Criticism
Thursday, November 13th, 2014

Social Collaboration in the Fifth Borough: William Corwin and Neil Greenberg at Staten Island Arts


William Corwin and Neil Greenberg: The Great Richmond: Find Yourself a Borough at the Staten Island Arts Culture Lounge, St. George Ferry Terminal
September 25 to November 30, 2014
10 Ferry Island Terminal
Staten Island, 718 447 3329

Installation view, "The Great Richmond," at Staten Island Arts, 2014. Courtesy of Staten Island Arts.

Installation view, “The Great Richmond: Find Yourself a Borough,” at Staten Island Arts, 2014. Courtesy of Staten Island Arts.

The Staten Island Ferry makes over 100 trips and carries about 70,000 passengers on a typical weekday, shuttling New Yorkers between Manhattan and the island that some ostensibly neglected residents refer to as the “forgotten borough.”

To admit that I only made my first trip out to this fifth of New York last month, after four years in the city, doesn’t do much to discourage the argument that Staten Island is underappreciated. But after my first ride out one crisp, fall afternoon, I’m inclined to think that Staten Islanders lay claim to one of the best parts of this city, certainly at least, when it comes to municipal services: their unique mode of mass transportation, the ferry itself. It runs 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is entirely free, and also the best DIY sightseeing tour around. On Staten Island’s side, the St. George Ferry Terminal is home to a recently opened exhibition space nestled among the usual assortment of “grab-on-the-go” transport-hub dining options, just steps from the boarding area. The Culture Lounge is designed to “turn passengers into participants — engaging them with art, and inspiring them to venture past the terminal and into the cultural hotspots found all over the island.” William Corwin and Neil Greenberg’s “The Great Richmond: Find Yourself a Borough,” the second exhibition to open in this space, accomplishes exactly that.

Installation view, "The Great Richmond," at Staten Island Arts, 2014. Courtesy of Staten Island Arts.

Installation view, “The Great Richmond,” at Staten Island Arts, 2014. Courtesy of Staten Island Arts.

This interactive installation is a game of sorts, one without a beginning, or even necessarily any conclusion. At one end of the room, large timber shelves house hefty playing pieces representing eight different categories, each embodied by an amalgam of imagery cast out of plaster and painted in one bright monotone. The eight pieces correspond to different aspects of Staten Island life: housing stock, contemporary culture and entertainment, commercial architecture, infrastructure, history and culture on the Island, agrarian aspirations, connectivity, and institutions of government and authority. Objects you’ll find fused together in these plaster bricks include potatoes, yards of rope, the Buddha, wagon wheels, escalators, a makeshift Catholic shrine known as a “bathtub Madonna,” and a bust of Henry David Thoreau, who came to the island as a live-in tutor to the children of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s brother.

Neil Greenberg, Urban "What If" Map, 2013. Crayon, ink, and colored pencil on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Staten Island Arts.

Neil Greenberg, Urban “What If” Map, 2013. Crayon, ink, and colored pencil on paper. Courtesy of the artist and Staten Island Arts.

The rules of activation are quite simple. Each visitor is allowed to take two of these pieces from the shelves, placing them on any of four color-coded tables representing the type of place Staten Island could become: agrarian, suburban, urban, or seceded. After that, the visitor is also allowed to move one piece already in play to another place or onto another table. The rules are posted on the gallery wall and also available in a short catalogue created for the exhibition, which includes an excellent essay by New York-based art critic Gregory Volk. In addition to writing the rules, Greenberg’s contribution to the piece includes large, hand-drawn posters of what the island might look like if its trajectory were to drastically swing towards one of these futures, with multi-lane highways crisscrossing one aerial view, and expanses of pastures and fields dominating another.

“Find yourself a borough” here does not mean choose one of five; rather it means discover your ideal path for the place you live. Corwin jokes that at the opening the agrarian table was quickly filled up with a sea of red pieces, suggesting that if the arts and culture workers in attendance had their way we’d all be living in fields, surrounded by art galleries.

The choices at first seem pretty straightforward, or the rules do at least, but on approaching the shelves I found myself hesitating. Of course I wanted to strengthen the presence of those red arts and culture blocks, but what else needed to be in place for arts and culture to thrive? I chose to stack my red block on top of a purple government and authority piece, indicating that institutional power should form the foundation to support and strengthen the arts on an individual and institutional scale. For my last move I eventually used an orange connectivity piece (inspired by the ferry) as a bridge between my newly made tower with a double stack of housing stock, but not without a moment of doubt. Orange is my least favorite color.

Installation view, placing Infrastructure, at "The Great Richmond: Find Yourself a Borough," 2014, at Staten Island Arts. Courtesy of the artists and Staten Island Arts.

Installation view, placing Infrastructure, at “The Great Richmond: Find Yourself a Borough,” 2014, at Staten Island Arts. Courtesy of the artists and Staten Island Arts.

The appeal of“The Great Richmond” ultimately lies in these questions: ones of stacking and bridging and colors. It’s back to the building blocks of your childhood and a reminder of why they always maintained a certain appeal: the endless possibilities out of seeming simplicity, the expanding of your imagination. And it’s in asking these simple questions that something interesting happens. Are you playing a game, or contemplating in earnest the future of your surroundings? Do we need multi-lane highways crossing the island and want bigger, better shopping malls? How do different elements of infrastructure, culture, and government act together to make up the local space surrounding you, and what would you change in your ideal world?

William Corwin, H.D.T. (Henry David Thoreau), 2014. Cast Hydrocal and acrylic. Courtesy of the artist and Staten Island Arts. Photograph by David Riley.

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William Corwin, Bathtub Madonna, 2013. Cast Hydrocal and acrylic. Courtesy of the artist and Staten Island Arts. Photograph by David Riley.

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William Corwin, Double Doors of the Horizon, 2014. Cast Hydrocal and acrylic. Courtesy of the artist and Staten Island Arts. Photograph by David Riley.

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