Built between 1905-1914, the Old Bronx Borough Courthouse at 878 Brook Street has been shuttered for the last 37 years. Now, it’s been reopened for the first time as part of No Longer Empty‘s series of public art programs in underutilized spaces. When You Cut Into the Present the Future Leaks Out brought together 26 artists from the Bronx and across New York to create site-specific work drawing inspiration from the structure, its history, and the surrounding neighborhood.
Though the full glory of the Beaux-Arts structure was obscured behind scaffolding and black netting on the outside, it appears in unexpected places on the interior. Finely carved marble, wrought iron and detailed flooring are scattered throughout, most notably in an ornate entryway. All in all, three floors of the building are filled with works of contemporary art, the best of which are placed in conversation with the space itself.
A basement stuffed with found objects and strobe lights was fittingly horrific. A neighboring chamber made use of a fog machine to dramatic effect. On the second floor, a fun interactive installation invited visitors to walk through a maze under the glow of projections and an oppressive strumming sound. The most disorienting work was an unassuming pair of rooms set up as artist studios, each dressed identically as a mirror image of the other, playing off the building’s symmetry.
It’s worth noting that the courthouse is located in a decidedly ungentrified Black and Hispanic neighborhood of the South Bronx. We admit it crossed our minds on the ten minute walk to the site that the place might be filled with a very different demographic than we saw on the streets. But my fears subsided upon entering the space, which hosted a diverse and sizable crowd of art lovers from around the city as well as community groups and folks from the neighborhood.
It’s an issue the organizers are clearly sensitive to, and have endeavored to address throughout, as they’ve done in previous exhibits like How Much Do I Owe You at the abandoned Bank of Manhattan in Long Island City and This Side of a Post Modern Paradise in the Andrew Freeman House in the Bronx
A map of neighborhood attractions takes up half the exhibition guide in an effort to support local businesses, and a series of public programs at the site will partner with local organizations to promote further involvement on the neighborhood level. The goal is to bring in the community as well as New York at large, and many appear to be showing up, experiencing the space, and enjoying the work together.
Not everyone was convinced, though. The most stirring moment of the night came when a group of protestors from the neighborhood interrupted a series of speeches by chanting “Don’t use art to pimp us out.” “You are empty, we are always full.” “We are not your next project.” Whether their frustration was misguided or justified, it represented a particularly fraught aspect of the project that lingered with us longer than much of the work.
When You Cut Into the Present the Future Leaks Out is on view until July 19. Open Thursday-Sunday, 1-7PM.