Proteoscope » Krista The Blog of Proteus Gowanus Thu, 12 Nov 2015 16:51:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Making Utopia Fri, 06 Jul 2012 20:49:36 +0000 Future Migration’s Frogs-In-Residence have received a lot of press recently.  Please check out this link to an interesting article on Eben’s work and research around frog populations by Nick Normal of MAKE Magazine.  Thank you to Nick for this thoughtful look at the making of the Utopia For the Golden Frog, by Eben Kirksey and Grayson Earle, with Mike Khadavi.

The Golden Frog’s Arduino Utopia



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Speculative Migrations: The Future is Garbage Mon, 07 May 2012 20:10:38 +0000

Detail from the installation "We Break Down Ourselves", by Dragomer, Dragomer, Fahandej, and Marovich. On view as part of the Future Migrations exhibition.

One afternoon, while on assignment at the daily newspaper where I used to work, I received an invitation to visit a waste incinerator. The plant sat along a river, in the center of the town that was my “beat” at the paper. The aging facility had been there for decades, dark and solitary, pumping out transfigured refuse through a long, thin, smokestack. Local legend had it that, when the plant was first built (to replace the tax vacuum left by abandoned mill buildings), ashes fell like thick snow onto the windshields of cars. The incinerator was the nexus of a bitter political feud in the city. A group of residents were fighting to push it out of town. I’d been lured into the plant by the manager, who wanted to win me (the dutifully objective reporter) over to his side. He wanted to show me the magic of waste incineration. It was all very secret, the public wasn’t allowed inside.The receiving floor of the waste bunker was thick with a soft residue. My heels sank into it. The ceiling must have been four stories high. It was dark, save the dim lights of trucks that dumped, unceasingly, onto a conveyer belt. The sound of shattering glass rocked the space. The smell was some combination of rot and toxic shock. It’s one of those horrifying experiences that’s remained etched on my mind. What was most terrifying, to me, was the sheer girth. There was just so much trash.

When I think about the future, I think about garbage. We won’t burn all of the trash we’re making. We won’t be able to bury all of it. If we ever start making trash planets that orbit around the Earth like satellites, we can only make so many. Trash changes things. It makes the rats on the subway platform bolder and more enterprising. It brings us all closer together in the grimy cosmic enterprise of the daily commute. It’s already changing the things we bother to feel reverence for, the things we have pious feelings about. This was part of the speculative wager in my collaboration with Krista Dragomer, Kathy Dragomer, and Rashin Fahandej: when we arrive in a futurescape that has snuffed out the radical diversity of creaturely life with layer upon layer of lyrca, aluminum, and circuit boards, who (or what) will we be asking for salvation? Will we be looking back, with the melancholy of nostalgia, to the fragile remains of the creatures we left behind, as we once looked up to the gods?

—Beatrice Marovich

Beatrice Marovich, a Proteus collaborator for the Future Migration exhibition, is a writer and academic who grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She’s now working toward her PhD in theology & philosophy and developing a speculative theory of the creaturely. 

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Material Meaning Mon, 30 Jan 2012 17:28:10 +0000

Early 20th C Specimen Jars Containing Contents of Birds' Stomachs, contributed by Sam Droege

At the opening of Object Migration on January 12, the second show in the migration year of Proteus Gowanus, I witnessed something unusual to such an event: quiet contemplation.

Lining the bookshelves and encircling the room are objects contributed by participants who were invited to lend an object to the show and include with it the object’s migratory story. These handwritten details of the object, its history and the significance it carries can be found on yellow 3×5” notecards alongside the objects.

Objects in the show include a petrified potato, a portable church, glass from the first atomic detonation in 1945 (hopefully not still radioactive), hipbones from an elk, bird stomach contents, a toilet tank part, and many others.  There is a quip from a scorned lover accompanying a hotel shampoo tube, an ecological proposition with a pile of bread tags, and a number of objects of personal significance to the contributors.  There was a mixture of inquiry, incredulity, and nostalgic pondering in the room as guests at the opening would pick up a set of index cards and travel on their own quiet journey.

