Deciphering the City’s Hidden Code

Is That a Mountain or a Sidewalk?

Most poetic is artist Martha Rosler's parallel between her childhood awareness of her body and her growing understanding of the physical city. "I realized that my body was not a solid thing but had structural elements that were hidden from view. . . . And I remember I used to be amazed when they excavated the sidewalk and there was dirt underneath. And then you begin to realize that there are counterparts in terms of policy to the fact that something is paved over. . . . You can't help but feel that you are implicated in an incredibly complex socio-mechanical system."

Most of "Building Codes" is not so lofty. There is the fanciful: Staffers from CUP and the Storefront worked with Art Start, a program for homeless kids aged five to 12, to design buildings using crates. Pipe cleaners and felt squares designate rooftop playgrounds and pools; one child appropriated the entire top floor of a five-story building for a single occupant and dubbed it the "millionaire home floor."

The exhibit's last installation, tucked into a narrow corner, speaks volumes about codes and cultures. It is a 12-minute videotape by Francisca Benitez documenting the annual installation of sukkah booths among the Satmar Jews of Williamsburg who, each autumn, fulfill a Talmudic order by living outdoors for seven days. The urban application of this ancient dictum means the construction of hundreds of temporary plywood shacks, most affixed to balconies or fire escapes. They do not meet the city code; in fact, Benitez says, they "drive the fire department nuts" because they block egress.

‘‘Building Codes’’ includes this rendering of cityplanning czar RobertMoses’s vision of theLower East Side, circa 1940.
Photo courtesy of New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Archives/Robin Holland
‘‘Building Codes’’ includes this rendering of cityplanning czar RobertMoses’s vision of theLower East Side, circa 1940.

Benitez describes her video as "a portrait of an ephemeral city that appears within the 'permanent city.' " In following the ancient religious codes of the Talmud, secular rules give way.


"Building Codes" runs through August 25 at the Storefront, 97 Kenmare Street.

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