As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
A discussion of urbanism and Staten Island, cartography, and monumental sculpture’s place in modern society.
New York Live Arts presents
The Great Richmond is collaboration between the cartographer Neil Greenberg and the sculptor Will Corwin. The two were introduced by Monica Valenzuela, the Director of Development and Community Programming at Staten Island Arts, after both independently proposed projects focusing on the future of the borough via abstract methodology—Greenberg through imaginary maps and Corwin via interactive sculpture. The simplest means of collaborating turned out to be Greenberg visiting New York for several weeks at a time and camping out on Corwin’s couch. They made field trips to the island, wandered its streets and researched its history at the archives in the basement at Snug Harbor. Two years later, the result is a game-based and crowd-sourced sculpture incorporating many ideas from previous projects. For Greenberg it references imaginary urban manifestations and interventions such as Fake Omaha and Freshwater Metro Transit, and for Corwin it is another iteration of pseudo-randomly generated sculpture such as the Clocktower Chess Match.
The Great Richmond is an interactive project that will draw its momentum from the 65,000 or so tourists and Staten Islanders who wander into the Staten Island Arts Culture Lounge at the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and are willing to interact with the piece. The rules are simple: choose two game tokens from the storage shelves and place them on any of the four color-coded tables. There are eight varieties of token, cast-plaster sculptures approximately a cubic foot in size, representing different facets of the island: infrastructure, history and culture, architectural fabric (retail and residential, government institutions, contemporary culture, and connectivity with the rest of the boroughs), and agrarian aspirations. The four tables represent four visions for the island—a return to an agrarian utopia, secession, and increased suburban or urban fabric. The possible outcomes of visitors’ choices are concretized in Greenberg’s cycle of four fantasy maps of the island, while Corwin’s contribution lies in the tokens and shelving matrix.
Will Corwin What is it that first drew you to maps?
Neil Greenberg I liked the fact that maps let you use your imagination, with just enough of a framework to give your imagination something to work with. A perfect example: I’m in Jefferson City Missouri right now. This is the first time I’ve ever been here. But I’ve looked at maps of Jefferson City for some time, and I had a mental image of what it looked like—I was able to see High Street and I was able to see US 63, and I was able to see all these places on a map in two dimensions, so I was able to get a basic lay-of-the-land, but I didn’t have any idea of what it looked like on the ground. My imagination filled in the details. Now that I’m actually here in person, it’s intriguing to see what it looks like for real, with all these street names I had seen before and to compare that to my previous mental image of it.
WC Was it all you imagined?
NG It’s quite a bit more pleasant, hilly and green.
WC You started out by drawing maps. What was the first map that you first really fell in love with? Amerigo Vespucci, the Vinland Map?
NG When I was in first or second grade, and had already loved maps for quite some time, I was with my mom waiting in line at Kmart and I saw a 1988 AAA Road Atlas. I wanted it and my mom bought it for me (thanks mom). That atlas was a great tool, but one map in that book stood out, and I remember it was on page fifty-two. It was a detail inset of central Washington DC. I liked the style of that map, the colors, the layout, the balance of information. That one map consumed so much of my time—when I was staying up late, procrastinating, doing my second grade homework assignment—multiplication tables—that’s what I was doing, staring at that map for hours on end.
WC What do you think of the idea of maps as control? If you look at maps historically, they’re a way of making sense of the world. Take the medieval Mappa mundi: Jerusalem is always placed in the center, and there is a combination of observed details as well as completely fictitious elements to support an ideology. You’re a cartographer, do you think you’re still trying to transform the world into a certain vision that you have? Are you a scientist, or do you feel like you’re changing the world by way of the map?
NG Well, you definitely can change how people perceive things, and it’s not always necessarily where things are positioned on a map, but it might be what colors are you using or which lines are you making thicker than others, which labels are more prominent. Though some things seem quite obvious in our present reality, once it’s on a map, it’s not so obvious. If you’re drawing two lines, you the mapmaker know that you’re going to make one of them a bit thicker or bolder than the other, for whatever reason. The viewer might not notice right away that line A is thicker than line B. But they’ll see it and they’ll register it. It’s a way to structure information that can be used for good, but it can also be used to obscure the truth. My new mantra these days is, “Try to produce maps that are acceptable to people who love maps, but approachable to people who fear maps.”
WC Switching to your own projects: what is Fake Omaha?
NG Fake Omaha began as a large but fictitious metropolitan area that had completely fabricated geography, streets, and street names. The bigger it got and the more time I spent on it, I realized that this project could be a really cool canvas to test ideas not just in geography, but in city building and metropolitan politics. How does the physical shape and form of a city interact with what happens in that city? Fake Omaha has evolved to become a laboratory for anything that might take place in a city. The map serves to give all that stuff some context. So rather than super-abstract ideas floating around, this project offers a context. It provides a realistic setting for someone to lay out ideas about education in an urban context. It’s meant to add an increased gravitas as opposed to a “What if?”
