Life During Wartime


Every summer since 1983, the Anchorage beneath the Brooklyn Bridge has opened up to art projects as unique as the space itself. But not this year. There will be no 20th season. Art in the Anchorage has ended for reasons of national security.

Department of Transportation spokesman Tom Cocola said he couldn’t elaborate on these concerns. However, according to news reports, captured Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah named the Brooklyn Bridge as a possible target. A couple of weeks ago, police closed the bridge for an hour after someone spotted a backpack lying on it. The Anchorage frames the piers that support the bridge, and no one knows if it will ever open again as an exhibition space. “That’s something we’d have to cede to law enforcement,” says Cocola.

Creative Time, an organization whose mission is to bring art into public spaces, ran the Anchorage program and now hopes to move this summer’s show a few blocks away into the heart of DUMBO. So this is only the loss of a venue. But what a venue—probably the city’s most unusual and spectacular space for art. Just walking in could produce a hushed moment.

The 50-foot-tall vaulted ceilings, stone floors, windowless brick and overhead traffic hum gave the ambience a tilt toward the introspective and mysterious. The Anchorage could seem all gothic gloom or cool cave. It changed, depending on the art: a cathedral, a dungeon, a fort. John Roebling, the bridge’s engineer, imagined the Anchorage turning into a two-story commercial arcade or maybe the vault for the national treasury. But its real life uses were prosaic. By the time the Borough of Brooklyn invited Creative Time to put some art there, in conjunction with the bridge’s centennial in 1983, the space had been storing tires for 40 years.

By now, hundreds of artists have either exhibited or performed at the Anchorage. Occasionally the setting would overwhelm the art, but certain pieces came to full flower there as they could nowhere else. For example, in 1988, Station House Opera used over 2000 concrete blocks and three tiers of scaffolding to continuously build and take apart rooms, stairs, towers, chairs, tables, and beds that filled their allotted chamber nearly to the roof. In 1993, Elizabeth Streb suspended dancers from the ceiling and had them walk down a wall directly above the audience, creating the sensation—for this spectator, at least—that the dancers were on the floor and I was on the wall. In a subsequent performance on the Joyce’s proscenium stage, the derring-do remained but not the unusual sensation of spectator vertigo.

Over the past six years, programming moved away from performance to focus on the electronic, the digital, the architectural, and in 1999, the least expected of all: fashion. (One designer took a garment from each of his last 18 collections and covered them with bacteria, mold, and yeast. They rotted beautifully.) Creative Time’s executive director, Anne Pasternak, says she’s tried to “identify emergent or under-recognized creative practices and give them visibility through the Anchorage.” She also added an eclectic mix of cutting-edge music each summer, from Southeast Asian breakbeat to Detroit techno to a Glenn Branca symphony.

Last summer’s exhibit, “Massless Medium: Explorations in Sensory Immersion,” featured sculptures that transmitted images to visitors’ PalmPilots; recliners where spectators lay beneath strobe light patterns and quickly lost depth perception; and a sound-and-video installation about the bridge itself that changed subtly according to visitors’ movements.

This summer’s exhibit (opening August 14) is titled, ironically enough, “Consuming Places.” It’s a look at “factors that are radically changing our understanding of space and forms of social organization,” as the curatorial statement puts it. “Consuming Places” was scheduled to open in the Anchorage the middle of last September.

Back in 1983, DUMBO was as bleak as a desert island, with the Anchorage its little arts oasis. Today, there’s a burgeoning scene along the waterfront between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges that began to reach critical mass when St. Ann’s Warehouse opened on Water Street, joining GAle GAtes at the end of the block, with Smack Mellon Gallery in between. Creative Time hopes it can now move “Consuming Places” to that same stretch of Water Street, but across the road, to the side that looks deserted.

Real estate developer David Walentas donated a turn-of-the-century horse stable at the corner of Water and Main, but most of what Creative Time hopes to use in DUMBO is controlled by the state Parks Department: two warehouses built just after the Civil War.

The old tobacco warehouse is just a roofless shell of a building, two stories high. Here architects Lise Anne Couture and Hani Rashid proposed to create a physical representation of a virtual landscape. But last week, the Parks Department informed Creative Time that they will not let artists use the warehouse’s interior. “What’s possible will be architectural interventions with light and perhaps sound,” reported Creative Time’s deputy director, Carol Stakenas, who said she was happy nevertheless that they could “fully activate the block.”

On Water Street itself, Greyworld will install two custom-built telescopes that will somehow allow spectators to hear virtually placed messages when they peer through the scopes at specific parts of the cityscape. Bill Fontana will bring the Anchorage to Water Street by projecting the sounds of Brooklyn Bridge traffic through eight parabolic speakers. Marjetica Potre will also be working outside with solar power, giving excess power back to the grid of the city. And 212BOX will work in the old stable, creating a glassbox that expands a billboard into a livable space.

Says Pasternak: “While we were obviously extremely disappointed to lose the Anchorage—and we hope it’s temporary—we’ve turned this around not only to re-commit to this neighborhood, but also to do what we do best.” That would be “activating neglected urban space, trying to bring to it the possibility of cultural invigoration.”

Creative Time certainly has a history of such “activating.” For years, they programmed Art on the Beach, on the landfill that became Battery Park City. In 1993, their 42nd Street Art Project turned the entire block between Seventh and Eighth avenues over to artists, in that transitional moment between porn kings and Lion Kings. If some see them as agents of gentrification, I think they show up when gentrification is inexorable, already a done deal.

Because it works in public space, Creative Time ends up facing such implacabilities all the time. They have to be flexible. So they did not argue with the need to leave the only regular venue they have ever had. Art events are sometimes anarchic and uncontrollable—the opposite of secure. The worry is that we may all be headed in a direction where we can’t afford the kind of serendipity so necessary to cutting-edge art making.