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No Longer Empty’s current exhibition, If You Build It, manages to avoid the ickiness of so many other art projects exploited to anoint development projects on the verge of fruition, and in an art economy that’s popularized the practice of artwashing that’s no small feat. The show, which takes over three floors of the live construction site for Broadway Housing Communities’s latest project designed by architect David Adjaye, thoughtfully and rigorously delves into the history of Sugar Hill, designed “ground up” to speak directly to the space and engage in conversations about community, home, spacial justice, and place-making.
What truly sets If You Build It apart from other likeminded exhibitions is the commitment the show appears to have to making itself accessible to the surrounding community’s residents. Weekly happenings, workshops, and lectures designed around almost every major work in the show keep the project from catering solely to an insular art world, and instead value the everyday intricacies of life in Sugar Hill.
In that way, the exhibition is site-specific to a genuinely impressive degree. Seventy percent of the show was commissioned directly for the building, which will soon be a mixed-use development home to the Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling and much-needed affordable housing. Even the artworks that were not commissioned take on new meaning and life with No Longer Empty’s programming.
The site-specificity of the project can be felt without even attending the workshops and events planned to engage the community. Simply wandering through the third and ninth floors of the Broadway Housing Commission space, which house the bulk of the No Longer Empty exhibition, it’s almost impossible to separate the space from the work. Nearly complete apartments branch off of the soon-to-be residential hallways, where the echoing noises from multiple installations mix with the consistent beeping from unplugged smoke-detectors, an accidental sound addition that feels just as purposeful as the art installations.
On the ninth floor, an installation by Kameelah Janan Rasheed, “No Instructions for Assembly, Activation IV” (2014), embodies the site-specificity of the sprawling exhibition. When I walked into the apartment taken over by the artist, I found another visitor sitting on the couch toying with his cell phone, and for a moment I genuinely worried that I’d inadvertently walked into someone’s apartment. Stacks of books crowded corners and photographs spilled off the walls into piles on the floor. Family portraits perched atop doily-esque fabric on the mantel brought my grandmother’s home in Alabama rushing back. Within the empty apartment Rasheed, who spent 10 years of her life homeless, captures an evocative mix of the familiar comfort of home and memories of the hostile geographies that shaped hers and so many’s experiences.
Original work, like that by Kameelah Janan Rasheed, becomes almost indistinguishable from the pieces selected for the show. A moving piece by the artist Dread Scott felt especially pertinent to ideas of community and authority latent in the show, while also exposing the universality of so many of the themes tackled by If You Build It. The piece features two triptych screens facing each other in which youth from Brooklyn, NY (on one side) and Liverpool, England (on the other) testify to experiences of being stopped by the police. The piece, which is exhibited in a large open space on the ninth floor of the building, was originally created as part of a 2012 collaboration titled Postcode Criminals. For the No Longer Empty show, Scott has designed a public workshop, “Wanted,” that takes the broad-reaching issues of discrimination and personalizes the conversation for the historic Harlem neighborhood. “Wanted” includes a series of “police sketches” of poorly described youth captioned wanted-poster-style with descriptions of non-illegal activity for which these youth are “wanted.” One reads: “suspect is known to associate with other teenagers and may continue to do so.” The visual project is accompanied by public forums hosted at the site to discuss police harassment and the criminalization of youth.
Although the ninth floor houses most of the work curated by No Longer Empty, including my favorite piece, which is an installation by Atlanta-native Radcliffe Bailey, don’t miss spending time with the third floor of the show as well. The empty apartments lining the hallway are all designed and operated by local groups collaborating with No Longer Empty. Curator Manon Slome explained the collaborative projects with local organizations like Sugar Hill Culture Club and Art in FLUX as crucial to the context of the highly curated top floor, housing local and international artists speaking to the Sugar Hill community. “Because [No Longer Empty is] nomadic we can never know a neighborhood the way locals do,” Slome told Hyperallergic.
Yes, the nomadic nature of No Longer Empty may prevent the organization from grasping all the nuance of lived experience in Sugar Hill, but the dedication they’ve shown to availing the exhibition to input and interaction from the community suggests they’re doing something right.
If You Build It continues at 155th Street & St. Nicholas Avenue (155th Street & St. Nicholas Avenue, Harlem, Manhattan) through August 10.