Watching people interact with the objects brought to mind a class on collage that I was the teaching assistant for in graduate school.  Specifically, it made me think of the one assignment that students struggled with, term after term:  material meaning.  It is an assignment that requires working with an object in a subtractive way, stripping it of the meanings placed upon it (like “this is my favorite”, or, “I remember when”) and try to see, to listen to what the materials themselves might communicate.

Perhaps it was the hardest to teach, because it is the hardest to discern, so ingrained is our habit of jumping from the raw details of a material to the use value of an object in our own lives.

We all know that each and every object that we come in contact with is the product of complicated systems of production, of economics and international politics.   Hold a smartphone in your hand and you carry with you imbricated issues of class, race, wealth and poverty, union struggles and health and safety concerns, suicides off the roof of the Foxconn building.

If we listen closely to the objects displayed in Object Migration, we hear a lot of stories whispered and sung by plastic bottle caps and mass-produced cardboard, by candy wrappers and, of course, all those shiny rings holding together each little pile of index cards.  In the quiet moments of the opening, there emerged complicated choruses of voices, each with different tonal structures, scales, and rhythms.

As Proteus pairs down and gestures back to basic material meaning, the meanings multiply, revealing more and more complex systems to sort through and try to follow, to retrace the migratory routes.  We look forward to your participation throughout the exhibition as we all learn more about the objects that have filled our lives.


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The Reanimation of Gowanus Sun, 11 Dec 2011 22:40:38 +0000
Randy Dudley (American, born 1950). Gowanus Canal from 2nd Street, 1986. Oil on canvas, 34 x 63 5/8 in. (86.4 x 161.6 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Purchase gift of Charles Allen, 87.31. © artist or artist’s estate

I recently visited Proteus Gowanus  to see their Migration show, which includes photocopies of a portion of The The Wallace Gould Levison Collection  in The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives.  Levison was a member of The Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in the early 20th century. The photocopies are from an entertaining account he wrote of the release of sparrows into Brooklyn by members of the Institute which includes anecdotes about the members.

The space at Proteus Gowanus is charming, with rooms tumbling into one another, each housing a different exhibit housed in a different style. One room is divided into two sections, one displaying the history and future of Gowanus, and the other holding The Reanimation Library. The first portion of the room is a cluttered, homey sort of space, with maps and photographs hanging on the walls, found objects trailing across the shelves, and books on the table. The second half of the room contains the library. The Reanimation Library is a collection of nonfiction works which are no longer in circulation. As I perused the shelves, I wondered if my parents had used these books, or others like them, as reference materials in their youth. But what truly struck me about the collection was how it made me feel about the preceding display and the neighborhood of Gowanus more generally. Here was a room devoted to bringing books back to life, just as spaces like Proteus Gowanus are doing for the neighborhood. This feeling increased when I sat down to look at the design project book design project book on the table. Page after page showed ideas for ways to create a beautiful living space surrounding the now polluted canal. I suddenly felt that I was watching the reanimation of Gowanus.

Armed with this vision of the future, I decided to delve into the Museum Libraries and Archives collection for information on the neighborhood’s past. Georgia Fraser’s The Stone House at Gowanus, Scene of the Battle of Long Island  presents the neighborhood during the colonial period. The neighborhood was originally settled by the the Dutch as farmland surrounding the Gowanus river.

James Ryder van Brunt (American, 1820-1916). Van Brunt Homestead, ca. 1865. Opaque and transparent watercolor and graphite on wove paper mounted to pulpboard, 14 3/4 x 18 in. (37.5 x 45.7 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Miriam Godofsky, 1999.112

As the title of the book suggests, The Old Stone House, on third street and fifth avenue, is an important monument of the revolutionary period. During the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn, George Washington used the house as his headquarters. This was the first major battle of the Revolutionary War, taking place on August 27, 1776. The battle was fought in what is now Prospect Park and ended with the full retreat of the American Forces. Despite the American loss, the battle remains important to the history of the neighborhood and brings prestige to the Old Stone House.

“The Stone House at Gowanus on the Battlefield of Long Island From the oil painting by Louis Grube 1846, copyright 1909 by Witter and Kintner.”. Printed material, 5.5 x 7.25in (14 x 18.4cm). Brooklyn Museum, CHART_2012.

