An Artist Dug Up the Secret Prehistory of Governors Island
Using core sampling hardware to drill beneath the manicured surfaces of New York Harbor's former military post, David Brooks conducted a deep dive into the unique site's human and non-human past.
David Brooks, Rock, Mosquito, and Hummingbird: A Prehistory of Governors Island, 2017 (detail). Site-specific installation, mixed media, dimensions variable. View of scaffolding for the three flight paths as they continue into the magazine, Governors Island, New York. Photo: The Trust for Governors Island
When Brooklyn sculptor David Brooks isn't traveling to remote corners of the world, he's immersing himself in complex systems back home. Brooks has installed suburban rooftops near Times Square, planted a forest of artificial trees in Toronto, dabbled in the black market for exotic fish, and buried a backhoe at Storm King Art Center. And while the artist's recent show at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art in Ridgewood, Connecticut, saw him strip a combine harvester down to the nuts and bolts, his new project on New York Harbor's Governors Island uses heavy machinery for its intended purpose: boring holes to reveal the former US army post's sedimentary history.
GARAGE: You're a sculptor, but as I understand it, there's an archaeological, even extractive quality to your new project. Can you describe what you're doing here?
David Brooks: I was commissioned to make a site-responsive project; it's titled Rock, Mosquito, and Hummingbird: A Prehistory of Governors Island. The island has only been open to the public for about ten years—its military history dates back to before the Revolutionary War. The Coast Guard decommissioned it in 1996, President Clinton designated it a national monument in 2001, and in 2003, the Federal Government sold it to the people of New York for one dollar, stipulating that it not be developed with permanent residences. It has such a dominant association with the military that the histories of indigenous peoples and nonhuman life there are less often discussed. My project goes against that grain.
Governors Island is an anomaly—it never went through the same development as the rest of the city. Twenty-two acres of it is also a National Park and has been the subject of regular archeological study. Unmarked remains of earlier colonial and precolonial inhabitants have been discovered there. But my impulse was to think on an even longer timeline.
You started drilling.
I wanted to extract core samples from around the island, to mine a deeper history. We contracted a rotosonic drill, which uses vibratory sound, to extract ten-foot-diameter cylindrical sections of earth, called core samples, down to many hundreds of feet. This technology is commonly used for ore and oil prospecting. The three sites we bored on the island have distinctive personas and historical significance. Inside the historic Fort Jay, built in 1808, there's a magazine where they used to store powder kegs, cannonballs, and other munitions. It's subterranean and acts as a kind of bomb shelter, and entering feels like the descent into a coal mine, with its long, dark entrance tunnel and vaulted chambers.
The cores are positioned throughout these chambers as three lines of earth that show the strata progressing from the surface down to the Manhattan Schist. One is simply a straight line; another follows the flight pattern of a mosquito, which looks like a drunken meandering; and a third follows the flight path of a hummingbird. At the ends of each of these trajectories are bronze plaques dedicated to the three lines of flight: the Manhattan Schist, as slow time; the Asian Tiger Mosquito, which beats its wings eight hundred times per second, as instantaneous time; and the Ruby-throated hummingbird, whose flight patterns are imperceptible to our eyes. In this way, the project maps vectors of time that are ordinarily invisible.
Why was the island singled out for being "not developed"? Was there an idea that it would be turned it into something like Roosevelt Island?
Since its transfer to the City of New York, the island has always been envisioned as a public amenity. All kinds of uses for its historic buildings have been considered since then, with education being at the forefront. Without condos, it won't become just like everywhere else in Manhattan, and art has been a central activity. Meredith Johnson, who came to Governors Island from Creative Time, commissioned this work as the inaugural project in a new curatorial program.
In your recent appearance on Art21 there are scenes of you skateboarding around the Upper East Side. You aspired to be a professional skater before you moved to New York in the 1990s. It seems like quite an arc from then to now.
Looking at the city through the lens of a skateboard you really notice the texture of the built environment, what it's made of, and what its potential is. A key turning point for me was attending Cooper Union. I started thinking about the material of the building itself, a sandstone commonly used throughout the city at that time. It's Triassic arkose, which formed when modern birds and crocodiles originated. What a wondrous way to understand and live in a built environment—through its evolutionary origins.
I was teaching at Haverford, near Philly, a few years back, and I'd be driving across the Pennsylvania boarder when suddenly the road would change from grey-black asphalt to earthy red aggregate. Pennsylvania shale. Part of what I'm trying to do with this new project is create unexpected juxtapositions like that, where deep geological time collides with something very immediate, almost flippant, as in the flight of a mosquito, which you might end by slapping it on your wrist.
It sounds to me like you're dealing with this idea that's been circulating about the "Anthropocene," or human-dominated time. There's also a sense of the hyperconnectivity that's characterized the last few decades.
That's right. And of course this recent phase of intensified globalization is just an acceleration of the Anthropocene. In fact, the Asian Tiger mosquito has only been here for about thirty years—it stowed away in shipping containers from Southeast Asia—and now it's responsible for instances of dengue fever, dog heartworm, and encephalitis.
