Friday, February 16, 2007

The “Footprints” controversy: omission of work less disturbing than lack of captions

I found the newly re-mounted “Brooklyn Footprints” exhibition at the Brooklyn Public Library dismaying, but not so much because the library rejected some politically-charged pieces and claimed, disingenously, “Our interest in this exhibition is in documentation, not advocacy.”

(The New York Observer broke the censorship story, which has been followed up by NoLandGrab, Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB) and the Brooklyn Paper, among others. Is it censorship? Probably in part.)

Even more disturbingly, the library exhibition lacks footnotes that link the artwork to the inevitable political context regarding the proposed Atlantic Yards footprint. There are no descriptive captions, so the “documentation” is quite sketchy. For the relatively few who can see more into the photos, drawings, and paintings, that’s not a problem; for everyone else, it is.

Even for those of us in the know, Conor McGrady’s drawing (right) seems oblique. In a caption, he contends: “These drawings refer to the removal process at the core of the Atlantic Yards re-development."

When I first saw the exhibition in October, I commented that “some of the documentation available on the web site had not made it to the gallery walls.” That was less a problem, because at least visitors received a postcard pointing them to the Footprints web site, which contains links to informational and advocacy sites about Atlantic Yards. (Update: I'm told the postcards were available on opening night Tuesday. When I visited Wednesday, they weren't there.)

At the library, there are no links, and even the capsule description--"the redevelopment of Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards"--is inaccurate, since Atlantic Yards is a development project, not a place. (That was in the original description, actually.)

(Update: I should acknowledge that, whatever my criticisms, the show is worth a visit and surely will be seen by far more Brooklynites than in its previous incarnation.)

An unidentified architect

The exhibit includes Keri Friedman’s photos, but not her text, which states that 13 acres of the footprint “will require the demolition of four thriving Brooklyn city blocks.”

We see a Friedman photo of a man named Marshall Brown, but no explanation--and that's not even on the web site--that he’s the architect behind the alternative UNITY plan for the railyards. He's a visible rebuke to the charge that Atlantic Yards would serve the interests of black Brooklynites.

A 65-year resident

Belle Benfield’s portrait of Victoria (Mary) Harmon gets the pride of place in the exhibit, flanking the opening panel of text, but doesn’t explain, as it does on the web site, that Harmon “has lived in her apartment on Pacific Street since 1942.”

That might lead viewers to further investigation and the conclusion that Harmon is alarmed by the prospect of leaving her longstanding home. Indeed, the 87-year-old told the Village Voice last August, "What do you think? I want to go out at this age? Where? I don't know nobody. Here I know everybody."

Generations of families

We see several photographs by Nura Qureshi, but not the caption that states: “These images document residents of 810/812 Pacific Street who are directly threatened by the 'Atlantic Yards' redevelopment project. By narrowing my focus to this corner of the Footprint I hoped to obtain an intimate view of these families, some of whom have been here for generations, and to create their lasting portraits.”

Her portrait of the Santiago family is another response to the notion that those exercised by Atlantic Yards are “antidevelopment yuppies.”

Walk, Don't...???

Amy Greer took several photos of a “Walk Don’t Destroy Fundraiser” for the show, but they were winnowed to one for the library version, which shows a group of people clapping, without any explanation,

One of Greer's photos includes this caption, "'Walk Don't Destroy’ was a fundraiser and rally for Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn held in the footprint on November 13, 2005. The event had more than 400 participants and raised over $50,000.” The rejected photo at right certainly shows that activism. [An earlier version of this post had the wrong photo.]

Another caption adds, “Amy Greer has lived across the street from Atlantic Yards for seven years, and has been documenting and participating in the fight against the Atlantic Yards proposal for the last three.” (Greer contributes to NoLandGrab, which juxtaposed three photos.)

By excising such photos (the library’s indefensible censorship decision) and failing to include captions or even links to them (I’m not sure who’s responsible), the enormous political battle over Atlantic Yards is muted. Moreover, the failure to show photos of collective action suggests that the footprint is populated only by individuals rather than people organized for a cause.

Censorship charges

The deletions that have drawn the most criticism were Donald O’Finn’s portrayal of the arena as a toilet bowl and a large portrait (right) of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn spokesman Daniel Goldstein. Footprints co-organizer Dan Sagarin said that the two "I believe were left out because of their overtly political nature, and the library’s desire to remain neutral on a politically charged local issue."

