It is early when the construction crew arrives, marking off a 5-by-5 square of sidewalk in white paint and examining the excavation site. Alan Greenberg, who owns the Acme Office Furniture Co. one block west of the site, notices the scene.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he says to the crew trucking down Crown Street when they explain to him what they are doing.
“Nope, it’s the truth,” replies one of the excavators.
The truth they handed down to him was this: The 3,000 pounds of New Haven they had just outlined were going to be dug up and shipped, parking meter, signage and all, a few time zones away, to The Luggage Store, a museum in San Francisco. They were part of a series titled “Where We Are is Always Miles Away,” the brainchild of Tavares Strachan ART ’06.
The next day, Laydon Construction — which donated its excavation services to Strachan — was back. The excavation was geological in precision, unearthing pavement, curb, dirt and manhole covers, each artifact’s position noted.
Strachan’s team filled vats with Crown Street air. They used sensors and computers to record and recreate Crown Street lighting and catalogued the position of every cigarette butt and shrub. Strachan even included a few feet of dirt from below the sidewalk, giving the whole piece a “cake-like aesthetic” and allowing him to ask the question about where, exactly, territory ends.
In San Francisco, Strachan will piece 20 Crown Street back together in a glass box in a dark room, so that the only light will come from this glowing chunk of city.
“I was wrestling with the idea of territory, of literally owning something, with the idea that you can’t take any of it with you after you go,” Strachan said. “It’s going to be this piece of Knight’s Square at 10 a.m. in every way.”
This piece of Knight’s Square, said Yale School of Architecture professor Alan Plattus, may very well be New Haven in a nutshell. The oldest commercial district in the city, thanks to its proximity to the harbor, the intersection of Crown and State streets became “somewhat derelict” after changes to the land between Crown and Long Wharf resulted in a disconnection with the harbor. In the 1970s, an ambitious renewal project sponsored by McCormick Brown, added market-rate affordable housing and small retail outlets, that have gradually revived the neighborhood, Plattus said.
The locale even has a history of inspiring artistry, Plattus said. Director of the Yale School of Art’s Graphic Design program Sheila Levrant de Bretteville completed “Path of Stars” one block away, embedding the names and histories of famous New Haveners in the sidewalk, a la Hollywood Boulevard.
“It has become a charming part of town with a lot of history,” Plattus said.
Today, 20 Crown Street is recently repaved but already fossilized, sidewalk squares restored in mismatched colors and varicose veined with cracks. A $13 train ride and 13-minute walk from the Big Apple, in an anonymous stretch of downtown, 20 Crown St. is isolated, Strachan said, but it is an isolation that can only be acquired by being overlooked by hundreds of people each day.
And if Strachan can’t stick the graveling crunch of tires parallel parking right up against the 5-by-5 chunk and the chain link fence clanking to the rhythm of idle fingers dragged through it in a San Francisco museum, he’s going to stick in everything but this auditory tattoo of 20 Crown Street.
Strachan first contacted the city of New Haven’s economic development office a year ago, asking about the prospect of owning a tiny chunk of real estate.
As “Project Teleport,” the City’s eventual shorthand for Tavares’ brainchild, took shape, it turned out that the corner of Crown and State was an obituary waiting to happen, said Tony Bialecki, deputy director of economic development in New Haven. Next fall, when the buildings surrounding it are renovated, the sidewalk would have been ripped up and resurrected in any case.
“My ideas hinge on metaphysics, on where things start and end,” Strachan said. “We want what we can’t have.”
In the first room of his studio, there’s something that looks like a crystal ball suspended from the ceiling. It’s a cloud generator: When he boots up the computer next door, energy from various parts of the sculpture building starts heating up water. The hand-rigged switchboard, with its visible soldering, is connected to wires climbing up the studio walls. These control how much liquid can enter, when pressure builds up and for how long, and how many times the “tss-tss” of atmospheric dust will enter the ball, Strachan said, imitating the dust spray with his tongue pressed against his teeth. Nobody can own a cloud, he said, but is it really any more absurd to claim to be able to own a piece of New Haven?
Strachan is an engineer and a problem-solver, a mad scientist playing Dali: He has Fedex-ed a chunk of the North Pole to the Bahamas, to be displayed in a solar-powered refrigerator; he has built his own urine purification kit.
Strachan said he plans to return to the Bahamas after working for a few years in New York. He graduates this year, though the fact is not important enough to make him remember his thesis date, which he said he is pretty sure is sometime in February. When he moved to Providence from the Bahamas to attend the Rhode Island School of Design, he hooked up a light meter to his mother’s house in the Bahamas, and had it feed measurements in real-time to a computer-controlled light box in his dorm room so he could replicate the subtleties of Bahamian sunshine.
Strachan is drawn to things that transcend time and space, or that should transcend time and space; his favorite poster, which he has plastered over his studio in various conformations, lithographed and silk-screened and inverted, is of Ham, the first chimpanzee to go into outer space. Ever since leaving the Bahamas, he has also been preoccupied with the idea of being in two places at one time.
Hence the glass shards deliberately strewn across two tables in the middle of his studio. Strachan shattered two bottles across the base of a column, then used a 3-D scanner to create an exact replica of each of the hundred-plus fragments, doubling the icicle splinters of the Heineken and the Budweiser’s planed neck. Strachan even saved his rehearsal for the project, a canvas-sized ink blot in red that he copied over precisely in blue, just for practice.
“We all ask these sorts of childish questions,” Strachan said. “My artistic interests have to do with a fascination with science and with the impossible, but the gesture itself is joking, supernatural.”
And by the dint of triangulating all his interests — in the physically impossible, the oddities of space and the vaguely ludicrous — Strachan came up with Project Teleport.
The construction crew returned the next day, Greenberg said, and loaded the aging chunk of sidewalk onto skids, like something Jurassic intended for preservation and further study.
“I told you I was telling the truth,” the same construction worker said to Greenberg.
“And I guess he was,” Greenberg said, retelling the story and chuckling. “Good for them. Art is art.”