WC I’d argue that the mapmaking, which involves drawing, is a very literal creation of an image. In The Great Richmond there’s a combination of sculpture and maps, which meet at an intersection where people place their chosen sculpture on a designated table that represents an idea. But there’s also the act of reading the guidelines, pausing, choosing a sculpture, placing it, choosing a second piece, and all the while becoming more in tune with what other participants have done—that’s a performance, and every visitor does it differently. We had a visitor who broke several pieces by attempting to build a bridge between two of the tables! It’s in this choreographed repetitive action where the connection between the maps, which are the possible future, and the sculptures, which are where abstract past and present lies, that the graphic interface is. Do you think that this structure can offer any kind of real-time information? From a rigorous scientific viewpoint, do you think this is a way to glean data concerning what people want from their environment?
NG Yeah. I think there is some kind of quantitative value to it, because when you look at the development of cities, or of Staten Island itself, things don’t always follow a specific plan—stuff does happen on a whim. As far as The Great Richmond goes, playing the game—people will come in, they’ll see a game piece and they’ll move it to a table they like—may seem kind of impulsive, but really it’s not that far off from how actual decisions are made. I’m not saying the results of the project are a perfect facsimile of what people want to see on Staten Island, but I think the results of the game will be somewhat instructive as to what is on people’s minds. It wouldn’t be that much of a shock to see that reflected in how the island develops. In this project we’re going to be asking people to interact with things they see everyday, such as transportation, history, and commerce—and we’re going to ask people to think of those things through the lens of these sculptures. Did you have any specific inspiration for that? Where did that idea come from?
WC It’s the idea of the monument: public monuments are meant to ignite a series of collective memories that guide—or even force—people through a series of emotional responses where they begin to ponder certain issues that the monument brings up—a monument to civic pride or to a historical event, like 9/11. There’s the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe by Richard Serra and Peter Eisenman, which focuses on the disorientation and confusion of being literally uprooted from one’s place—but also from one’s socio-moral underpinnings—which happens under a fascist regime. Then there’s the Washington Square Arch—an object that as you walk through, you notice is encrusted with representative figures that remind us of democracy as well as much more general symbols of power, fertility, and success. The stream of memories that it sets off eventually leads back to the individual and their own relation to these ideas. In The Great Richmond we’re presenting a set of symbols and images—of Thoreau, the ferry, or nature, and things inhabitants of the island are used to seeing, like the exterior of the Staten Island Mall, and cause a mental image chain-reaction that they then can apply to themselves in a series of value judgments. Let’s talk about Staten Island because it’s arguably the most suburban part of New York City. From your experience with Staten Island, how would you describe it from an urban planning standpoint?
NG Staten Island is split pretty clearly along the lines of the 278 freeway, the one that the Verrazano Bridge feeds into. North of that is the older part of the island and it’s pretty urban—St. George, and even along Victory Boulevard. I think Staten Islanders and New Yorkers recognize that as the delineation of urban Staten Island from suburban Staten Island. The other interesting thing about having a conversation about New York, in New York, is that the word and the concept “urban” has a very different definition in New York than it does anywhere else in the country, arguably in the world. The standards for what qualifies as urban in New York are much different than what qualifies as urban, in say, Missouri. Even areas of Staten Island that a Midwesterner like myself would consider urban—I’ll keep on picking on Victory Boulevard because I like that street. It’s walkable, there’s neighborhood level commercial fabric, I consider that medium-density urban—most New Yorkers would look at that and say, “This is suburban.” It’s not a universally recognized taxonomy (I’m not sure I’m using the word taxonomy correctly).
WC With this project, The Great Richmond, we’re trying to conceptualize what could happen with Staten Island. What are the clear merits and flaws of the borough?
NG I think the diversity of landscape is a high point. The fact that we’re on an island, but you do have some urban amenities and some suburban amenities; you can get around by car, you can get around by bus; there’s the Staten Island Railway. There’s an unusual and good mix of options in a relatively small area. So while Staten Island seems to have a bit of an inferiority complex about that—I see it as a positive.
WC And then it has the ferry of course! So you as a planner are quite content with the island. Do you see expanded ferry service as something that would open up the island a bit?
NG Oh, man. The ferry is an interesting transportation mode. You usually see cars or rail shaping the urban environment: if a community chooses to invest in freeways, it’s probably going to be more suburban, if a community chooses to invest in transit, especially rail, it’s probably going to be more urban. Theoretically, water-born transit fits into that spectrum, it’s something to ponder. The only example you have is if you look in the immediate vicinity of St. George ferry terminal. It is a village, it is walk-able, the presence of the ferry has a similar effect to what having a rail transit hub would have, and of course, there’s rail transit there too. If there were to be a ferry from somewhere on the north shore to New Jersey, might that have an impact on what Richmond Terrace or Port Richmond looks like?
