Bradford Young’s three-channel film, Bynum Cutler, installed at the Bethel Tabernacle AME church in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was presented as one of four site-specific works comprising Creative Time’s Black Radical Brooklyn: Funkgodjazzmedicine exhibition, curated by Nato Thompson, Rashida Bumbray and Rylee Eterginoso. The installations were all within walking distance from the Weeksville Heritage Center, the site of three restored homes originally belonging to a free and independent black community founded in 1838 by former slave James Weeks. Xenobia Bailey collaborated with students at the Boys and Girls High School to craft furniture from found materials for one of the historic houses at Weeksville. Bailey and some of her students were stationed within to answer questions while visitors toured the house. Nearby, Simone Leigh installed the Free People’s Medical Clinic, staffed by local health workers, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant home of the late Dr. Josephine English, the first African-American OB/GYN to practice in New York State. Otabenga Jones and Associates conducted a live radio broadcast with programming in tribute to former Bed-Stuy cultural center “the East,” from the back of a truncated vintage Cadillac at the intersection of Fulton Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. Works were open for viewing during four weekends in September and October.
What apparently held these projects together was their fidelity to three conceptual/compositional elements: first, the emphasis upon architectural place as a touchstone for cultural memory; second, community participation in the construction—and ideally, appreciation—of the work; and third, reflection upon how an historically Black neighborhood has consistently, creatively, attended to its own needs despite meager resources and the continued trauma of structured inequality. Young’s film, providing the god portion of the exhibition’s subtitle, begged an attitude of quiet reverence from its audience, a consequence of its appeal—unique among the four works—to pure spectacle. The gothic ambience of the crumbling paint and weathered pews in the dimly-lit building added a worshipful, private solemnity to Young’s arresting cinema, different from the bustle encouraged by the interactive nature of other pieces. The black-and-white triptych comprised alternating, nearly-still images. Subject matter had an artifactual quality: faces of local church-goers, a pair of shoes, an old hat, facades of the 19th century bungalows at Weeksville, and the ruined architecture of the same church sanctuary in which the film was screened, all appeared re-framed as structural components of a community that is both of the past and not-quite-lost. A recurring focal point in Young’s cinematic landscape—where movement was limited to wind on a grassy field or the advance of distant traffic—was a black, square panel, placed at the center of various shots. In one image the panel appeared in front of the stairs leading to the church’s entrance. In another it was laid flat in a meadow surrounding the Weeksville homes. This repeated invocation of the frame demonstrated quite simply the piece’s apparent intent as a site-specific work of socially-engaged art: to train the attention of passersby onto their otherwise commonplace surroundings and, in an area fast-approaching the front lines of gentrification, to underscore that there is something there worth the effort of keeping.
The techniques of Bynum Cutler could be accused of heavy-handedness. Bright solarization, slow-pan shots and a droning soundtrack punctuated by whispering voices conjure drama that borders on the grandiose. But the boldness of its spectacle is perhaps necessary for the fulfillment of its intent to transform an all-too-common scene of neglect in an under-funded urban neighborhood into a memorable artwork rallying for sociopolitical awareness. Given the project of resistance implied by the curation—“achieving self-determination through the claiming and holding of a neighborhood” (Creative Time)—the conspicuous appeal to a large audience seems requisite.