Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new exhibition explores the borough's complexities by juxtaposing new artworks and historic maps.
Logan Square: the "Brooklyn" of Chicago. Oakland: the "Brooklyn" of San Francisco.
NYC's 71-square-mile borough to the east has become such a strong cultural metaphor, so easily abstracted to explain other cities, that one can lose sight of the things that make it Brooklyn, not "Brooklyn." Its tremendous demographic diversity, for example. Its politics. Its pre-colonial history. It's Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost-shaped outline.
In "Mapping Brooklyn," a joint exhibition of BRIC House and the Brooklyn Historical Society, the manifold geographies of Brooklyn are on full display. Contemporary artworks that use cartography to examine the borough (and elsewhere) are shown side by side with maps from the historical society's collections, adding up to a complex portrait of a complex place.
"Through mapping, these artists have brought out a wide range of themes: the change and development and gentrification of Brooklyn, political issues, historical issues, issues of diversity," says Elizabeth Ferrer, vice president of contemporary art at BRIC and the exhibition's curator. "And the idea of psycho-geography, or how place impacts the emotions."
Simonetta Moro's mixed-media on Mylar "Prospect Expressway" is a great example of that last theme. The expressway features prominently in Moro's neighborhood, which inspired her to explore its history, before and after Robert Moses oversaw its construction in the 1950s.
The result is a colorful palimpsest—"ghostly lines of what's there now and what was there before," says Ferrer—which plays into Moro's juxtaposing of Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which mapmakers would annually update by pasting new pieces onto old paper.
The Dutch artist Jan Rothuizen was invited to play off of the maps and writings of Jasper Dankers, a Dutch explorer who arrived in New York in the late 17th century, when it was largely still indigenous. Dankers' detailed accounting of pre-colonial Brooklyn spurred Rothuizen to create a modern-day "Brooklyn Journal." It's an intricate report of the borough's sight and sounds, with Dankers' words and images digitally reproduced underneath Rothuizen's.
"There's some drawings where he maps the skyscrapers of the city, and in others he maps micro-sites, like the room of an AA meeting," says Ferrer. "It's an actual, visceral dialogue with Dankers."
Likely the best-known artist in the show, Joyce Kozloff contributed a magnificent nine-foot globe that visitors can actually enter. Each segment of the wooden sphere's interior is painted with an aerial map of a place that the U.S. has bombed since the 1940s.
"This is the one exception in the show where Brooklyn is not specifically examined," says Ferrer, "but I wanted to include it because [Mapping Brooklyn] is mostly hyperlocal, and this Kozloff's map makes the point of how connected we are to the rest of the world."
These are just three of the many artists on display at BRIC through May 3, and at the Brooklyn Historical Society through September 6 (more examples of the show's contemporary and historical maps are below, and here). You might want to rope off a good couple of hours to fully appreciate the show.
"These works beg to be explored," says Ferrer. "People are intensely looking. And as a curator, that's really a treat."