Greenpoint's Next Façadeby Kyle Leighton
“Why can’t we just say ‘life is weird’? What mechanism in our brain has given us the idea that routine is what we should do?” asks Amanda Browder, who doesn’t stop at just posing the question.
She has been creating an installation that will be 37 feet high, pieced together in 20-inch sections, aligned in a steeple-like chevron pattern. The design imitates a pile of harshly sloped roofs, stacked on top of each other from the top of the building to the bottom. It will have the colorful fabric of Brooklyn—cloth from churches, artists, neighborhood businesses and even wedding attire. Volunteers will create the piece: friends of the artist, public art advocates, the occasional citizen with a free weekend afternoon. While the timing is not set, it will be displayed for about a week, wrapped around a Greenpoint apartment building at Eagle Street and Manhattan Avenue in late May or early June. It will be called Future Phenomenon, and it is her most ambitious project yet.
In many ways the former instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago is just being herself. Back in her hometown of Missoula, Montana, she constructed a giant pencil beside a highway and sat at the base of the sculpture, drawing a spiral on a large canvas (with a pencil, of course) for a full eight hours. As an undergraduate at Beloit College, she tricked the school and community into believing that a famous artist from New York, David Coulentianos, would be visiting the campus. She unveiled a fake show of his work, wrote an article about him for the local paper (still available on their website, despite its falsity), and gave a talk about him—only to reveal in the end that Mr. Coulentianos didn’t actually exist. Browder has also collaborated with fellow public artist Stuart Keeler on Happy Beautiful Face, a performance piece where they put white covers over their bodies, dipped their faces in honey and glitter, and painted rainbows for three hours straight. She later said her intent was to reference former President Bush’s tendency to make things seem so normal that they became scary: “10 million smiley faces are not going to make me feel better. In fact, I’m going to be terrified.”
It is precisely this facade that interests Browder—she argues that our modern world keeps its oddities from view, constructing a normalcy by hiding the natural weirdness—and her plan is to make the odd a regular experience in people’s lives, whether they want it or not. Enter her large-scale public art pieces. “The words ‘public art’ for me connect to the idea of opening up beyond the museum walls,” says Browder, making her position on creativity and her existence outside the mainstream business of art very clear. “Just like the conservatism of being in a house and having two kids and living in the suburbs, I feel like there’s a conservatism with the art scene as well,” said Browder. “It’s get in a gallery, sell your art, get a studio, and you’re done.”
Last year, the artist made her way around an event called Greenpoint Open Studios in a black T-shirt and her distinctive round glasses, speaking with people she knew from two plus years in New York and others she didn’t. She was part of the program that night, slated for a presentation on her works, and came prepared with a new idea: sometime this spring, let’s cover the side of a local Greenpoint building. In fabric.
Months later, it is no longer an idea. As she darts around the second floor activity room of Saint Cecilia Convent on Monitor Street in Williamsburg, she mentions yet another idea—to take the materials from Future Phenomenon and create capes to be worn by performers who will trap unsuspecting commuters coming off of the subway at Union Square. Her plan is for the performers to crowd around the unsuspecting citizens and throw out their arms like the wingspan of a bird, making a boxy wall of multicolored cloth. It is a dichotomy in her personality: how can someone so polite and friendly have the gumption to engage people with that level of imposition—people who probably don’t want to be involved in a conversation about the weirdness of the world or made part of a performance art piece? But after a while the answer is clear enough: her most strident trait is a commitment to the objectives in her work. “I like the idea that art can give you an experience that’s not traditional in your everyday life,” says Browder. “Those are enriching moments in your life, whether it’s good or bad. The idea is that we become more and more comfortable seeing big, weird shit on the street.”
Saint Cecelia is home to the first of three events to create the piece. Because of the sheer size, it will be put together in steps. The first was simply sewing together the sections that will give the piece its pattern, monochromatic stripes made up of donated fabric. The second event, at the Lutheran Church of the Messiah next to McGolrick Park in Greenpoint, continued that work. The third will be held in a gym in Bushwick, a location with enough space to allow Browder and her helpers to put the final piece together. Watching it being constructed by laying out segments down long hallways and auditorium floors provides insight to the piece’s scale, the most noticeably effective element in Browder’s quest to create “weirdness.” But the core of the project is in its conception and creation, the human action leading to its future physical form.
