Something odd is happening on 14th Street. A slightly built man is carrying an antique wooden yolk across his back, ambling down the sidewalk. Attached are two buckets of dirty water. Behind him, by about three blocks, is another man, this one toting a yolk made of broom handles; behind him, a third, his yolk made of PVC. A final man follows, his yolk made from aluminum, padded by a florescent pink and black kerchief. When I ask what they’re doing, they explain they’re carrying water from the East River to the Hudson, and back again, all afternoon, as if it’s the most natural thing in the word. Yes, this is a performance art piece, called Pump 14, by the new collective Brolab (a spin on the 1970s Manhattan art collective CoLab.)
At the edge of the island, the group dumps the buckets in the East River (a fish pops out of one) and uses a pump to refill them. “We want to slow things down a little, go back in time,” says Ryan Roa, an artist who usually works with light sculptures and installations. “The futility is part of it. We’re not doing something that different than everyone else on this street.”
Travis Southworth, who recently received a fellowship in photography from the New York Foundation of the Arts, says, “The heart of Brolab is really our connection to each other. This is obviously a sisyphean task.” He adds, “The city forgets it is surrounded by water. We’re bringing it through, and people recognize and interact with it. It’s about futility, but also about masculinity and labor.”
Can a girl be a bro? “That’s certainly a question,” says Raul Alexander, a Brooklyn-based painter. “There was a young woman who volunteered and helped us this week. It’s just that when you have a collective like this sometimes a mixed group ruins things. Suddenly someone’s sleeping with someone, and then there’s tension…” Adam Brent, a Brooklyn sculptor who focuses on domesticity, place and memory, is listening to headphones while he hauls his buckets. I ask what he’s listening to. “You only live once. I’m trying to multitask. Getting the pregame for the Yankees.”
What have reactions been to the piece? “We get a lot of looks. But then, a lot of people don’t look. Everyone is texting. I have had people say that we have too much time on our hands,” says Ryan. “But it hasn’t been easy to make this time. I don’t have health insurance, or go on vacation. We make sacrifices for this.” Adam agrees: “This activity has given me an awareness of labor. Feeling it, and seeing it. And it’s helped us interact. It’s not political in any way. It’s been wonderful.” Alexander continues: “There’s not a product, but there is a continuous process. It’s about creating energy where something can happen.”
I ask if they’ve heard of the Zen proverb “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” They have not, but smile ruefully. It makes sense. On Friday and Saturday, the group will be joined by Ken Madore, who has spent the last few months in a boat building colony upstate and is traveling to the city to carry his bamboo yolk for the 24-hour cycle the group will be performing this weekend, culminating in a Happy Hour at Otto’s Shrunken Head, tomorrow, from 3 to 6pm. When I mention that seems harder than the New York Marathon, considering they wont be going in shifts, Adam does some math on his phone, then buries his head in his hands. They will be covering about 40 miles in 24 hours. But Brolab is, on the whole, cheerful. They are not artists who relentlessly advertise themselves, or think they’re just too talented for hard work; Brolab is passive, gently relentless, and quietly liberating.
If you see them this weekend, cheer them on. Or buy them a beer.