In general though, I'm careful about ideas of the "natural" and "unnatural," or even what we call wilderness. They're human constructs. Becoming aware of Frederick Law Olmsted and his planning of Central Park really affected my thinking. The park was supposed to be a "natural" escape from the city, but really it's an incredibly idealized space. It could be seen as almost a journal or diary of the different sites that Olmsted spent time with along his many journeys by foot across the Northeast in the nineteenth century. These layers of culture and environment intersect all the time. Like Flatbush, in Brooklyn, the name of which refers to flatlands comprised of a five-mile wide outwash plain that was deposited by a melting glacier that traversed New York twenty thousand years ago.
So generally, the Anthropocene, the period in which humans have been shaping the environment on a geologic scale, has proved inescapable. Even the last vestiges of virgin forests around New York are impacted by changes in atmospheric carbon levels. But in this project on Governors Island, we are able to see records of New York from before human impact in the layers of shale and glacial clay atop the ancient schist bedrock, and also in evidence of magma intrusions, which hadn't been confirmed on the island until our borings.
What's the strangest thing you found down there? There's been news lately of a burial ground holding up a development in Gowanus.
There was nothing that crazy, and we did consult an archeologist before boring. There are remnants of indigenous cultures of course, in the form of buried midden. We encountered a stratum of mollusks at 68 feet in one drill site. And apparently there tobacco pipes buried throughout the area, like discarded cigarette butts today. I'm on the lookout for those.
If you could drill a core sample anywhere in the city, where would it be?
Anywhere along the East River, where there's been so much intervention in the land over so many years, and where Manhattan itself is composed of infill. But even Governors Island is partially constructed. Two-thirds of it was made from the infill of earth excavated from the Lexington Avenue Subway line. Now it's basically a floating Central Park.
In that sense, there's kind of a colonial quality to it. This island that was heavily militarized is now becoming gentrified—an annex for joggers or music festivals like the Governors Ball back in 2011, or Full Moon. It makes me wonder, who is your installation for?
That colonial quality is really evident when you look around at all the old structures, many of which have a Georgian or Federal style. They fell into ruin after the military and Coast Guard decommissioned the island, and you'd hear stories of people trying to break in and explore. But now all sorts of people use this place. When visitors have asked me about the project they chuckle at the idea, but they also really get it. It jolts people out of their normal conception of time and the role of art, and they start to understand this place differently. It's the Robert Smithson idea of thinking about "sites and non-sites." So the installation is really for as wide an audience as that which uses this island, and should incite as robust a view of their place in history as possible.
I find that thinking about deep time is actually something I'd rather not do. Reading those old John McPhee books about the geological history of Brooklyn, or looking at more recent articles about the speed of global warming—which you have to think about if you are on an island around here—makes me feel life is rather meaningless.
I had an existential crisis about ten years ago about this, but now I don't know if it's all doom and gloom. In fact, it's almost arrogant to assume we know more as a species than we do. It's quite likely we'll drive ourselves to extinction and take a number of species with us. But in terms of scale and speed we could be completely off in either direction about how close we are to environmental collapse. For example, the Great Barrier Reef is dying off some thirty years ahead of predictions. But then down in the waters off Miami there are a couple of species of coral that are actually quite resilient to acidic waters and the heating of the ocean. In fact, they're thriving. It could be an anomaly, but it's also a real marvel. It's imperative to cultivate a wonderment of and respect for the world around us—we're intertwined. If I felt hopeless, I wouldn't be able to be an artist; I'd have to be an activist. There are things that art can show us, that it can do, that activism simply can't.
It's pretty clear that this project is site-specific, rather than moving through the gallery system like a commodity, and a lot of your work is engaged physically with the places you go. For people who can't see the work in person, what advice do you have for finding that sense of place in a city?
Start with the small things and move out from there. A while back I was sitting in my studio, working on a sculpture, and started wondering where the oak floors came from, and the sheetrock walls, and the wood ceiling joists, and the copper in the electrical wiring? There's a great deal to discover within these everyday things. That's less obvious today, with the interconnectedness of things; we just assume we can order anything we want online and it just appears, seemingly from nowhere. That's the old idea of the commodity fetishism—that these objects with complex social origins just show up, like ghosts. That's why I like birdwatching: you can do it anywhere, and by following the patterns of raptors or songbirds, you can get a sense of these perpetual global cycles that play out around us.
So one thing I hope happens with this project is that people see this place differently, on a different scale, and in multiple dimensions. At the three drill sites we've installed bronze plaques that reveal the geologic histories and nonhuman stories of the area. For example, there are squirrels on Governors Island today, but they've only been there since the end of the nineteenth century. Someone thought it would add to the experience to have wildlife around. But they had to be brought to the island by people—squirrels can't swim.
David Brooks's "Rock, Mosquito, and Hummingbird: A Prehistory of Governor's Island" is open to visitors on Governors Island until October 31, 2017.
Ian Bourland is a critic and historian of the global contemporary. He is Assistant Professor of Art History and Theory at MICA in Baltimore, Maryland.