Interviews

A Documentarian of Brooklyn’s Underground Creative Culture

At a Gemini & Scorpio party (photo by Todd Seelie)
At a Gemini & Scorpio party (photo by Tod Seelie)

It was soon after meeting and befriending Oriana Leckert that I came to know her as the Person Who Knows What I Should Do in Brooklyn at All Times. When I’m looking for a somewhat off-the-wall time, when I want to attend an event that’s creative as well as of questionable legality, I consult Oriana. Or I look at the calendar on her website, Brooklyn Spaces.

Oriana has been documenting what she calls “Brooklyn Spaces” since 2011, and visiting them since long before that. For years, she has made it her mission to go to more places and events in this borough than I have the energy to even think about. In practice, this means she’ll bike between a meal at a city farm, a festival put on by a mini museum, an opening at an art collective, and an aerial acrobatics show in a single day. But more than Oriana’s stamina, I’m most awed by her honest enthusiasm for all of the creative endeavors she sees throughout Brooklyn (and parts of Queens). It is truly boundless. It is the perfect antidote for when I’ve seen one too many terrariums and feel so annoyed at Brooklyn’s self-parodying that I just want to knock the damned things over.

City Reliquary (photo by Maximus Comissar) (click to enlarge)
City Reliquary (photo by Maximus Comissar) (click to enlarge)

On the Brooklyn Spaces website, Oriana chronicles each performance, coworking, and skillshare space (and many more) in an interview with the people who founded or run it as well as photos by her tireless volunteer photographers. In a new book published in May by the Monacelli Press, she’s narrowed down her list of hundreds of spaces to 50, which she represents with brief profiles — including some of the fascinating history of the buildings that house them — and more photos. The book version of Brooklyn Spaces reads like a field guide to the underground creative culture of the borough — and like a love letter to it, from one of its biggest appreciators.

I emailed with Oriana to ask her about moving from blog to book, what makes a Brooklyn space, and why documenting them matters.

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Jillian Steinhauer: In the introduction to the book, you describe the “pure revelation” of encountering the first place you would “consider a Brooklyn space” (Galapagos Art Space, 1998). If that was your first experience in one, when did you know/decide you needed to start documenting them?

Oriana Leckert: It took a long time, which I’m pretty sad about. If I’d thought to start doing this in the early 2000s, I would have wound up with a far, far more robust time capsule of a movement and a moment in time. Instead I spent a decade more or less passively enjoying New York City culture, both in Brooklyn and, for a little while, in Manhattan.

It wasn’t until around 2008 or 2009, when I was unchallenged in my job and had a stable apartment (after moving almost every single year until that point) that I started looking around and realizing that things in Brooklyn were getting more thrilling by the moment — and also more and more fleeting. I’ve traced the project’s origin story to one weekend when I happened to go to the House of Yes, the Bushwick Trailer Park, and the 123 Community Space all in one day, and I was just staggered by the incredible, and incredibly disparate, creative communities fervently keeping each afloat. Within a month the latter two spaces were both gone, and I’d started writing a book proposal. (I didn’t actually try to sell said proposal for another four years.)

At Chicken Hut (photo by Walter Wlodarczyk)
At Chicken Hut (photo by Walter Wlodarczyk)

JS: What makes something a “Brooklyn space”? What’s your definition or parameters?

OL: It’s been a slippery concept from the beginning, but I try to focus on spaces at the intersection of culture, creativity, and community — so places full of people who are pushing the boundaries of creating, whether making art or robots or vodka, in such a fervent way that they draw to them others who are working on the same thing. It helps if they also give back to said community, and it makes for much more interesting research and reading if the space itself has a significant industrial history and has been repurposed in a highly imaginative way. 

JS: You’ve been working on this project for seven years. What trends or changes have you noticed among Brooklyn spaces during that time? (Gentrification seems like an obvious related topic here, so feel free to get into that as well.)

OL: This is such a massive question that I almost don’t know how to attack it. I mean — one could (and probably should) write an entire book spiraling out from this question.

For the sake of brevity and both our sanity, I’ll say that certainly it is getting harder and harder and harder to have a space in Brooklyn today, or to do something very experimental. One of the (myriad) effects of our hypergentrification is that when everything is so expensive, there is no margin for error, no allowance for failure.

If you had an idea for something really innovative or even just really experimental — Mellow Pages Library, say, or the Bushwick Trailer Park, or even Vox Pop Café — if you can’t find a way to make it sustainable and successful very, very quickly, it’s going to die. In times and places where real estate is cheaper and you don’t have city authorities breathing so heavily down your neck, you can relax into your creativity, try out your cockamamie ideas, and see if they gain purchase. I think we’ve lost a lot of that sense of wild experimentation. 

Living Gallery (photo by Walter Wlodarczyk)
Living Gallery (photo by Walter Wlodarczyk)

I could also talk about the movement of concentrated spaces (east and south), or the way people seem more interested now in combining resources and creating community (presumably because many hands / light work, and also to amortize risk), or how one horrifying thing now is how wealthy investors and speculators are making “spaces” that mimic the appearance or give lip service to the idea of the underground, without actually involving any of its experimental creative glee.

