Brooklyn Makes

Worker using a 250-year-old machine to engrave business cards and invitations. Photo by Sarah Nelson Wright.

Brooklyn Makes
A project by Sarah Nelson Wright
with sound by Jennifer Stock
Friday, October 9 and Saturday, October 10, 2009
7:30 – 10 p.m.
Pick up a map at Space on Dobbin (50-52 Dobbin Street in Greenpoint) or download a copy from

A video of Robin Ami Silverberg making paper for artist books projected onto Dobbin Mill. Photo by Nicolas Vernhes.

For the past year I have been working on a project called Brooklyn Makes, a site-specific video installation in the Greenpoint Williamsburg Industrial Zone. On October 9th and 10th, streets that normally seem dark and deserted at night will be activated with three large, colorful video projections revealing the highly skilled and creative labor that takes place inside during the day. Captured inside each business, the videos and sounds bring North Brooklyn’s hidden labor onto the public streets.

Manufacturing used to be synonymous with Brooklyn. When I first moved to North Brooklyn, I heard a lot about the area’s industrial past.  The history is written into the architecture: The Pencil Factory, The Gretsch Building, the (now destroyed) Old Dutch Mustard Company.  Many of these buildings have been renovated into residential spaces, while others have been completely leveled to make way for new construction.

Exploring my neighborhood, I noticed that several of the warehouses I assumed were empty or residential were in fact still industrial. A truck would load sheets of marble, a raised gate revealed an elaborate woodshop, methodical drumming turned out to be a printer. I started working for a filmmaker named Isabel Hill who made a documentary in the 1990s about North Brooklyn manufacturing called Made in Brooklyn, which provided an in-depth look at city policies designed to push manufacturers out of Brooklyn. Growing up in the Bay Area in California in towns that have few traces of industry, my impressions of manufacturing mostly came from old films of people working on assembly lines and statistics from the anti-sweatshop movement. What fascinated me about Made in Brooklyn was the way the workers talked about their jobs – jobs that were satisfying, upwardly mobile, highly skilled, and, to my surprise, creative.

Acme Smoked Fish. Photo by Sarah Nelson Wright.

Today Brooklyn has a well-developed reputation for creativity, much of it high profile. Bands get their start in new spaces in Bushwick, open studios from Greenpoint to Gowanus showcase artists working in all media and material, DUMBO’s art spaces house cutting edge performance, craft fairs and flea markets provide marketplaces for Brooklyn’s independent makers. These creative practices and events often inhabit the buildings formerly home to Brooklyn’s manufacturers. It is now a familiar story: artists seeking live/work space move into commercial buildings where manufacturers are struggling or being pushed out, the creative and residential presence makes a formerly industrial neighborhood desirable, and most artists eventually get priced out by high-end residential development, fleeing with the manufacturers, left to wander to the next frontier. Unfortunately for many displaced industrial businesses, the cost of relocating in the city often spells doom.

These two groups, artists and manufacturers, have often been pitted against each other, despite sharing some practical needs as well as other, more intangible similarities. In recent years, the explosion of the craft community highlights the act of making as a creative act in itself, one that is highly satisfying even in the absence of design. This is why knitters will pay more for yarn to make a scarf identical to one you can buy for less, the one produced overseas in a factory by a person who is overworked and unfairly paid. There is pleasure both in the act of making and in the act of resisting alienation from the things in our lives that comes with globalization.

The idea of craft today resists the idea of factory, or at least the idea of factory as many people imagine it: abusive, repetitive, and unskilled. But visit many of the surviving manufacturers in Brooklyn and you find the same level of skill, attention and dedication to quality of work that occurs in Brooklyn’s artist studios and craft circles.

In contrast to the work of artists and crafters, who lend value to their work by leaving their marks, most industrial labor is invisible. Hidden behind warehouse doors, the meticulous work of these makers erases their presence from the objects they make. The more perfect the job, the less you see of the person who made it – and the architecture concurs. Often industrial spaces shut out the public, many times with good reason. The manufacturer may have valuable equipment or trade secrets to protect and safety regulations to follow, or, more likely, the sounds and smells may bother passersby or residents.

Something is lost, however, both for the plight of industry in the city and for the consuming public in this invisibility. It is difficult to build public support for manufacturing the public cannot see. In a city where most people work in service industries, knowing how things are made is exciting, and knowing thing are made here, even in small pockets, gives hope in the midst of a disempowering economic system.

During Brooklyn Makes, I hope to give the public a peek into this hidden world. At Royal Engraving, most employees are new immigrants and many start sweeping the floors and end up learning the art of printing business cards and invitations on 250-year-old machines. Acme Smoked Fish, one of the largest smoked fish processors in the United States, employs 150 people. At Dobbin Mill, artist Robbin Silverberg makes handmade paper for artist books on custom equipment made by another nearby manufacturer. Each video provides a unique window into a complex fabrication process.  Come see for yourself!

The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.

2 Responses to “Brooklyn Makes”

  1. …perhaps what is happening in Brooklyn could be incorporated
    by Channel 13’s “Craft in America.”

  2. Jill Marcum says:

    This is the most coherent artist’s statement I have read in quite some time, and as a Brooklyn resident I think it is a brilliant project – can’t wait to check it out!

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