The library wouldn’t answer questions about specifics. Giving the library the benefit of the doubt, the omission of the large Goldstein portrait—“We also had to take into account space constraints,” the library said--might be defended as a judgment call. After all, a smaller photo of Goldstein—wearing a DDDB t-shirt—does appear in the show, while the excluded portrait has no overt political valence.

Then again, Goldstein is the most visible opponent of the Atlantic Yards project, and the lead plaintiff in a pending eminent domain challenge. Had Goldstein’s portrait been accompanied by Sarah Sagarin’s caption, the exclusion decision would have been more clearly political. The caption states, “Daniel Goldstein is an activist opposing the 'Atlantic Yards' project. He is a resident of the 'Footprint,' spokesperson for Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, and will be one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against eminent domain–government's seizure of private property.”

But I doubt the caption would’ve been included anyhow.

About the toilet

As for O’Finn’s aggressively satirical work, maybe the exlusion is censorship, maybe it's not. Perhaps someone at the library thought that the toilet bowl in the library’s main hall, trafficked by numerous families, some with conservative social mores, was unwise.

(Were the exhibit in set-aside gallery space, the library could post a warning that some material might not be appropriate for kids. Edgy material inside the covers of a book is different from edgy material on view to all, as I've learned in writing about libraries as an editor at Library Journal. Or is a commonplace toilet less edgy than its political meaning?)

But the failure to defend the exclusion decision suggests that it was political, especially since O'Finn's work is one of the few that doesn't need a caption. And the work, now on view at Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, which O’Finn manages, is actually quite small. Freddy's, which is threatened with demolition via eminent domain and which is an eminent domain plaintiff, will have an opening next Thursday with more excluded work, dubbing it the "Salon des Refusés de las Bibliothèque de Brooklyn."

Donor Ratner?

Is the library particularly cautious because, as DDDB has pointed out, developer Forest City Ratner might be sought as a donor for the long-stalled plan to build a new Visual and Performing Arts Library near the new Atlantic Yards footprint? That’s a plausible assumption: why offend one of the borough’s corporate heavyweights?

“We selected this exhibition because of its relevance to current events in Brooklyn and because it's something that our diverse community cares about,” the library said in a statement. “As a publicly funded, completely non-partisan institution, our exhibitions feature high-quality work that is accessible and relevant to all members of our diverse audience. As a library, we're also a source of information and history - a free, public resource that can tell Brooklyn's story.”

(Update: A reader suggests that, if the library really were concerned about the developer, it wouldn't have mounted the exhibition in the first place.)

More to the story

There’s a lot more to this story. Take this photo by Alice Proujansky. It shows footprint resident David Sheets at Freddy's Bar. The caption, which appears on the web site but not at the library, states that Sheets "lives up the block and usually comes to the bar after work to read the paper and drink a few beers."

[Correction: I initially wrote that another photo of Sheets was included. The online caption for that photo is more pointed, stating, “David Sheets smokes outside of Freddy's Bar. Both the bar and Mr. Sheets’ home will be demolished if the Atlantic Yards development is built.”]

The rest of the story is that Sheets isn’t going out without a fight, since he, like several other people portrayed, is a plaintiff in the eminent domain lawsuit. Similarly, there's Claire Wieting's portrait of Joe Pastore, which “documents a man who’s lived on Dean Street since 1967. If the 'Atlantic Yards' project moves ahead he will be forced out, and his building torn down.” He's also a plaintiff.

Missing information

The frustrations with the exhibit might be crystallized by this photo by Jennifer McCharren of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Vanderbilt Yard from a Pacific Street vantage point. The photo, which includes overgrown weeds and garbage, suggests an element of blight, the state's justification for the project.
But the blight issue is highly contentious, especially since the state punted on the question of who's responsible for maintenance of the railyard's perimeter.

There's another piece of work, not on the Footprints web site, titled "We Still Live Here," which includes the north side of Dean Street east of Sixth Avenue. There are five row houses pictured. The unexplained back story is that a 272-foot tower would replace them, and that some of the homeowners are eminent domain plaintiffs.

There should be a way for people who see this work at the library to get more information. As it stands, the most effective works that document the impact of Atlantic Yards are Jonathan Barkey's photosimulations of the project's astounding scale. They show how documentation may be hard to uncouple from advocacy.

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