Middle Passage by Vanderbilt Republic
Vanderbilt Republic’s Middle Passage is a vibrant ‘performance art narrative set in a site-specific camera obscura’ at Open Source Gallery. (Photo credit: Vanderbilt Republic)

The term ‘supergroup’ may have been first coined to articulate dynamic collaborations between musicians. We can look to Cream and Wild Flag as some of the best examples.

Enter the visual artist supergroup: a Brooklyn collaboration of Open Source Gallery and Vanderbilt Republic. Add the production assistance and curatorial support of The People Movers, and a trilogy is turning the world upside down.


Vanderbilt Republic’s (VR) Founder and Creative Director George Del Barrio previewed the exhibit for Brooklyn Pulp in the same way he did when I wrote about his camera obscura work last year.  As I closed the front door of Open Source Gallery (OSG), he pulled me into the pitch black space.

One has to fully embrace Del Barrio’s wild ride because, in his world, the feeling of vertigo is comforting.

And while Del Barrio won’t be pulling you through this curiouser and curiouser looking glass in the same manner, you can expect a similar thrill from entering The Middle Passage, a performance art narrative set in a site-specific camera obscura.

camera obscura example
Illustration of a camera obscura. (Image via wikimedia)

Untricking your eye

Let’s talk camera obscura.

When your retina typically views an image, the optic part of your brain makes an adjustment to the visual, rendering it right-side-up. A camera obscura — which comes from the Latin term meaning “dark room” — essentially “untricks” the brain. The reversal and inversion of the image create a sensorial re-shift.

camera obscura at gowanus loft
Camera Obscura/Gowanus by The Vanderbilt Republic in early 2016. (Photo credit: Vanderbilt Republic)

Last year, co-creators Del Barrio and Ashton Worthington inverted the environs of the Gowanus neighborhood, including the BQE, 9th Street near the canal, and the Culver line subway tracks that perch above the Gowanus Loft (61 9th Street between 2nd Avenue and Smith Street), which housed the installation.

Think clogged Gowanus Expressway and delayed F trains rendered meditative within a reverse palette.

Intimate obscura

The intimacy of Open Source Gallery (306 17th Street near 6th Avenue) in South Slope provides a sensorial re-shift in relation to the Gowanus project.

While the viewer is inside the space, the performance includes the world outside the gallery on 17th Street. The visuals from the exterior become theatrical spaces for the movement of the artists.

Middle Passage by Vanderbilt Republic
Photo credit: Vanderbilt Republic

On a crisp winter day accented by pillowy clouds, Del Barrio steps outside the building and gleefully demonstrates the idea. His ebullient figure shifts between spaces as pedestrians, vehicles, and a variety of street noises stream into OSG.

“I’m directing the photography,” he explains. “I’m dedicating myself to making the best photograph I can.”

Gowanus meets South Slope, South Slope meets Gowanus

VR and OSG are no strangers to me, as I’ve reviewed multiple installations and events for each of them. That said, I was not aware that an arts panel would bring them together.

But that’s what happened.

Last September, OSG hosted The Intersection Of Art and Collaboration, a panel discussion which was part of the inaugural Art Slope Festival.

The event featured five panelists which included Del Barrio as well as Monika Wuhrer, Founder and Executive Director of OSG. I served as moderator for the talk and collaborated with OSG Development Director Shauna Sorensen on assembling the group.

art slope panel
The Intersection of Art and Collaboration Panel. [L-R] Dale Williams, George Del Barrio, A.E. Souzis, Monika Wuhrer, Sean Qualls, and Donny Levit. (Photo credit: Open Source Gallery)
“We were really excited to include George at your suggestion and during the discussion, which also included panelists Sean Qualls, A.E. Souzis and Dale Williams, we learned more about George’s work and the interesting things they’re doing at Vanderbilt Republic,” says Sorensen. “After the panel, we spoke with him about potentially scheduling a project at Open Source.”

Sorensen explained that The Middle Passage project connects with OSG’s 2017 cultural mission, which is “to explore culture, tradition, and humanity in general across generational and historical timescales … This is a really incredible project conceptually–and the visuals are absolutely stunning; like nothing we’ve ever seen,” she adds. “We are really excited to be working with George and these incredible artists on an amazing project that focuses on such important issues.”

The Middle Passage from The Vanderbilt Republic on Vimeo.

“A Darkened Space is a Subtle Act of Activism”

While science and artistry play a major role in the installation, the event has an immediacy which bleeds into our social fabric.

OSG, VR, and The People Movers’ explain their approach to the project:

“During our day to day, we operate with a set of assumptions about property, space, race and gender; inside of the obscura, these rules are turned on their head. Artists of color are given the opportunity to present new versions of their work within an illuminated blackout that requires patience and observation for the viewer to fully discover. Within the blacked-out gallery, the artists will fill the space with their light, bringing site-specific work to a darkened space as a subtle act of activism. Every day the theater will fade as the light dies, offering a metaphor for resilience.”

The title of the project refers to the “triangular slave” trade which began in the 16th century, involving Africans traded for commercial goods who were then shipped to the Americas.

“The Middle Passage engages with systemic and historical issues of racism, gentrification, and incarceration,” explains Sorensen. “Especially right now we’re looking to not only demonstrate art’s role in the challenges that we are facing as individuals and as a nation, but we are aiming to create programming that will foster understanding, encourage empathy, raise awareness and inspire action.”

middle passage
Photo credit: Vanderbilt Republic

The People Movers’ Creative Director Kate Ladenheim has curated a variety of artists who create separate performative events throughout January and February.

“The obscura presents inside the gallery what is outside of the gallery; our world, and specifically, a gentrifying Brooklyn block in a neighborhood that is undergoing modern day colonization,” she says. “These are the rippling effects of the middle passage: cruelty, entitlement, disregard for communities. The obscura presents and subverts these images, and makes it clear that they are subject to our own perspective and manipulation.”

Del Barrio’s orchestration of darkness and light produces layers which dig far beyond the visual.

“The obscura also represents a meeting of white spaces and black spaces; these are brought together with the acknowledgment of the faults of white people and the strength and resiliency of black/POC bodies,” adds Ladenheim. “This is precisely why we chose the artists that we did.”

Middle Passage
Photo credit: Vanderbilt Republic

The installation will feature different performers each week. This weekend features comedian and activist Elsa Waithe on Saturday, January 28. You can purchase tickets for one of six performances which run every half-hour between 11am and 2:30pm.

Before I left OSG that afternoon, I noticed the visuals expanding and contracting, as if they were breathing the air on 17th Street and responding to the waves of traffic below on the nearby Prospect Expressway. I mentioned to Del Barrio that the pedestrians, traffic, and sunlight provided elements of chance which may affect each viewing. He quietly refocused lights and adjusting lens.

“Nothing is really coincidental,” he says.

The Middle Passage, a performance art narrative set in a site-specific camera obscura
Presented by The Vanderbilt Republic and The People Movers
Where: Open Source Gallery, 306 17th Street (near 6th Avenue)
When: Various dates and times, Saturday, January 28 – Sunday, February 19.
Ticket Information: View website for details for each performance week. Purchase tickets now for Elsa Waithe for performances on Saturday, January 28.

5 thoughts on “Subtle Activism: ‘Supergroup’ Of Brooklyn Artists Cross The Middle Passage Via Camera Obscura

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