In the 19th century, the canal was built along the river for transport during the developing industrial period. The canal was used for shipping and the region surrounding it used for production and distribution for over a hundred years.

Brooklyn Museum: Ship Yard, Foot of Court Street, Brooklyn
George Bradford Brainerd (American, 1845-1887). Ship Yard, Foot of Court Street, Brooklyn, ca. 1872-1887. Wet-collodion negative Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection, 1996.164.2-1782
Brooklyn Museum: Pipe Yard, Gowanus, Brooklyn
George Bradford Brainerd (American, 1845-1887). Pipe Yard, Gowanus, Brooklyn, March 30, 1874. Wet-collodion negative Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection, 1996.164.2-1334

During the mid 20th century, the canal had such importance to the community that a young woman, titled Miss Gowanus, down the canal each year, tossing flowers into the water as she went. But even then the appearance of the canal and its environs was growing bleak.

Vera Giger (American, 1895-1984). Gowanus Canal, Brooklyn, 1935. Pen and ink wash on paper, Sheet: 17 x 22 1/16 in. (43.2 x 56 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Brietta Savoie, 2002.86.2. © artist or artist’s estate

Meg Belichick created an artist’s book,  Miss Gowanus, which shows the industrial significance of the canal coupled with the resulting pollution. She used products of the canal to create the book. The book is only fifteen years old, but it is almost impossible to view the photographs (images Miss Gowanus) due to the petroleum sheets above each page. The sheets have lines of a poem about Meg and her sister fishing, but they are badly cracking. The book also has a lead cover (which required gloves to open). The overall effect of the book is to show how pollution has obscured and beauty of the industrial past.

Despite the current polluted state of the canal and the disused industrial land surrounding it, plans for the cleansing of the canal  and for redevelopment bring promise to the area. Leslie Arnett’s The Glory of Brooklyn’s Gowanus: Legacy, Industry, and Artistry relates the history of the neighborhood from the Colonial era to the present day with personal anecdotes and interviews, but strongly highlights the developing artistic community in the neighborhood and the promise of what is to come.

—Katy Christensen, guest blogger for the Brooklyn Museum Library and Archives

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Migratory Media Tue, 22 Nov 2011 12:44:05 +0000 Proteus Gowanus hosted the first screening of our yearlong Migration Film Series on  Tuesday, November 1. Migratory Media, An Evening of Appropriation and Experimental Animation, focused on the migration of visual data throughout multiple mediums and across timelines. The program of shorts included films from two filmmaking eras that produced breakthrough work using computers: the present and the 1970s. Lillian Schwartz, a pioneer in the development of computer-generated art, was in attendance to screen her rarely seen Apotheosis (1972), Alae (1975) and Olympiad (1972).  In the Q&A afterwards, Schwartz said the software she uses now is more limiting than what she used in the 70s. Schwartz and the other filmmakers in attendance, Steve Cossman and LJ Frezza, discussed the current state of computer software in the arts and how they seek to break through coding systems to generate something new. Schwartz said she missed the randomness that working with a punch-card computing system allowed her to achieve. It was fascinating to hear about the process of these artists, and how the decades between them doesn’t change what they desire from their process.

Appropriation of well-known materials was another theme of the evening’s work.  The selected filmmakers took classic imagery, such as photographs and Hollywood films, and transported them through both format and time. The earliest appropriated imagery was in Toshio Matsumoto’s Mona Lisa (1973), made around the same time as Schwartz’s experiments with computers.  In this film, Matsumoto used Da Vinci’s painting and morphed in alternative background imagery using early video matting techniques.  Similarily, LJ Frezza’s film Nuke ‘Em, Duke (2009) took two John Wayne films and with data-moshing tools, combined them with You-Tube sourced videos of the invasion of Iraq. The Lossless series, two films screened by Douglas Goodwin and Rebecca Baron, used the same techniques as Frezza, but emphasized abstraction more than détournement, using Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and a scene from a Bugsy Berkeley picture.

