Bradford Young’s three-channel film Bynum Cutler, installed at the Bethel Tabernacle AME Church in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was presented as one of four site-specific works making up “Black Radical Brooklyn: Funkgodjazzmedicine,” a group exhibition organized and sponsored by Creative Time and the Weeksville Heritage Center. The projects all took place within walking distance of Weeksville, which encompasses three restored homes originally belonging to an independent black community founded in 1838 by former slave James Weeks. Xenobia Bailey collaborated with students at the Boys and Girls High School to craft furniture from found materials for one of the historic houses. Nearby, Simone Leigh created the Free People’s Medical Clinic, staffed by local health workers, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant home of the late Josephine English, the first African-American obstetrician/gynecologist to practice in New York State. Otabenga Jones & Associates conducted a live radio broadcast, with programming in tribute to former Bed-Stuy cultural center The East, from the back of a truncated vintage Cadillac at the intersection of Fulton Street and Malcolm X Boulevard.
Young’s project, as well as the other three, emphasized architectural place as a touchstone for cultural memory; stressed community involvement in the construction and reception of the work; and reflected upon how a historically black neighborhood has consistently and creatively attended to its own needs despite meager resources and the continued trauma of structured inequality.
Bynum Cutler (named after the character of a former slave in an August Wilson play) begged an attitude of quiet reverence from its audience, a consequence of its appeal to pure spectacle. The gothic ambience of the crumbling paint and weathered pews in the dimly lit building added a private solemnity to Young’s installation, which was strikingly different from the interactive bustle of the other works.
The black-and-white video was shown on three adjacent screens, each of which offered a series of nearly still images that had been shot in and around the church by Young’s team. Faces of local churchgoers, a pair of shoes, an old hat, facades of the 19th-century bungalows at Weeksville and the ruined architecture of the church sanctuary-all were framed as structural components of a community that is both of the past and not quite lost. A recurring focal point in Young’s cinematic landscape-where movement was limited to wind on a grassy field or the advance of distant traffic-was a black square panel anomalously inserted into various shots. In one image, the panel appeared to float in front of the entrance stairs to the church. In another it emerged from a meadow surrounding the Weeksville homes. This repeated invocation of the frame highlighted a crucial element of the piece’s intent: Bynum Cutler reframes commonplace objects and locales via the heightened artifice of film in order to train the attention of viewers onto their environment. Filmed in an area fast-approaching the front lines of gentrification, this work underscores that—in the material evidence of a community’s efforts toward spiritual, cultural and economic independence—there is something worth the effort of keeping.
The techniques of Bynum Cutler could be accused of heavy-handedness. Bright solarization, slow-pan shots and a droning soundtrack punctuated by whispering voices conjure drama that borders on the grandiose. But the boldness of its spectacle is perhaps necessary for the fulfillment of its intent to transform an all-too-common scene of neglect in an underfunded urban neighborhood into a memorable artwork rallying for sociopolitical awareness.