Exhibition Project Title
Year.Small Brief Info, Only one line
2015. Installation photographer and curatorial brief co-editor for artist and architect Michele Gorman, who produced a projection/data-visualization exhibition at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.
Published by ArchiteXX
The weekend of May 23, 2015, Green-Wood Cemetery commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Civil War with a variety of exhibitions and events honoring this important period in American history. One such program was the installation of This is My House of Green Grass: The Raw Retrieval of the Civil War, a data visualization “happening” by architect-artist Michele Gorman. Installed in Green-Wood’s historic catacombs, This is My House of Green Grass was a visual analysis of the cemetery’s archive, synthesizing information about the five thousand soldiers, musicians, nurses, doctors, and abolitionists who now rest within Green-Wood’s 478 acres and represent New York City’s involvement in the Civil War.
For many years, Green-Wood officials thought that approximately 500 Civil War participants were buried at the cemetery. But recent research led by Green-Wood historian Jeff Richman reveals that there are more than 5,000 interred on the grounds. Richman’s large research team continues to uncover information about local involvement in the Civil War. The perennial question is, how to bring the public closer to the both the newly uncovered information and the landscape of the cemetery?
Gorman’s approach made use of her training in architecture to translate this archival data visually, spatially and acoustically. Early in 2015, Gorman approached Richman with the idea of developing interpretive strategies for his ongoing efforts to digitize all Green-Wood records, which will be ongoing through next year. Using light and sound installations strategically in the catacombs, Gorman sought to represent Richman’s research in new ways, to reveal new narratives about the Civil War victims and heroes and personal relationships between them. Utilizing the catacombs in a hillside deep in the cemetery, the slowly pulsing of lights of This is My House becomes a kind of heartbeat that gives new life to its history.
As a neighbor of Green-Wood, Gorman was interested in activating the cemetery as an escape from the fast, dense and hot spaces of the city. She saw the catacombs, particularly, as a place that engages the social history of the city, and evokes pre-urbanized landscapes. In Gorman’s words, “The site operates as a threshold that mediates the archival data and the burial ground. Contextualizing the research within the depths of the cemetery, as an alternative to a museum or gallery, for example, was a critical element of the project for me.”
My House of Green Grass takes its title from the German folk poem, “Where the Fair Trumpets Sound” about a soldier who died in war. In the story, the soldier speaks from the afterlife to his lover who is still grieving his early death. The communication between the dead and the living in this poem provided inspiration for the tone of the project: “Who then is outside and who is knocking, that can so softly awaken me? … I’m off to war, on the green heath; the green heath is so far away! Where there the fair trumpets sound, there is my home, my house of green grass!”
Like Mahler’s grieving lover, Gorman’s installation awakens—visually, spatially, and acoustically—the life of the centuries-old archive within the dark corridors of the catacombs. In one installation, designed in conjunction with sound artists Alex Marse and Ben Rubin, a narration of text and numbers pulled directly from the Civil War data reckons with the causes and pace of deaths during and after the war years. On a screen suspended at the end of a vaulted corridor, projections scrolled through handwritten death index cards chronologically, flashing light with each passing year, slow drumbeats amplified based on the number and speed of the deaths. While displaying data from 1862, at the height of the Civil War, the beats sounded like a racing a heart. A multitude of nationalities, ages and familiar New York City addresses flashed by on the lines of the index cards, showing obvious causes of death during the war years– “killed in action”, “battle wounds”, and “typhoid fever”–fifteen years later, deaths are still related to the extreme circumstances the participants went through. “Consumption”, “dysentery”, “pleurisy”, and “skin cancer” were lasting effects of war that did not end with the war itself in 1865.
The result was a re-imagining of the archive, both spatially and sonically, that creates a new virtual landscape made of light, text and sound – a completely new way to see and experience archival data and historic research.