The event is lively as 15 to 20 people at any one time help construct the work. There is a line for one of the six sewing machines being used to put together the fabric that comes in, much of it already here. Occasionally someone enters with a donation and a story, explaining why they are dropping off their particular materials. Tara de la Garza, Browder’s friend and fellow artist, brings in green fabric that was once the dresses of her bridesmaids. A priest stops by, talking on a cell phone, surveys the scene for a minute, smiles and leaves. Browder answers questions, demonstrates sewing techniques, and laughs as help comes and goes. Some of the volunteers have never sewed before, and some are seasoned veterans. She revels in the creative interaction the event has created, stepping aside for a moment to exclaim, “This is magic!” as the whirr of the sewing machines continues relentlessly.
There is a mix of volunteers, which was the precise aim. Much of Browder’s work has insisted on an interaction with viewers and/or the community at large. She also does more traditional sculpture and installation, but her focus is clearly in the realm of public art. Future Phenomenon not only involves the community in its creation, it will directly challenge the greater population of the neighborhood with its abrupt presence. As Rachel Farmer, a Greenpoint artist, sits at a sewing machine working away, she is tapping into this convergence. “Public art is not just about the art, it’s about the community. I bet most of the people here aren’t artists,” she says and gestures around the room. The question for Farmer was, “What’s your audience? A museum crowd that’s paying to be there?...[Community members] live with it. Morning, evening, different weather, you have conversations with people on the street about it. I’ve been living in Greenpoint for ten years and there’s no evidence of art in the street…it’s a conversation with real people, not just the art world.”
The project has the strong support of the North Brooklyn Public Arts Coalition, a group helping with some of the administrative and financial aspects. Katherine Denny, who volunteers her spare time as the group’s development director, reports that they’ve been able to secure $1500 from the Brooklyn Arts Council, above the council’s average grant and the full amount they requested. They are also raising money through kickstarter.com, which allows someone to buy a section of the piece or a print. Because when you cover a building in what amounts to a giant quilt, there are issues to deal with. You have to consult with an architect to help deal with the department of buildings, test for asbestos, and insure the piece, all of which is worth it for an organization cut out for this sort of thing. “This project is a unique way to cross barriers in a community that feels strained between the new ‘gentrifiers’ and the older people that have been there,” said Ciara McKeown, a founding member of the Coalition. Joann Kim, an organizer of Greenpoint galleries and curator at Arario Gallery in Chelsea, points to using fabrics from the neighborhood as an engagement tool. “The idea of collecting something that’s physical but has a symbolizing history behind it is an integral part of the work, but you may not see that at first,” says Kim. “It’s a way of reaching out and creating something.”
The aspirations of Browder and the group are clear enough. But a large, striking art installation the size of a building will certainly cause varying reactions. Even some of the participants in the sewing days make mention of it—Jennifer Gramm, an architect who heard about the project through the group’s outreach efforts, muses some local residents may waltz by and wonder, “What the hell is that and why is it there? Is the building cold?” This is of course part of the exercise. One of Browder’s graduate school mentors, Aristotle Georgiades, says Browder’s work reflects her own “effervescent” personality, but it necessarily requires a thick skin. “When you take it into the streets or into public venues, you’re dealing with an audience that’s not as well versed in what’s going on in the contemporary art world,” he said. “As an artist you have to be willing to answer to that. You take on a certain responsibility.”
At the second sewing event, Browder is in the basement of the Lutheran Church diligently laying out the sections of fabric and working with an entirely new group of volunteers, desperately trying to stay on schedule. She still has a ways to go and the late May/early June time frame is creeping closer. The stress of dividing her attention is clear, and they’ve recently planned an event with the Polish Slavic Center in the neighborhood. All this community engagement has yielded a full calendar.
“But hey, how are you doing?” she asks me while looking up from a 30-plus-foot section of sewn fabric, and actually wants to know.
Kyle Leighton is a writer based in Brooklyn.