Having spent thirty winters in Florida, Phoenix and California, we tend to hibernate in New York when the wind-chill factor drops below 20 degrees. For those of us born in the Truman administration, a January Saturday night means looking forward to diet hot cocoa and reading the Sunday New York Times online. Inside.
But tonight we made an exception and put on our thermal underwear so we could see the talented filmmaker and photographer Nathan Kensinger, whose Abandoned Brooklyn exhibit opened with a reception and screening of his documentary Covered Tracks at UnionDocs, a documentary arts collaborative whose space is a convenient if brisk seven-block walk from Dumbo Books HQ here in windswept Williamsburg.
Despite spending over an hour feeling as though we had been packed in olive oil into a vacuum-packed Angelo Parodi can, braving the cold for a crush of wall-to-wall hipsters was worth it for this kickoff of a new season of UnionDoc's Documentary Bodega screening series. We knew it would be from having seen Kensinger's Brooklyn waterfront photos last summer during one of our warm-weather treks to the Grand Army Plaza central library.
Gothamist said of the artist and this new exhibit:
Nathan Kensinger is an urban explorer, filmmaker, location scout and photographer. Illegally accessing areas that normal folks don't usually see, his photos give everyone a glimpse at what's inside the restricted areas. His work has landed in the Brooklyn Museum and Library in the past, and now he has a new show about to open at Union Docs called "Abandoned Brooklyn," which shows "the rapid pace of development along the waterfront has been reshaping many old industrial neighborhoods" in the borough.
And from our friends at Gowanus Lounge:
[Nate's] work explores off-limits parts of the urban landscape. For the last five years, he has been documenting the industrial neighborhoods of New York City. His documentary “Covered Tracks” - which explores an abandoned homeless city underneath Manhattan - is currently screening at festivals around the country including Slamdance, The Boston Underground and Rooftop Films.
In 2008, his photos of Brooklyn’s endangered industrial waterfront were exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum and in a solo show at the Brooklyn Library titled “Twilight on the Waterfront: Brooklyn’s Vanishing Industrial Heritage."
We were one of the last people who could stuff themselves into a space clearly not designed for so many Brooklynites with so many layers of clothing. After paying our suggested $5 donation (OK, they let us get away with four singles, all we had outside of a twenty), we somehow made our way to the photos on the south wall and soon found ourselves pinned in a tight spot.
Luckily, we were standing up against a gorgeous photo of an abandoned hangar from Floyd Bennett Field, near where we grew up (P.S. 203, where in 1962 we were in the first sixth-grade class to graduate the former K-8 school, is still the Floyd Bennett School) and which we passed all the time on our bike and on sometimes daily car trips to Rockaway - back in the day when the Air National Guard and other units still flew planes we could see from our house.
(In the late 1970s Floyd Bennett Field was home to the New York Avant-Garde Festival, where we once witnessed a woman dressed as a giant penis being asked to take off her "obscene" costume by a harried National Park Ranger - by then it had become part of Gateway National Recreation Area - sighing that he was "just doing my job.")
At 7:30 p.m., everyone was asked to sit down on the floor if possible - for us, it was definitely not, due to space limitations, but only art and wall were behind us - and a member of the UnionDocs collective thanked us for coming and introduced the evening's two documentaries. The first was a short piece directed by Joe Pacheco that shows Kensinger at work exploring an abandoned sanitation depot on Kent Avenue.
It was fascinating to see Kensinger in action (though we noticed he moves very deliberately, since as he says, the floors or ceilings in these abandoned spaces can give way suddenly due to rot) and to hear him expound on the beauty of these not-so-bare ruined choirs. The Kent Avenue sanitation depot has memos on the bulletin board dating back to 1987, and at times it looks like the place was left hurriedly. . .
Covered Tracks is a wordless, starkly beautiful look at the abandoned rail tunnel under Riverside Park and the rest of the west side of Manhattan. People used to live here, and we remember them from the 1980s when we'd spend most summers and some autumns staying with our BFF on West 85th and Riverside and hang out a lot in Riverside Park a few blocks down by the Boat Basin. They were mostly middle-aged guys and their girlfriends and had pretty neat spaces; one guy we recall (Doug?) used to sell books on Broadway.
Anyway, trains run through that tunnel again - Covered Tracks ends with a shot of an affluent-looking little kid on what seems like an Amtrak passenger car - but the remains of the Mole People and other residents of the tunnel and tracks are evident: photos of "family" life down there, forlorn old dolls, discarded clothes and cooking supplies. Kensinger's cinematography makes good use of shadows, allowing us to speculate on the lives lived and lost there. (Holy moley, at one point we see a human skull in profile!)
After the films, we all sat (some of us stood) frozen in place if not in temperature, as Nathan Kensinger answered a few questions about his work and how he came to explore these abandoned spaces. He says that when he goes to a city, like Paris, he tends to look for thse kind of places rather than tourist attractions - perhaps because they tell him more about everyday life, and death. Memento mori.
The backyard to UnionDocs was opened up after the Q&A and we managed to move again (we're glad we're not all that claustrophobic), and having been hemmed in by hipsters for so long, we were grateful for the cold night air as we made our way back to Dumbo Books HQ, where for once we were grateful that we are living all alone in a huge seven-bedroom house which will never be part of abandoned Brooklyn.