tide of mild charm and moderate delight often falls to artists, who are most likely to usher it in, and then suffer its arrival.
Brooklyn has gentrified, and along with the taller buildings, steeper rents, and trendier restaurants, the process has brought a new wave of artists to the borough. Over the last decade or so, the many artists who once chose Brooklyn as an affordable and livelier alternative to Manhattan have been joined by an even greater number of artists who’ve moved there for its endemic artworld and reputation. It has become what the curators of Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond (on view at the Brooklyn Museum until Jan. 4, 2015) term “an aspirational destination.”
Crossing Brooklyn fulfills the museum’s mandate to highlight Brooklyn-based artists and engage its surrounding communities (as in so much art writing, the recurring use of the term “engage” in the texts supporting this exhibition carries a big responsibility – it must convey the spiritual impetus, the aesthetic praxis, and the civic optimism of the show as a whole, along with many of its individual works.) Thus, the show aims to make an expansive gesture at the multitude of artists currently living and working in the borough, and to reflect the local art scene at the peak of its international stature. Curators Eugenie Tsai and Rujeko Hockley visited a hundred studios this past summer, from which they organized a wandering procession of 35 artists and collectives.
As a cross-section of Brooklyn’s art scenes, the show gives a strangely benign impression. “What’s striking about the works selected is how mild they are,” wrote Ken Johnson in the New York Times. Paul Ramirez Jonas’s The Commons (2011), a cork sculpture of a horse in the style of Greek statuary, is a good example of the general benevolence. The horse wades through a swamp of paper notes pinned to its legs and pedestal by members of the public – feel your democratic spirit sag as you inspect the comments – with tragic solemnity. It’s possible to read this tendency toward geniality as a symptom of gentrification’s sweet and reassuring ethos, though more likely it resolves a tension faced by the curators in telling gentrification’s troubled story, while at the same time celebrating its outcomes. In presenting a survey of its namesake, the Brooklyn Museum can’t help but cheer the borough’s elevated status as an art epicenter (and not merely a satellite), even as its artists grapple with the social implications of so much hype and steep rent.
Evidently the mood in Brooklyn’s artworld is somewhat fractured – as is demonstrated in the exhibition catalogue, in which six longtime Brooklyn-based artists describe the changes over the last decade with some bewilderment and misgiving – but the curators have created a solution by focusing on a particular sensibility, one that attempts to dismantle the usual social stratifications and bring people together. Rather than doing a “best of” or a “who’s who,” the show emphasizes artists whose work takes them outside the studio and into contact with other people. According to this exhibition, art’s moral apex and avant-garde have coincided in socially-engaged practices. Audiences are meant to transcend mere looking, to become truly involved. Simply finding the best art in Brooklyn would have made for a much more exciting show, or at least a more consistent one (the Village Voice called Crossing Brooklyn “by turns inspiring and cringe-worthy”), but it also would have been less ambitious. Here, at least, something big is hazarded: a better world.
To attempt this feat, or at least to make art that matters to more people, the artists must set loose from their studios and embark on some adventure of human contact. Miguel Luciano takes to the streets serving a Puerto Rican sweet (shaved ice and flavoured syrup) from a flashy orange cart tricked-out with video monitors and a sound system. The rig is displayed in the museum with the title Pimp My Piragua (2008-2010), under a sunny atrium strung with kites that profile the faces of children he collaborated with in Kenya. Other interactive works include an in-gallery trading post (Heather Hart), street portraits on smiley faces (Nobutaka Aozaki), a community garden (Linda Goode Bryant), artist-led walks (Elastic City), a shared backyard den (Mckendree Key), and existential questionnaires (Tatlo).
The word “expansive” is continually used by the curators to describe these practices. They suggest a liberating narrative, wherein the selected artists have overcome the confines of the studio and the gallery, breaking free of art’s enclosures. In a place where every other process seems to be elevating – buildings go up, prices go up, stature goes up – these artists escape that destabilizing trend by grabbing hold of the ground: joining the crowd, keeping it real. By rooting down in collective experience, they accomplish the tricky feat this show wants and needs to achieve, to be triumphant and self-conscious at the same time.
While it’s easy to see how making art in and with the public could feel like spreading out and opening up, often it seems more confining than freeing. The artist in the street submits to rules and expectations that don’t exist in the studio, for the passing crowd offers its engagement only conditionally: the art can’t feel too bad or take too long, it should communicate clearly, make sense, and not appear aimless. Inclusion easily translates to condescension – has the public been chosen last for the art team? – or exploitation, so the work must be very reassuring in order to succeed at inviting. Given such strictures, it’s no wonder that so much of the socially-engaged art in this show makes such a soft impression.
Crossing Brooklyn does offer a better opportunity, however, to see work by another set of artists who go out to meet the world with fewer expectations, and yet greater ambition. Among those who venture from their studios, the exhibition also includes a group of artists who collaborate more with the elements than any wary public. Ironically or not, by following their private instincts and leanings, the work they create is more broadly relatable than any structured poignancy of participatory art.
Marie Lorenz explores New York’s waterways in boats that she designs and builds. In her video installation Archipelago (2012), we experience her solitary peregrinations from the perspective of cameras mounted on her head, on a long pole extending from her back, and at the top of a tall mast attached to a rowboat. She moves like the water does, with drifting decisiveness, and without anyone’s assent or congratulation. With the camera set at an odd remove, we witness her intimacy with herself, but we don’t participate in it. We’re more like the wide, dirty city ringing the horizon: there but not there. We share her solitude by awakening to our distance from it.
William Lamson also finds traction on the water with Action for the Delaware (2011), for which he constructed a flotation device that allows him to stand with the soles of his boots just touching the surface. When he’s finally able to get himself upright – the video includes his struggle to climb on and stay put – the effect is as striking as you could hope, though not as serene as you might expect. The wide river flows quietly and the placid surface reflects a darkening and steely sky, but Lamson’s struggle never ceases. Even when balanced perfectly, his body remains taut, and his exquisite stillness betrays an exertion so tense it practically glows. The cinematic vision becomes secondary, and all that matters is the center he finds in all that straining.
Nina Katchadourian and Duke Riley each get their grounding outside the studio and away from the earth, not on the water but up in the air. A few selections from Katchadourian’s seat assignment series (2010-ongoing), created while traveling by plane, basically steals the show; warm, funny, and brilliantly contained, these photo and video works gather many qualities valued by publicly-inclusive art – resourcefulness, relatability, adventurousness – and unite them in the artist’s own spacious presence. Riley’s Trading with the Enemy (2013) also creates a kind of home out of displacement. He trained fifty homing pigeons to fly cigars from Cuba to a roost in Key West, Florida (of which eleven made it). Some were outfitted with cameras, and the footage is breathlessly disorienting and wonderful. The exhibition hosts the actual pigeons in Riley’s colorful Pigeon Loft (2013), and it’s good to find them resting in such a charming structure after flinging themselves so furiously across the Straits of Florida.
Crossing Brooklyn takes its name from Walt Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” one of the poems in Leaves of Grass. In it, Whitman (a very inclusive Brooklynite) crosses the East River in the morning and contemplates the masses of humanity that will sweep back and forth from Manhattan for decades and centuries to come. “I am with you, and know how it is,” he writes. But then he wonders, What comes between us? What is it that separates people? “Whatever it is, it avails not,” he concludes. “– distance avails not, and place avails not.” Well, maybe. The details might not help us, but time and space aren’t so easily swept away. For the artists in Crossing Brooklyn, place is everything.