Art Breathes Life Into a Derelict Courthouse

A long abandoned courthouse in the Bronx started groaning yesterday, as an exhibit of interactive art installations sprang to life. Among the site-specific pieces there were audio and video elements recorded by the artists inside the courthouse.

Artists have been working alongside construction workers since the beginning of the year to bring new life to the building, which has sat derelict for nearly four decades. The Old Bronx Borough Courthouse on Brook Avenue and 161st Street will have art installations on three of its five floors into the summer of 2015.

“We’re really about opening up this site to the community that has been closed and an eyesore for some 40 years,” said Manon Slome, founder of No Longer Empty, the organization that is responsible for bringing the exhibition into being. “Now it’s breathing with art, with culture. And we’re giving a platform to the community to speak about what they would like to see here.”

The non-profit group has been around for five years and is known for finding new uses for dilapidated and abandoned buildings. Other notable locations it has exhibited at include the Bronx’s Andrew Freedman Home on Grand Concourse and the Tower Records store in the Lower East Side. This most recent project will run until late July.

“No Longer Empty is nomadic, so we’ll be here for three months,” said Slome. “We’re holistic as well. We do want to think about how art can revitalize an area and how the local population can benefit from a concentration of art and culture and educational programming in their vicinity.”

The latest project at the old courthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in Bronx County, is very much a mixture of construction site and work of art. In one room, you’re immersed in a visual and aural aesthetic, clanging sounds and flashing lights. Turn a corner and you’re in a room filled with piled high trash bags—not a work of art.

The exhibit includes works by 27 artists. The artists were invited to view the space and read No Longer Empty’s extensive historic research of the courthouse before designing their pieces. This gives the installations a unique affinity with the courthouse.

Artist Teresa Diehl said her work “L-aber-into” plays on the idea of a courthouse being a place where you have to conquer obstacles. Her interactive piece forces the audience to find a path through the conflict. She plays with video, sound, lights, objects, and labyrinthine walls made of beaded strings.

Skowmon Hastanan’s piece “Timeline” plays with the concept of history through exploring the courthouse’s rich past. She pulls the ideas of architecture, justice, and biography together in an installation on the first floor of the building. The work includes a performance that plays on the idea of a personal timeline and will be shown on five Saturdays through the summer. Hastanan, who has called the Bronx home since she arrived from Thailand in 1973, volunteered to produce a piece for the show.

Diehl and Hastanan hope that the projects will bring new life and hope to the neighborhood as they have done with the building.

The local community seems unaware of the movement in the bowels of the abandoned building. One passerby said, “Why do they have a black flag on the building?” While a group of cops standing on the steps to the 42nd precinct building next to the courthouse said they didn’t know the art exhibition was starting already. But they’re pleased the building will no longer be empty and hope this means it will get fixed up soon.

“It’s a magnificent building, which has been sealed up for 40 years. It’s really a shell of its former self,” said Slome. “There’s a sort of welcome in the building—it feels happy to be opened up again.”

You can see the exhibition and No Longer Empty’s program of events from 1 p.m to 7 p.m. from Thursday through Saturday until July 19.