If you went to a liberal arts college, are a fan of Scottish indie bands from the 90s, or have basic understanding of the history of photography, you’re probably vaguely familiar with the term camera obscura. “Camera Obscura/Gowanus” is the title of a new temporary art installation in (surprise) the Gowanus section of Brooklyn, and it’s both super cool and — if you want it to be — educational! Read this and then register for tickets on the double!
photo: The Vanderbilt Republic
The Very Basics
Produced by The Vanderbilt Republic and created by George Del Barrio and Ashton Worthington, “Camera Obscura/Gowanus” is described by the pair as a “3,000-square-foot epistemic machine powered by the sun — capturing an ephemeral Brooklyn panorama and personal moment in time.”
We respect that — and yes we had to look up “epistemic.” But the nitty gritty of the piece is that it transforms a huge loft space in an unassuming building on the “banks” of the Gowanus Canal into a camera obscura, resulting in inverted live images of the surrounding area being projected onto the walls and other strategically-placed surfaces within the completely-darkened space.
(To review, very roughly, a camera obscura — Latin for “dark room” — is an optical device consisting of a box or room with a hole in one side. Light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside, where it is reproduced upside-down, but with color and perspective preserved. Lots of smart people have been fans through the ages, including Aristotle, Leonardo DaVinci and 5th-century B.C. Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti.)
Get buzzed-in at the door of a grey, industrial-looking building across from Lowe’s and head up a couple of flights of stairs. When you walk into the (very dark) space, a helpful person will orient you and give you some basic info, and then the space is yours to explore.
Some vaguely groovy, trance-but-not-trippy or distracting tunes fill the space, and several feet ahead, you can see some kind of projection, where (you’re told) there are a couple of seats to hang in while you get your bearings and your eyes get used to the darkness. (Our guide said something to the effect of, “Once your eyes adjust you’ll see all kinds of things.”)
At first, it’s really dark (but rest assured, not in a scary way). And then, as promised, you can see multiple images projected on the walls and other surfaces. Some are big and grainy, some are focused and in vibrant color — all because of the variables affecting the projections: the size of the holes through which the light is coming; lenses; the material on which the images are being projected, and the distance from the light holes to the surface displaying the image. In other words: physics, optics, etc.: it’s up to you to study up to explain to the kids should you so choose. (There’s even a sly biology lesson in here, as the difference between what you can see when you enter and what’s visible after your eyes adjust, i.e. your pupils dilate, is pretty astounding.)
photo: The Vanderbilt Republic
Tips for Your Trip
First thing’s first: The exhibit is closing this weekend, and tickets are limited. NOTE! You need to register in advance here. (Tickets will be made available mid-week.)
Have questions? Ask away! Staff can help explain how the show works, what makes the images different from each other, etc.
Be sure to stay in the space long enough to let your eyes open up — it really does make a difference — and be on the lookout for the subway train pulling out of the nearby Smith-9th St. station. We recommend plopping down on the comfy couch and relaxing for a bit if you can.
Children under 12 years old must be accompanied by an adult at all times, but we’re not crazy — there were kids taking in the exhibit when we were there.
Have you checked out Camera Obscura/Gowanus with the family? Tell us what you thought of it in the comments below!
— Mimi O’Connor