Crossing Brooklyn: Heather Hart

Barter Town XI, Sept 2013. Image via Heather Hart.

Through January 4, the Brooklyn Museum will present a major survey of contemporary Brooklyn art, featuring more than one hundred works from 35 artists. Crossing Brooklyn: Art from Bushwick, Bed-Stuy, and Beyond includes work in virtually every medium, including painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, installation, video, and performance, linked only by place and by an engagement with the modern world. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be rolling out profiles of ten artists who appear in the exhibit.

“I am interested in how we, as humans, relate to each other,” the artist Heather Hart tells me, over email. “How we relate to space. Perception. Assumption. Tradition. Nostalgia. Phenomenology. Semantics. And how these contribute to our forming our identity.” Hart, who lives and works in Bed-Stuy, creates interactive installations designed to explore the processes of interrelation. How do the workings of memory, the churn of social experience, the anxiety of subjectivity, inform who we are? How does that inform how we relate to others? What systems of value arise therefrom?

Maybe “create” and “design” are the wrong words. It’s more accurate to say that Hart conceptualizes the barest conditions of an installation, and then sets it in motion; what happens next is subject to metamorphosis over time. Starting from a personal place, the installations evolve as more people interact with them, over a longer period of time, until they become not Hart’s experiences at all, nor a purely transpersonal one, but something in between. No two are the same. It’s a generous artistic impulse that folds the multitude into the personal as a commentary on human relationships and self-becoming.

Hart has three pieces in Crossing BrooklynThe Oracle of Epicure consists of a pen, a stack of blank index cards, and a golden box filled with recipes Hart copied from a cookbook her grandfather wrote while he was the cook at Williams College. Viewers are invited to write a recipe from memory on a blank card and exchange it for a recipe already in the box. It’s a catalyst for oral history as well as, simply, a recipe exchange. The title has historical and social resonance; it refers to the Greek philosopher Epicurus, from whose philosophy we derive the word “epicurean,” and to the so-called Golden Rule, an ethic of reciprocity espoused by Epicurus (among others) which states that one should treat others as one would like to be treated oneself.

Trading Post is, simply, a series of exchanges, at a literal post, running the duration of the exhibit. Visitors bring written ideas, recorded songs, stories, unwanted goods, handmade art, appliances—”anything they think may hold value and haggle for something that they want,” Hart says. The only rule is that no in-use currency may be exchanged.

The title refers to the historical trading posts where Native Americans and settlers would meet to barter and exchange goods. These spaces were often liminal zones, literally and figuratively: outposts on the border between two civilizations, and also exchanges through which settlers infected Native Americans with smallpox blankets in the westward march toward Manifest Destiny. “I am interested in how spaces can be in-between,” Hart says. “The gap, neutral zone, fence, limbo and yet also the overlap, gray area, plaid, simultaneity, joint, and what is left unsaid.”

Hart’s final installation is a one-off event. Barter Town, which takes place on October 25th, is also a platform to explore how art and creativity can play a role in shifting cultural value away from the purely remunerative to something that encompasses…more. “I want to encourage an alternative economy, one that asks the visitors to think creatively and to have authentic interactions with their neighbors,” Hart says. Barter Town has the appearance of a street fair or block party, but like Trading Post, all exchanges must rest on something other than the U.S. dollar. Visitors can trade services, too, by “teaching someone to dance, promising to clean their room, trading them their extra toaster, painting them a picture, or singing them a song.”

“Each participant who engages with my work brings their frame of reference and their ideas to mingle with the environment I have provided as a catalyst,” Hart says. “I am interested in generating a memory of an experience, a discussion, giving the ‘viewer’ some responsibility in the art process.”

Follow Phillip Pantuso on Twitter @phillippantuso.

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