Finding Art and Your Backstroke in Containers & Dumpsters

Photoville's location along the East River with an unobstructed view of lower Manhattan is picture perfect. Photo by Sam Barzilay.

New York City is in a constant state of physical flux: building new structures, tearing old ones down, renovating existing spaces and restoring relics from the past. But the city is also full of unused space, from vacant storefronts to empty lots, and materials that can be re-purposed for alternative uses. Without spending much money, a vessel intended to carry goods from point A to point B can also serve as a recycled building, in essence. Why build something new when resources are scarce and conservation is a goal to aspire to?


That question resonated in the mind of Sam Barzilay, co-founder and co-organizer of Photoville, a photography exhibit housed inside 30 shipping containers at Pier 3 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, from June 22 to July 1.

“It’s [shipping containers] a cheap and abundant resource in a world where resources are getting less and less,” said Barzilay, who rented containers from National Construction in New Jersey. “We have to capitalize on them.”

Barzilay says the reasons for putting on the exhibit in shipping containers are numerous. There’s the sustainability aspect, but of course, money plays into it, too. Renting a gallery for an exhibit is expensive and the intention is to sell pieces to pay for the show. If an exhibit is held in shipping containers in an unfinished park, access to an established gallery and costs are no longer such a looming issue.

“For me the important question is how do you show emerging or not widely acknowledged photographers,” he said. “That’s the economics of it. To cover your overhead, you can’t show emerging art.”

Photoville was conceived of after a successful photography exhibit in four shipping containers at the Dumbo Arts Festival last year. Photo by Sam Barzilay

Photoville is an immersive experience: visitors enter the containers to view art, and leave them for food truck vendors (yet another alternative to renting a storefront space), a beer garden and some of the best views in the city. The idea was hatched out of the success of last September’s container art show at the Dumbo Arts Festival in Brooklyn.


Barzilay says there are a number of companies that will rent out shipping containers, in part because there are so many available, a fact he attributed to an increase in imports to New York City and a decrease in exports. And indeed, containers (and their less sturdy sibling, the dumpster)  have been used for a myriad of purposes in New York City.

Dumpster Pools

The first dumpster pool popped up in Gowanus, Brooklyn, back in 2009. The next year they were outside Grand Central Terminal on Park Avenue, part of the city's official Summer Streets. Flickr/ NYCPhotos-flickr

Pools are hard to come by in New York City. Sure, there are the city pools and private pools, but when the first whisperings of a dumpster pool somewhere in Gowanus made their way through the Brooklyn rumor mill, suddenly everyone was interested in taking a dip near the polluted Gowanus Canal.

The pools were a small affair, and their location was a secret to be discovered by the determined explorer. Luckily for the rest of the city, the pools were considered so refreshing that the city enlisted Macro-Sea, the masterminds behind the pools, to create more for the city’s 2010 Summer Streets initiative, which closed a portion of Park Avenue to traffic on select Saturdays.

Last summer, the dumpster pools popped up in Long Island City, Queens, at The Palms, itself created out of an abandoned bank site and parking lot.

As for this year’s prospects? Unfortunately we are not the bearers of good news. MetroFocus reached out to Macro-Sea about plans for the pools this summer, and received a sad email from Executive Director and Founder David Belt.

“We are not planning on doing the pools this year,” he said.


The Whitney Studio at the Whitney Museum of American Art

In May, the Whitney Museum of American Art opened the Whitney Studio, a former shipping container turned studio. Flickr/ Inhabitat

The Whitney, always on the avant-garde side of creativity, commissioned the architecture and design firm LOT-EK to create the Whitney Studio, which opened last month in the Sculpture Court of the museum’s Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue at 75th Street.

By welding six former shipping containers together into one 472-square-foot box, the team at LOT-EK, which often works with containers, has created a large, double-height space, ecologically sound and perfect for lectures, education events and exhibits and will serve the museum’s disabled and elderly populations in particular.

LOT-EK is also designing the new Pier 57 open-air food and retail market in Manhattan, which features containers in the design. That is expected to be completed in 2014.

And, as it turns out, this is a game with few players: running that pier’s market are the partners behind Dekalb Market, below.

Dekalb Market

The Dekalb Market in Downtown Brooklyn opened in 2011 with 22 former shipping containers for vendors' wares. Flickr/ leonelponce

UPDATE: Eater reported on June 21 that the vendors in Dekalb Market will be forced to move out this fall, to make way for a new housing and retail development on the site. The market will attempt to find a new space.

Only a decade ago, Downtown Brooklyn was home to just a few hundred residents, only a handful of skyscrapers and not a whole lot of cultural activity or retail. Today, the neighborhood sings a different tune. Last year,  residents numbered 12,000 and the opening of businesses like Shake Shack and the Dekalb Market were heralded of signs of new life in the booming area.

Dekalb Market is a joint effort between the architecture firm Youngwoo & Associates and Urban Space Management. Located in a formerly vacant lot at the corner of Flatbush Avenue and Willoughby Street, food vendors, a stage for live music and upwards of 30 salvaged shipping containers filled with people selling handmade wares make up the outdoor market for lovers of what’s called the “new” Brooklyn.

According to the website Inhabitat New York City: “It [Dekalb Market] has brought together local entrepreneurs into not just a market, but an outdoor community center that showcases Brooklyn’s current economy and culture, while hinting at its heritage as a major manufacturing center and commercial port.”

Is this a short lived trend, or something that will continue in New York City and in urban centers across the country and world, as resources become more and more scarce? Only time will tell.

Photoville will be held June 22- July 1 at Pier 3 in Brooklyn Bridge Park and will include lectures and other events as well as photography exhibits curated by the Open Society Institute, The New York Times  and numerous other photographers, as well as a user-generated exhibit curated by the East River Ferry.



MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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