COCOON – The Emergence of Historical Legacy

Kate Browne’s Public Space Sculpture in Steelton scheduled for 2023

Photo By Eric Etheridge
Story By Christina Heintzelman –

Cocoon – verb – (Cambridge Dictionary) ‘to protect someone or something from pain or an unpleasant situation.’ As a noun – a silky warm covering.

Kate Browne expands on this meaning by stating, “This is a way to put the past, present, and future together in one place at one time. It’s a connection to missing links in history.” Her structured cocoons are illuminating people, events and meanings too long hidden from view by allowing the history of a place to emerge into the light and elucidate our understanding.

Browne is a York County native, now living in New York City. She is a performance installation artist who has worked on her international COCOON series since 2008. The series focuses on sites of forced and voluntary migrations and the struggles with traumatic histories and conflicting narratives that arise.

At this time Browne has created six of her cocoons, three internationally and three here in the United States. Her seventh is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2023 in Steelton. She has already begun interviewing and recording Steelton participants for her newest venture.

When asked “Why Steelton?” She responded, “My father worked at the steel mills in Steelton and Williamsport when I was a young girl, and I realized the emotional reaction I was having when I considered Steelton as home to my next project.”

Browne states, “In all locations I collaborate with local people who assist in building the large Cocoon. I also interview and record each participant and take a photograph of anything special in the form of memorabilia that they may want placed inside the cocoon. Their recorded testimony is heard within the finished sculpture.” She adds, “The project culminates with carrying lights past communal memory points, ending at the COCOON site.”

To understand the importance and depth of the Steelton project, it is necessary to start at the beginning of Browne’s story with the first cocoon, which was built in Tlatelolco, Mexico City, Mexico. This project began in 2008 and was completed in 2010.

Browne discovered the area in Mexico City named Plaza de las Tres Culturas (Square of the Three Cultures) during her search for a suitable space with an historic story. This plaza was the site of an ancient Aztec temple which in later times during Spanish conquest was rebuilt into a Catholic church using stones from the Aztec temple. The modern plaza on this site was completed in 1962 and included a public housing complex adjacent to the square, creating a multilayered historical record.

 In 1968 a protest occurred here prior to the Summer Olympics, which were scheduled that year in Mexico City. Protestors claimed that they had no say in democratic governance and that the Olympics only benefited the wealthy. At least forty protestors were killed according to the government of Mexico, but witnesses placed the number much higher.

In 1985 this area was hit by an earthquake that collapsed tens of thousands of homes, killing 10,000 people, injuring 30,000 more and leaving at least 250,000 people homeless.

This COCOON project took place with many people from the neighborhood, especially the Chihuahua Building directly alongside the plaza. Both people who were there during the ’68 massacre and the earthquake participated, along with other community members.

The second and third Cocoons were built in Mississippi in the towns of Jackson and Greenwood, which are approximately 100 miles apart.

Greenwood is at the eastern edge of what is known as the Mississippi Delta Region, along the Yazoo River. The land is flat and contains some of the most fertile soil in the world. This land was appropriated from Native American tribes, mainly the Choctaw tribe. European settlers realized the land and the location along the Yazoo River were perfect for the growth of cotton and sugar cane. And thus began the migration to this area of both white farmers and enslaved blacks. After the Civil War, as blacks became free-men they were able to purchase land and ultimately made up two-thirds of independent farmers in the Mississippi Delta region. But in 1890 the white-dominated state legislature passed a new state constitution which disenfranchised most blacks in the state. In the next three decades, many blacks lost their lands due to tight credit and political oppression, forcing them to become sharecroppers and tenant farmers. This disenfranchisement was maintained by whites until gains were made in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s. SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee), along with Stokley Carmichael, had a large presence here.

Although this area remains largely black, a huge number of residents migrated north in the 1940’s for a better chance at economic parity.

Jackson, the capital of Mississippi, sits along the Natchez Trace trade route established by Native Americans, whose land was slowly appropriated from them by the U.S. Government in the 1820’s and 30’s. It became an important trade route in the late 1800’s and became the most populated city of Mississippi in the 1920’s due to a natural gas boom in the area.

It transformed into a center of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s with Tougaloo College being the place of emergence for the grassroots campaign to end racial discrimination, and Medgar Evers becoming the leader of many sit-ins and boycotts. Evans was also murdered here and there ensued a white flight from the city.

The statewide Mississippi Freedom Trail runs through the city, encompassing a number of historic sites that were significant in the civil rights movement. These include the Medgar Evers Home Museum and the landmark Mississippi State Capitol building. The Cocoon was placed on the site of a bus station where Freedom Riders were arrested in 1961.

Browne adds to this, “COCOON taps into whatever history exists in each location. Both Jackson and Greenwood share similar histories. The particulars, of course, are different between a small delta town and a state capital. COCOON is an opportunity for people in any location to tell their story and history publicly . . . stories and histories that are usually overlooked.”

