Listening In: Illuminating the Landscape
Jakab Orsós gets some of his best ideas while biking. One night, riding around Brooklyn, he got an eerie sensation: “I passed by these darkened libraries and thought how great it would be if they could start whispering to you.” The city was feeling oddly emptied out anyway this summer, with a major retreat of its citizens into any verdant, low-density option available. But among the city’s many shuttered buildings, the libraries seemed wrapped in a particular type of desolation: they appeared mute, even sepulchral.
It was out of this that he developed Whispering Libraries, a program of spoken word pieces—“could be a contemporary poem, could be the first paragraph of Moby Dick”—that would play as you walked past. The buildings were speaking again.
“At a basic level,” he says, “we had to show people that we are still here.” The project is in its trial phase and will soon be up and running in 12 library buildings all over Brooklyn. The next step: having people attach speakers to their bikes and ride around broadcasting these playlists, forming natural bridges between the city, the wisdom it contains, and how people traverse it.
It makes sense that Orsós thinks a lot about libraries; he is Vice President of Arts and Culture for all 62 branches in the Brooklyn Public Library system, and he creates programs for BPL Presents. But what sets his thinking apart is its capacity for engagement. Orsós not only brings programming to the library, but turns the library outward. His programs are equally informed by the immateriality of knowledge and the physical texture of the city.
For another recent series called Cinema Ephemera, he employed the striking curved Deco-inspired façade of the Central Library as a screen. On either side of the enormous doors, filled with golden figures in composite poses, he broadcast visual mixes of short films, slide shows, and assorted arcana-like vintage video games. These were accompanied by a booming disembodied soundtrack by the brilliant contemporary string quartet ETHEL. I came to the last presentation of three of these evenings, and at first was dismayed by the miniscule turnout. But gradually people started to come through, and the large plaza became dotted with small groups of watchers, some intently followed the pulsating synesthetic mixture, others just pausing briefly and puzzling over the spectacle taking place on this warm autumn night.
For Orsós, that range of responses is welcome. “I like that sometimes people are just walking or riding along, and all of a sudden they’ll hear something. Some people would stay, some would just walk right by—that’s all part of it. You may not be in the mood to participate, but you’re still kind of absorbing it. Then on another night, you might have 200 people show up, clapping and dancing. It was totally unpredictable.” Lately, Orsós sees people’s relationship to performance changing. “That’s why I focused on the ephemeral,” he explains, “in this new era, it seems we’re all sort of drifting along.”
The work by ETHEL occupied their usual wide swath of territory, from the Copland-esque American drive and melancholy of founding member Dorothy Lawson’s “Epic Soda” (2015), part of their Documerica project, to a striking, dark-hued work, “Pisachi (Reveal),” by Native American composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate. Their approach is open-ended but never out of reach, as evidenced by their long residency as the string quartet-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, playing weekend early evenings at the Balcony Bar—I’ve seen them perform widely varied programs there over the years, and they have always knocked me out with their passion and precision.
ETHEL came into the mix following their participation in another Brooklyn Public Library initiative, Creatives in Residence. That program brought together people from different fields—besides the musicians, architect Jonathan Kirschenfeld, essayist Suzanne Maria Menghraj, and others—as part of a William Kentridge project called In Praise of Failure, produced in partnership with his also memorably named Centre for the Less Good Idea. The basic idea seems to be, as in Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto” (1855), “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”
Likewise, Orsós himself does not lack for ambition. In this politically fraught moment, he launched the 28th Amendment Project, seeking public engagement to articulate the most pressing next revision to the Constitution, with the help of framers including journalist Nathaniel Rich and ACLU President Susan Herman. The issuing of this crowd-sourced amendment on October 17 was accompanied by an even more broadly participatory project, Sheryl Oring’s I Wish to Say, in which she gathers messages from hundreds of Brooklynites directly addressing the future of the country. The messages are sent in the form of postcards to the White House.
Orsós is always illuminating the community around him, sometimes literally. With Cinema Ephemera, he turned the plaza in front of the Central Library into a free-form screening space, a kind of avant-garde drive-in movie theater without cars. Four years earlier, when he first started this job after long runs at the head of PEN World Voices Festival and the Hungarian Cultural Center, he took the opportunity to connect with that great civic space next to the library, Prospect Park. “It was January 2016, and I thought what we really need is a campfire. So we held a program around a campfire in the park on the theme of, ‘What does it mean to be homeless?’” Another park project was University Open Air, which brought together immigrant professors, “teachers who can’t teach here, because they don’t have the right paperwork or just can’t get through the maze of academia, so they’re working as bakers and livery drivers and bookkeepers just to keep a roof over their heads.” The program has been running successfully, all with voluntary contributions for staff, for three years. Another benefit, says Orsós, is that “it’s liberatingly romantic to have classes under the trees.”
More recently, Orsós and his team developed a never-before-used interstitial space near the library, the small greenway on its northern front edge, where the grandeur and ever-present traffic of Grand Army Plaza opens onto the racetrack that Eastern Parkway has become. Here the sculptor Heinrich Spillmann created large ensembles of objects, which functioned as surprisingly comfortable urban living rooms: Brâncuși meets Siah Armajani. Orsós had seen pieces by Spillmann on Governors Island, and they worked together on the most recent project. He thinks that this newly activated area connects perfectly with that landmark entity just up the block, the lush and spectacular Brooklyn Botanic Garden: “That place is amazing!” The Brooklyn Museum right next door seems a logical step after that, especially since that institution is also intent on reaching out and folding in the nearby community.
As optimistic as he seems to be, Orsós worries slightly about his adopted home of New York. “I see the whole city in danger of slipping into a kind of metaphoric and literal darkness,” he says. His goal is to connect it with the greatness of its past: “I’d like to see our buildings come back to life, and for all of us to feel energized again.”
Orsós attributes some of this own wide-ranging creativity to his background. “I think it comes from being an Eastern European Roma,” he says. “I’m always looking for synergies and untapped potential. I like to see creativity employed on the fringe. It’s interesting to me to be investigating where the boundaries are.”