By JULIA SINELNIKOVA November 22, 2023
As I ambled across the street deep in Bed-Stuy in my white puffer coat and earmuffs, a few friends from the electronic music scene flagged me down, and we walked into the abandoned school together. I noted then that the three-day art show taking place inside, Public Works Administration's “Homecoming,” was drawing the local music crowd for its nightlife programming. We made our way past relaxed security guards through a narrow courtyard and up some stone steps, where vinyl wall text and hipsters serving wristbands greeted a steady influx of guests.
Arriving just in time to meet the show's producer, Sam Black, I was able to absorb a quick private tour of the multiple gallery floors, meticulously installed from room to room. Local artist Zaria Aziza, a friend of Brooklyn-born Black's, linked up with our group as we wandered through works ranging from traditional sculpture, LED light art and video art (heavily centered on the latter). She told me she was originally from Bangladesh, and was excited to be getting to know the Brooklyn scene as an artist, through what she saw at “Homecoming.” She passed me a flier for her event called “Art Cafe Brooklyn,” coming up at Black's longtime Bed-Stuy space, Refuge Arts, around the corner.
PWA Gallery is dedicated to “showcasing innovative digital art,” according to its concise website, which only lists the Homecoming event flier and a text list of past shows. The off-the-beaten-path, tiny alternative space in the 50th Street MTA Station has made a name for itself since launching in mid-2022, when headlines like "Hipsters turn filthy midtown subway station into a mini Bushwick" hit the NY Post. A contemporaneous review in Curbed observed that "the works exist somewhere between Ryan Trecartin and Richard Linklater," and noted visitors who chatted about their "series of computer-generated novels," and other code culture.
Walking through this labyrinth of programmed LEDs, video artworks and light sculptures felt like being transported to a new dimension, where the art talks back. Twenty rooms filled with different arrangements of screens, sculptures and sound artworks included several interactive performances, but it was too crowded to get in close enough to see what was going on. A sharply turning staircase connected the floors, through which a twenty-five foot hanging array of multicolored LED lights zapped down with a dripping motion, pulling the viewer onward in the exploration (a work by Colombian-born local Pablo Gnecco). Standout work included a large tree-like light sculpture by local Brian Oakes, with dense swirling elements and fiery, subtle lighting.
A room dedicated to Melissa F. Clarke's suspended sculpture, composed of large shards of broken glass, both beguiled the viewer with its subtle lighting, and projected an air of danger. Upon a second glance around the hazy blue-lit room, though, one could see that the artwork rigging was sturdy-looking and well concealed. This was impressive for the school, which had been renovated from a dilapidated condition for months prior to the show, according to Black. Bits of the remaining refuse, such as several crumbling (perhaps moldy?) walls throughout the otherwise intact and well-designed spaces, gave the exhibition the classic Brooklyn underground feel. Gallery space has been in short supply since waves of closures during covid-19, so it makes sense to see a resurgence of shows in abandoned spaces. This had somewhat died down after NYPD event shutdowns following the Ghost Ship artist warehouse fire in San Francisco.
A wall-based light sculpture by James Clar, a circular starburst comprised of pastel pink and blue LED strips, drew viewers in awe on the third floor. It resembled a radiating supernova crossed with a mandala, or Celtic symbol. While this was one of the few static light sculptures in the show, its elegance and delicate color arrangement gave it a special presence. The room had been curated by Alex Czetwertynski, of former “Day for Night” festival fame. Other works with the same LED-light strip technique, such as an installation made of lime green starbursts and lines by Gregory Kalliche downstairs, seemed to hold less presence in the densely curated show. The combination of simpler LED works, narrative video art, and light sculpture in this show, overall, did however create an interesting ebb and flow. As we rounded off our tour, Black and another organizer exchanged a few words and agreed to keep the art show section open until 1am instead of 12am like originally planned, since so many viewers were still eagerly darting around us.
The new media exhibition in an alternative space, paired with a rave-like atmosphere in the adjacent hall, had a cutting-edge PS1-like feel. Still, the video art and sculpture exhibition could have seen more gender balance, with women and femme artists like musician and visual artist RaFIA, presenting stage performances. Sweden's feminist multimedia artist Arvida Byström (curated by PWA's own Alison Sirico) flew in to do performance art, and installed a sex doll with projections over the headless figure. The stark presentation of a text lightbox work by coder and artist Maya Man, comprised of wavy words repeated to say “LIBERATION,” gave the air of virtue signaling within the context of recent global conflicts, and the lack of prominent accompanying gallery statements or related curation.
Down in the main hall, or “school auditorium,” performers booked by Brooklyn stalwarts Rinsed riled up a crowd with a show that seemed to include some BDSM harnessing done to a man on stage, performed by Von Bloody Mary. The producer and performer was accompanied by several girls in short shorts who were cheerfully MC-ing the night. Blood-red visuals splashed over them from the projector. I ran into the promoters and waved hello, sneaking a few angles of views around the stage action, but not venturing into the hungry crowd. Outside the main hall, a few huddled friends stole a moment for a smoke, and the medieval architecture of the school - complete with multiple turrets - could be observed. From Times Square to Bed-Stuy, PWA Gallery seems to be exploring a new format for the presentation of digital art in the fine art space. WM
Julia Sinelnikova is an artist and writer in New York City.view all articles from this author