JS: On your website for the project, you published mostly interviews, whereas in the book you’ve written short write-ups/profiles with quotes sprinkled in. Why did you decide on the latter format? More broadly, do you have a goal for documenting these spaces in such a methodical way? I think I’m curious because I’m a very opinionated writer, and I would probably want to include a lot more value judgments than you did. I wouldn’t quite use the word “objective” for the book, but clearly this is much more about documenting the facts of the spaces than your thoughts on them.

House of Yes (photo by Michael Blase) (click to enlarge)
House of Yes (photo by Michael Blase) (click to enlarge)

OL: This was a very intentional decision in both ways you mention — style and objectivity. Firstly, the entries on the website are long. Like, arguably preposterously long; I bet very few people even read them, or read them completely. I feel okay about that because the internet is endless, and I have infinite room to let folks meander through any and all topics they choose, and I hope these will be a historical record that people might want to access many years from now and will be glad for. With a book, though, there were significantly more constraints in terms of length and focus, but there was still so much I wanted to put in. The only way to come close to hitting all the things was to do a lot of summarizing, which I didn’t think it would be fair to ask space proprietors to do. 

Then as regards to the tone, well. You know me but your readers don’t, so I will diplomatically say that I can be rather enthusiastic at times — really to such a degree that I knew if I let myself get excitable, I’d undermine any hope of being taken seriously.

I do want this to feel objective, as much as possible; no one wants to read a hagiography, I don’t think, certainly not of Brooklyn, which at this point is often viewed with some skepticism and scorn. I worked very, very hard to stay neutral, to focus on what happened and how and where and why, as opposed to waxing endlessly starry-eyed, undermining my whole project with too much joy. I want people to be awed and impressed by the places and people I’m documenting, and to find me a sympathetic but honest chronicler. 

JS: There are 50 spaces in book. Did you have to leave any out?

OL: Ha — yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I have my own secret list of 300+ spaces all across Brooklyn, including 100 or so that have closed since I started keeping track. Plus have you noticed that Brooklyn is HUGE? There are so, so, so many more that I don’t know about yet. It was really, really hard to pick just 50 for the book. The list wasn’t finalized when I signed the contract, and I didn’t settle on the 50th space until about two weeks before the manuscript was due.

Bushwick City Farm (photo by Alix Piorun)
Bushwick City Farm (photo by Alix Piorun)

JS: What are some of the spaces that didn’t make it in that you wish had?

OL: There are so, so many. One I really love is Mayday Space, an activist-y community gathering space, which wasn’t quite finished by the time I had to finalize my choices. Another is UnionDocs — I love, love, love what they do, but I was worried that most of it wouldn’t translate so well into photographs. Or Mellow Pages Library, which I really regret not putting in, but I just had so much stuff in East Willamsburg, I wanted to diversify. Here’s a few more I wish I could’ve included: Open Source Gallery, Golden Drum, Brooklyn Robot Foundry, Shea Stadium, Grace Exhibition Space, La Luz, Robotic Church, Kymberle Project, and the Puppetry in Practice Museum in Marine Park.

JS: Were the people whose spaces you were documenting generally open to the project? Did anyone not want to participate because they wanted to stay off the radar/underground?

OL: In general, yes, people were really excited to share their stories, and even more thrilled once they had a book to hold in their hands. A few told me they bought copies to send to their parents, which was so sweet. There were, however, two spaces that I really wanted to include who ultimately declined. Out of respect for their privacy I won’t say what the spaces were, but they’re both very special, and I was disappointed not to be able to put them in.

Rubalad (photo by Alix Piorun)
Rubalad (photo by Alix Piorun)

JS: A large part of what makes the book so unique is that you’re documenting mostly DIY, hands-on, scrappy spaces — I almost think of this scene as running like a current just below the surface of Brooklyn. Did you ever worry that writing about these places could somehow have a negative effect? Why do you feel that documenting these spaces is so important?

OL: I’ve always been extremely careful not to do anything to compromise the spaces I write about because yes, those are really valid concerns!

It’s such a fine line, because of course many of these spaces live or die based on getting people in the door, but too many people or the wrong sort of people — who don’t understand how important it is to keep the space under the radar — could compromise the whole project.

My rules have been to get everything approved by the folks at the spaces (that did, of course, heighten the logistical insanity of producing the whole book in three months!) and to not reveal anything that the folks running the space themselves do not. Early on, my publisher and I discussed using a map of Brooklyn as the Table of Contents, with a star to indicate each space, but I knew that would be too risky. If the space has a website or Facebook page, though, I’ll include it, to give potential audiences a way to try to find them.

City Reliquary (photo by Julia Roberts) (click to enlarge)
Yankee Ferry (photo by Julia Roberts) (click to enlarge)

As far as the importance of documenting these spaces, I just think that they’re too bizarre and wonderful to be lost to history. DIY spaces are, by nature, incredibly fleeting, and many have such a short lifespan that they are only ever experienced by their creators and a few dozen friends. I want to open that up and capture it, so that people who never would or could have experienced what goes on here in person can still marvel at the crazy, wild beauty of it all.

Brooklyn Spaces is published by the Monacelli Press and available from Amazon and other booksellers.

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