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Here’s the deal with Billyburg benches

The Brooklyn Paper
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One afternoon in Williamsburg recently, Gretchen Shukdinas walked over to a “No parking” signpost at Metropolitan Avenue and Roebling Street and did something amazing: she sat down on it.

Ten sky-blue seats, like the one that eased Shukdinas’s burden, have been affixed to traffic poles in the neighborhood since the middle of September and have become objects of affection, utility and curiosity.

“I just assumed the city put them in,” Shukdinas said, assuming wrong. “But I don’t care. I’m waiting for my boyfriend and with these heels, it’s great to have a place to rest.”

Don’t thank city bureaucrats. The wooden platforms, bolted through the holes on the metal signposts, are the work of artist Caroline Woolard.

Entitled “Have A Seat,” the multi-site installation is her attempt to make the sidewalk a destination and not just a conduit from one place to another.

“It’s an invitation in some ways,” said the 22-year-old Woolard. “Of course I hope people sit, but they’re free to not do so, of course.”

Woolard says she’s seen it all, from an entire family using a platform as a picnic table to late-night bar-goers using one as a trampoline.

“I can’t believe the city allows something this neat,” said Marcia McAtee of Greenpoint as she attempted to balance en pointe atop a seat. “Usually, they’re no fun at all.”

So far, the city appears not to have taken notice.

Lt. Steve Mona, commander of the Citywide Vandals Task Force, said he’d gladly summons Woolard if she’s caught in the act.

“I am not an art critic, I am a cop,” Mona said. “If you deface someone else’s property, you are a criminal, not an artist, and you are going to get arrested.”

But, off the record, one of Mona’s colleagues took a lighter view.

“If no one complains, we’re probably not going to take action,” the other cop said.

Woolard says her “project” explores the relationships between art and functionality and between people and public space. They’ve also become magnets for grafitti — which Woolard doesn’t mind.

“I used the city as my canvas,” she said. “The [grafitti writers are] just doing the same thing.”

While Woolard’s installation may have lofty ambitions and academic credibility, passersby generally see a comfortably seat where there was none before.

Recently, Woolard observed a man resting on one of her seats outside his restaurant and asked to take his picture. He couldn’t quite understand why she thought this was picture-worthy; he was just sitting down.

“That’s what I like to hear,” she said. “They’re part of the cityscape for him.”

The seats are unobtrusive; they are sized for one person, and take up less space than bicycles. Woolard is still hesitant to publicize her work, “although, if they arrest me, maybe it would start a debate on public seating.”

“I don’t think she has to worry,” said police officer Rodney Larges. “I just used it to tie my shoe.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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