Stay tuned for the next Migration screening, happening in early December.  Screening program for that show will be announced shortly.

—Sean Hanley, PG Film Coordinator

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Part II: Liberators and the Liberated Tue, 18 Oct 2011 19:21:29 +0000

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

It is often said that history is written by the victors (“Speciesists,” cry the inchworms, “we thread the trees but no one reads!”).  It is hard to know, however, who the victor might be in the case of the sparrow migration.  While accounts in the document (Excerpt of the Source of the English Sparrow, Manuscript and Notes for a History of the Brooklyn Institute, see previous post) include discrepancies in the details on the introduction of the sparrows into Brooklyn, they all converge in the Greenwood Cemetery, where the contentious tale of the sparrow begins.

Sparrow.  Involuntary immigrant.  An experiment.  A solution.  A pest.  An outlaw.  Though there were some previous attempts made, as the document details, to integrate the sparrow into the local ecosystem, the release of the sparrows into the Greenwood Cemetery was the first liberation en masse, and the first nesting place of the birds.  It is perhaps, of no great surprise then, that the sparrows were doomed to the limens of North American ornithology, as figures occupying graveyards and their surrounds, in Western art and literature, often symbolize those shunned or otherwise unable to live among so-called normal society.

The sparrows, scavengers by nature, thriving on the refuse of human activity, spread quickly, greatly outnumbering (and often chasing off) native birds.  The sparrows, like bedbugs and mice, came to be regarded as pests, and many state and local governments across the United States would offer a few cents a head for the extermination of the ubiquitous bird, an offer frequently taken up by children in pursuit for candy money.

Photo from:

These schemes did little to curb the sparrow population, which only began to wane after the introduction of automobile, decreasing the amount of horse droppings that had been the sparrow’s food source.

Needless to say, the sparrows have remained, and do indeed sing of their histories, whether we understand their version or not.  To try to listen, and perhaps comprehend the interwoven stories of human and animal antagonisms and interventions, the layered voices of tragedies and travails, I went to the Greenwood Cemetery, accompanied by writer/musician/sound artist Lindsay Cuff.  This is what we heard.

Greenwood Sparrow


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Brooklyn Bird Lovers Fri, 14 Oct 2011 17:31:55 +0000 Thanks to Proteus Gowanus extending a hand (or rather, wing) to the Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives for the purpose of its “Migration” exhibition series, we couldn’t help but delve a little further into our own history with the topic of migration.  As it turns out, this took a rather literal turn and we didn’t need to look far to discover one particularly affectionate tome in the Natural Sciences departmental report of the Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, expounding on the adventures of one particular group: the Bird Lovers Club of Brooklyn.   The club itself took flight in 1907, after a chance encounter with a friendly Cardinal in Central Park inspired its founders to organize bird-watching walks through Prospect Park.  By the time the article in the Quarterly was published in 1916, the club had visited the park 988 times on these missions, recording a total of 159 species of birds.  It is immediately apparent that these excursions were anything but work to those involved:

“Has all this work paid? Some might say that it has not paid, in a money sense, as we have consumed 103 days’ time, if we allow two and one-half hours for each of the 988 trips made, but against this is the pleasure of becoming acquainted with so many of Nature’s happiest creatures and the storing up of much health through the outdoor exercise. We think it has paid many times over.”- Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3-4 (01/1916-10/1917), pg. 100.

Photo documenting some of the birds seen on a Winter Bird Lovers’ walk. Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3-4 (01/1916-10/1917), pg. 104.

In fact, so plentiful were the observations of the Bird Lovers and their knowledge of Brooklyn bird life, that they organized an exhibition

with the help of the Museum’s Librarian from April 15-April 29 of 1916, featuring charts of different birds, models of bird houses and bird feeders, and graphic representations of bird migration, as well as provided several bird-themed lectures to the public.

Installation images from the Bird Lovers Club exhibition, held in the Museum’s rotunda. Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3-4 (01/1916-10/1917), pg. 108.

The exhibition was heavily attended and was such a success that the National Association of Audobon Societies borrowed much of the exhibit for use in the National Educational Exhibit that Summer in New York City.

