On a strip of Flatbush Ave between the Manhattan bridge and BAM, there is an inconspicuous, dilapidated building flanked by chicken joints and fleeting discount shops. The swathe of sidewalk tolerates pedestrian traffic next to a road that is too broad and divergent, the crossings too long, to ever be transformed into a welcoming corner of the city. The door to this building was once beautiful, as were the big arched windows along its commercial ground floor. Now, you’re more likely to avert your eyes to avoid the probing strobe of traffic lights and angry cars than you are to notice the boarded-up windows. The windows technically are not boarded up, not by intentional covering paper or wood planks or For Rent signs. Rather they are blocked from the inside with a hoarder’s cornucopia of furniture tending to the commercially large: a table for twenty, salvaged restaurant equipment, and entire foregone bars. We lovingly call this building MEx, after the Metropolitan Exchange Bank sign that endures above the high ground floor—a sign put there by a set designer when the building served as the backdrop for a scene in a Rom Com more than 30 years ago.
Once upon a time, on the top floor of MEx lived a raggy collective of young, brilliant artists, many already lauded and accumulating accolades. They coalesced organically and without formality, attracted by the natural forces of their talents, which spanned engineering to art installations, music to fashion. Most, if not all, brought a technical background to their creative vision—so much so that enough powerful elements colluded to define a wave of “makers” who insisted on a synergy between the beautiful and the intellectually brawny. There, under leaky skylights and crumbling infrastructure, I met Andrea Lauer.
Andrea is undefinable as a creative and I’ve noticed that any attempts to try to define her succumb to lists, impressive lists, but still lists: artist, fashion designer, technologist, costume and character designer, story teller, educator, set designer, inventor, activist. Andrea is outrageously versatile and accomplished in so many different media that another list is required: theatre, opera, dance, film, music videos, photoshoots, protests, immersive installations, television. Yet in her versatility, she is not a chameleon. Andrea retains her indefatigable style, as though something of her charming, inimical, not unpunk character glows in every creation.
Leading musicians and artists rely on her to create styles and identities for the Grammy Awards, the Tony Awards, their high-glamour photoshoots. Her credits include: Rolling Stone, Vogue, Interview, Nylon, Paper, and OUT magazine. On Broadway alone, she is accredited with over 50 productions including costume design for American Idiot and Bring it On. She is a recipient of the Baryshnikov Fellowship and a Lucille Lortel Theatre Awards nominee. Not least, her designs have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her production design credits include The Royal Albert Hall, Shakespeare's Globe, and, appropriately, our former neighbor BAM. Andrea has longtime collaborations with the Pilobolus Dance Organization, the physicalist choreographer Elizabeth Streb, and the cabaret-inspired persona Meow Meow.
Her activism finds its natural form in designs for the body like her Brick x Brick jumpsuits which, when worn at protests by a line of provoked women with inter-linked arms, forms a wall of defiance, a mockery of “the” wall. The suits have been donned with the vibrancy and urgency that fueled the recent Women’s March, Black Lives Matter protests, and political uprisings. Some have found their way into the New York Historical Society Museum and Library.
She is the force behind RISEN DIVISION, a couture workwear fashion brand of her own creation that celebrates the art of the jumpsuit. She also owns RISEN from the Thread, a design and innovation agency focused on the human body and its relationship with technology through which she invents products to augment human capacities for the McCann Worldgroup advertising agency and the NYU Langone Medical Center. For all of these works and her underlying creative vigor, Andrea has held many coveted positions including as an MIT Director’s Fellow and New Lab Artist Residency.
Still bound by MEx, Andrea would visit me in the early days of sciences at Pioneer Works, when the third floor of the beautiful, old building accommodated an errant, torn couch that suited me ideally in my meditations on the potential and future of the otherwise raw and unfinished space. Unlike MEx, Pioneer Works occupies a quiet street corner bordered by sparse, one-way traffic in a remote part of Brooklyn. Plywood floors were stapled onto that third floor of the building to provide uneven footing in a vast space too big to be called a room. There, as though out of the very wood dust, exhibitions grew into film sets and temporary painters' cubbies and just as quickly everything would be swept away, effaced as though by a brutal, efficient storm. When empty, the space became an observation deck to stare into sunsets over the river and views of Manhattan and the bridges that connect the boroughs. The third floor presented an improvement on the conditions at MEx, but still retained an echo of the same permissive vibe, as though the lack of infrastructure encouraged the unwieldy sculptures and the active welding. In time, we transformed the third floor into the soul of the Science Studios, which feel as though they have always been there, in continuity with the building’s history—a manifestation of our belief that science is part of culture.
Our collaborations, Andrea’s and mine, are as natural as conversations and are as ongoing as the themes of any long friendship. Andrea would attend a science lecture at Pioneer Works on genetic manipulation, quantum mechanics, or dark matter, and in the swirling amino acid of thoughts and emotions, charged by her own curiosity, a primordial spark would ignite. In response she would prototype and invent on scales small and large. She has made a series of clever patches that read like puzzles to accompany the Scientific Controversies series. The patches are dispensed from a refurbished cigarette machine of her design in the Science Studios. Then came the bandanas, a harkening back to the canonical sweat-absorbing bandanas of filmic scientists out in the field. Picture Jane Goodall in the mountains. These pre-coronavirus garments were a prediction to be followed by the more on-the-nose, literally, masks in her Dark Matters series. Her influence pops up in these bespoke adornments and her RISEN DIVISION jumpsuits that have become the couture workwear uniform for many of us in the studios and can be spotted on stage and in the audience of our events.
In a recent interview with Lee Anderson, Andrea said, "I like to make things that have value and that capture memory, that capture an experience. They are often things that are a takeaway of an action so that it can live on. They’re my versions of time capsules, but they’re all my secret signature. I like that I can put out little pieces of magic into the world that someone will either unlock or not unlock, but everyone will do it in a different way."
In 2019, Andrea joined the Science Studios at Pioneer Works as an artist in residence. The video above features her time with us. Her collection of Scientific Controversies Patches, Signature Series Bandanas, and the Dark Matters Masks are now available in our online store:
The Pioneer Works Broadcast is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Program in Public Understanding of Science and Technology, bridging the two cultures of science and the arts.