WC In keeping with your project Freshwater Transit, a Metro transit system for the Detroit area, seeing SI as a blank slate, how would you choose to expand the SIR (Staten Island Rail) system?
NG It would require some kind of integration with the land development. At this point, since the island is mostly built out, it does function mostly, for better or for worse as a bedroom community to Manhattan and to New Jersey to an extent. There’s not an enormous demand on the island for lots more intra-island transportation. If you look at a lot of the bus routes, they’re express routes to Manhattan. Even if you look at the Staten Island Railroad, it’s really meant to take you to the ferry to go to Manhattan. It would be one thing to think about developing more commercial uses on the island and tying them into trying to encourage transit options on the island; to develop some kind of mixed-use office space across from the Staten Island mall, let’s just say, and to integrate that with improved transit options, since right now that part of Richmond Avenue is pretty car oriented. Can there be more development in a place like that? Well, do we want to keep the land-use patterns that there are now, or is it an opportunity to develop an actual place along with the transit system to take people there.
WC Along with the series of “What If” maps you created for The Great Richmond come inherent political decisions. If you were to have an increasingly urban Staten Island, that could go hand-in-hand with a seceded Staten Island. Only an independent Staten Island would need an increased metro transit system. Your maps, wittingly or unwittingly, align themselves with certain political directions. The systems now are part and parcel of a fully integrated borough.
NG It’s as fully integrated as the landscape allows it to be. While it is possible to use mass transit to get from Staten Island to Manhattan, it’s not without going through another borough, or another state, as in the case of a couple bus routes that go from Staten Island to Manhattan via New Jersey. For better or for worse “getting off the island” figures pretty prominently into the transportation spectrum: I guess that’s a bit of a statement to make.
Some of your game pieces contain elements that are controversial or provocative. I see those as something that is engaging people better. I see those as a bit of a spark—it makes the whole gameplay a bit more real in people’s minds. I’m thinking of the Bathtub Madonna in particular.
WC The Bathtub Madonna is a type of outdoor sculpture that I’ve admired and been fascinated by my entire life—it’s that little sculpture of the Virgin Mary (or St. Francis, and so on) in a small niche that is usually placed on the lawn or walkway in the front of a house. Sometimes an actual bathtub, buried vertically halfway in the ground, is used to create the niche. Using it as a source object was also a conscious decision to reference an event in relatively recent art history—the scandal that arose from Chris Ofili’s use of an image of the Virgin Mary in a painting he showed in the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition Sensation in 1998–99. Ofili’s image was misinterpreted as being derogatory toward Catholicism. But in visual art, so much is about the viewer’s interpretation of what they see that I guess it’s a viewpoint that perhaps has to be taken into consideration.
The integration of the Virgin Mary into The Great Richmond is more about the use of sculpture, even today, to express a need for the spiritual realm. I don’t align myself with any religion in particular, but I’m expressing my admiration for the idea that people still place a small sculpture of an entity or deity they love in front of their houses to both remind themselves and passersby of their love of a mother-goddess, and also for the purposes of bringing that entity’s love and protection into and over their house. That piece represents basic housing stock on the island. I suppose the mall piece is critical of mall culture, as it is kind of dreary and is called Dawn of the Dead, like the George Romero zombie movie that takes place almost entirely in a mall—you can draw your own conclusions.
The Great Richmond is on display through November 30 in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, St. George.
Neil Greenberg is active at the intersection of metropolitan planning, information design, and public transit operations. Originally from Detroit, and sometimes still found there, he moves around often to engage maximally with his projects. Neil uses maps, timetables, and other technical tools to fuel community-centric efforts that are provocative yet practical. Such efforts include CSG Airbus, Summer in the City, Freshwater Railway, and Fake Omaha. His work has been featured at Storefront for Art and Architecture, on WDET Radio, and in ESOPUS Magazine, Print Magazine, ID Magazine, and Triple Canopy, as well as multiple transit industry publications.
Will Corwin is a sculptor based in New York City. He has exhibited at the Clocktower Gallery, Chashama, Aferro Gallery, and LaMama in the New York area. He has exhibited at the George and JØrgen Gallery in London, FRISE Kunstlerhaus in Hamburg, and Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. His work has been seen and written about in Sculpture Magazine, Rooms Magazine, Art Monthly, The New York Times, Time Out Beijing, The Vogue Blog, Art 21 Blog and the Brooklyn Rail. He has a show on Clocktower Radio and his first book, Broken Rooms, a collaboration with poet and author Ellis Avery, was published this year by Crumpled Press.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.