In reflecting on these Bird Lovers and the dedication they showed their migratory friends, one can’t help but notice a certain paradox in one of their observations. Regarding the Springtime return of birdsong to Prospect Park, the Bird Lovers note that “Few birds are in best voice during migration” (Brooklyn Museum Quarterly, Vol. 3-4 (01/1916-10/1917), pg. 107).  In this respect we would hope that the Proteus Gowanus  Migration exhibition and collaboration with the Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives actually gives voice not only to these creatures specifically, but also to the issues surrounding migration in all its forms and consequences.  We are happy to be a part of this chorus and are confident that our past counterparts, the Bird Lovers, would also chirp their appreciation in this endeavor.

-Emily Atwater, Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives



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Little Exiles Tue, 04 Oct 2011 15:14:37 +0000 (from News and Events)

Proteus Gowanus is pleased to announce a Migration collaboration with The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives. The Museum has loaned us a facsimile excerpt of an archive manuscript by Wallace Gold Levison, written in the early 20th C. for a book (never completed) on the early history of the Brooklyn Institute, the Museum’s predecessor. The notes recount a fascinating account of the Institute’s role in importing the English sparrow to Brooklyn in the 1850’s, a tale whose outcome is visible to us every time we go outdoors. —TP

Below is my exploration of the document in three parts: the facimile on display at Proteus, the sites where the sparrows were first released in Brooklyn, and the books on view in the Brooklyn Museum Library Reading Room, collected and put aside as an off-site collaborative project.

For more on the collaboration between The Brooklyn Museum Libraries and Archives and Proteus Gowanus, click here


Part I: The Arrival

The sign on the cocoon read: Ennomos Subsignaria Only.  Once inside, the   congregation of inchworms wriggled close to hear what the Speaker had to say.

“It has started, they are coming by sea.”  A shiver went up and down (and up and down again) through the crowd.

“How many?”  One of the smaller worms called out.

“Two, twenty, two-hundred maybe,” said the Speaker, “no one knows for sure.”

The story of the introduction of the English Sparrow into the Brooklyn ecosystem in the Excerpt of the Source of the English Sparrow, Manuscript and Notes for a History of the Brooklyn Institute, reads like a mystery novel.  It is a murder mystery, as the “little exiles” were brought to Brooklyn to destroy the inchworm, an “obnoxious and offensive worm or caterpillar ‘ennomos subsignaria’ . . . on account of their hanging by webs from the branches and falling in great numbers upon the pavements some streets having rows of beautiful shade trees [that were] made almost impassible for pedestrians.”

In the document, there are several unofficial accounts of the beginnings of the sparrow in Brooklyn, each naming different potential suspects to be the perpetrator of the inchwormicide.  Among the possible actors in this power play of Pest verses Passeridae are several esteemed members of the Brooklyn Institute, the nineteenth century precursor to the Brooklyn Museum.

The accounts detail the names and positions (along with anecdotal details about the gentlemen’s running abilities and dentistry practices) of the individual members who might have been involved in the introduction of the sparrows, including how many sparrows they had brought from England to Brooklyn, where the birds were kept for the winter, and where they were first released.

The Possible Perps:

Col. Nicolas Pike, Director of the Brooklyn Institute 1850-1854

Mr. John McGeorge, Librarian of the Institute, who was said to have had the sparrows brought from England in 1856

Dr. Salmon Skinner, an early member of the British Institute and a leading dentist in Brooklyn, having an office before 1845 at 57 Hicks St. and after 1845 at the corner of Montague Street and Henry Street.

Mr. Thomas S. Woodcock, “a gentleman of much experience in such matters,” purported to have had the sparrows brought to Brooklyn in 1856.

Of all the accounts in the document, it seems that the majority of accounts name Mr. Woodcock as the one to have spearheaded the project of introducing the sparrows to the New World, presumably because of his “expertise” and avianistically empathic name (though the coincidence —that sparrows might have been released into the Brooklyn skies by a “Mr. Woodcock”— does seem a bit too perfect, leaving one to wonder if the gentleman described here was, in fact, a flock of sparrows and woodcock accomplices dressed in a man’s trench coat).

The numbers and types of birds that may have traveled with the sparrows also differ in the various letters, along with speculations on the grizzly journey the birds underwent traveling over the rough seas, followed by their first Brooklyn winter.

Many of the accounts mention that some of the song birds accompanying the sparrows were intended for the Greenwood Cemetery, where ghostly songs of skylarks, woodlarks, goldfinches, robins, blackbirds, and thrushes can still be heard echoing between the headstones (songs which, according to the expertise of Mr. Woodcock, translate roughly into: If ye can make it here, ye can make it anywhere).

Homesickness and exposure notwithstanding, some of the imported sparrows did indeed survive the passage and the winter, as is evident today.

Meanwhile, back in 1854 (or 1856), the inchworms of Brooklyn braced themselves for the mass liberation of the sparrows soon to come.

(To Be Continued…)

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Paper Feathers Thu, 15 Sep 2011 23:10:54 +0000 I am sitting in a room (different from the one you are in now), observing Ami Yamasaki attach hand-torn paper feathers along the walls according to the resonant frequencies of Proteus Gowanus.

Yamasaki orients the feathers to the acoustics of the space, which she tests by touching surfaces, tapping on pipes, whistling and trilling her voice like a whippoorwill.  She then maps out the flow of sound, bringing the waves we know in our bodies as vibration and tension, the things we hear and hear past, to the attention of our eyes.

Taking in this process, my senses tune to this space (listening now to my own breathing, to Yamasaki’s fingers smoothing down the paper ends), I am thinking of perception, of the relativity of qualities like fragility, and of what it might be like to be a snail.  How would it be to travel across these endless planes of still white waves?  What languages might I intuit traveling across Braille paper after a lifetime of moving over mud and leaves?

Shifting scale, and in human form again, I now begin to feel the room charged with the pulse of an animal presence, as if sitting in the coil of a huge, feathery dragon tail.  I imagine heat, and half-expect movement.

The paper feathers cannot be contained in one form, however, and they now take my thoughts outside where I can imagine them growing like ivy or crabgrass, up walls, around railings, and thriving, improbably, through cracks of an auto-body parking lot in Gowanus.

Now outside, my thoughts migrate over to the Lower East Side, to the Zipora Fried show at On Stellar Rays, where Fried’s monumental graphite drawings evoke a similar contrast of tranquility and turbulence.  Suspension of time paired with the elegant implication of motion (subtle to my human eye, catastrophic to a snail) ­— a head about to turn, a bird about to take flight.

Attentive once again to the artist-songbird atop her ladder perch, the labor of her body as she covers walls and bookcases and doorways with swirling patterns of whites, and I am here, at Proteus.  I am sitting in a room…


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Here We Begin Wed, 07 Sep 2011 18:15:28 +0000 Migration is movement and change.  It can be cyclical, habitual: a bird flies south for the winter; a school of fish swims upstream.  Migration can be unexpected, forced, violent: the result of wartime cruelties or the indifferent destruction of natural disasters.  The earth shudders, people rebuild, and somewhere overhead a bird changes course.

Transhumance means a seasonal movement of pasture, the transfer of humans and livestock from one grazing ground to another with the change of the seasons. In Moscow, dogs learn to ride the subway and begin to commute daily for food.  And overhead, a bird now calls out to the rest of his flock in a ringtone song he learned on the corner of 3rd and Union in South Brooklyn.

The worlds we have created by our seemingly inexhaustible hunger for new pastures; goods and services that migrate all over the globe, communication, mapping, and tracking technologies that collapse those selfsame distances, move and change us.  It seems we are all becoming transhumans, tech-driven nomads, moving between cultures, generating new definitions of what it means to be from a place, a people.

Proteus Gowanus itself is a migratory creature.  As ideas and objects, people, resources, collective and individual actions intersect and diverge in new and interesting ways, Proteoscope will follow the paw prints, feather trails, fingerprints and skid marks that travel through the exhibitions of art and artifacts, through books and talks, through all the events that converge within, and surround the various components that make up the Proteus Gowanus community.

Thank you for traveling with us.


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