The fourth Cocoon, When Skin Walks with Memory, was built in the Goutte d’Or area of Paris, France in the 18th arrondissement. The name means “drop of gold,’ referring to the white wine vineyards which used to exist in that area. During the mid-1900’s, the area experienced a large influx of people from Algeria – many coming to assist in repairing the structural damages done during WWII. By 1952 it was estimated that close to 7,000 Algerians had migrated to Goutte d’Or.

In 1961 the bloody Paris Massacre occurred as part of the Algerian War for Independence from France. It is estimated that at least 100 Algerians were murdered with their bodies thrown into mass graves and the Seine River.

As of this time, approximately 35% of the population is of foreign descent migrating from former colonial territories of France. This area is also a stopping point for economic and war refugees travelling without papers who are trying to make it to other places in Europe and the US.

For this reason, the government of France labeled this area ‘Zone Urbaine Sensible’ (ZUS), which translated means sensitive urban zone and for all intents means that authorities have defined it to be a high-priority target for city policy and the routine patrolling of national riot police due to circumstances related to the problems of its residents. The so-called problems are poverty, which raises the crime rate, and Islamification. The government has decided that these problems can be solved by gentrifying the area through rent and price increases. 

Browne says, regarding this project, “This is a place where narratives collide… I worked with the residents to create a personal Cocoon, a symbolic object from everyday things that they might find in their purse or pocket. I recorded interviews with each participant about what their Cocoon represented, then each posed for a portrait with their Cocoon. I created a memory map that included places of trauma and the addresses of every Jewish child deported from this area of France to death camps from 1942 to August 1944 in order to plan a procession that proceeded the illumination of the finished Cocoon. The marchers marched through the memory map and then entered the Square Leon, where they wrapped the skeleton with the created panels woven from cornstalks tied with African fabric scraps, encasing the Cocoon in the neighborhood’s histories. The finished sculpture was then illuminated.  As the recorded testimony played inside, participants and observers walked through and experienced the Cocoon.”

Browne also mentions that, since the Cocoon project in Goutte d’Or, Martial Buisson has been working tirelessly with her in finding and attaining funding sources for the on-going projects. For eight years Buisson ran Collectif GFR, an organization producing and curating public-space art in Paris.

In 2016, Tracing the Bullet, Browne’s fifth cocoon, was begun in The Bronx, New York City. Participants came from three neighboring public-housing sites in South Bronx: Andrew Jackson Houses, Melrose Houses and Morrisania Air Rights. Police, first responders, and trauma medical staff also took part in the discussion and building of this cocoon. The topic consistently spoken of was gun violence and its effect on the quality of life in the area.

In addition to the never-ending gun violence that takes place, South Bronx was the site of horrendous fires which destroyed almost 80% of this area in the decade between 1970 and 1980, displacing 250,000 people. Black and Puerto Rican people were the main victims of these fires. At that time NYC was bankrupt and 12 fire companies in the South Bronx were closed, causing inadequate responses to these fires – many set by the slum lords who were looking for a cash return through fire insurance policies.

Add in the removal of “slums” in Manhattan, causing the dispersal of poor, disadvantaged people to the South Bronx, landlords sectioning off apartments to make even smaller apartments, and blatant redlining, the area was set up to reap the effects of these actions, causing more crime due to drugs and gun violence.

A short video of this project can be viewed at (watch here).

The last completed Cocoon was in Miskolc, Hungary and the project was named Following the Removals.

Browne tells this story: “Miskolc is an old city in the country’s northeast, a center of steelmaking since the 19th century, and like most steel towns one that has fallen on increasingly hard times.

For generations Hungarian-Roma families have lived in the Numbered Streets and worked in the plants. In 2014, the city government, controlled by members of Fidesz, the country’s ruling party, began to evict them and destroy their homes. The city’s publicly stated goal was to renovate its football stadium and expand parking, and it framed the project in the predictable phrases of urban renewal: ‘Do you support the elimination of slums in Miskolc? There must not be slums in the 21st century in Europe.’

But their real agenda seemed clear. Destroy the neighborhood and drive the Roma from the city. Playing to old hatreds of the Roma paired nicely with their party’s anti-immigrant fervor. By the summer of 2019 half the houses in the neighborhood had been destroyed and, though the new stadium had been open for some time, the city was continuing to evict and raze.”

City officials carried out door-to-door checks, forcing residents to show identification papers and leases that matched their current addresses. If the residents could not show a mailing address and a house, their children were taken from them and put into foster care.

Browne ends by saying, “In all the previous sites I’ve built Cocoons, the stories I’ve collected centered mostly on the ongoing repercussions, years and decades later, of intense historical traumas — slavery in the Mississippi Delta, colonialism in the Goutte d’Or neighborhood of Paris. Working in the Numbered Streets was different. Here it was as if the old trauma had been brought back to life; not an echo of the past, but the deadly thing itself.”

A short video of this project can be viewed at (watch here).

The newest Cocoon, which will be constructed in Steelton, will have the same basic construction as all the others; it will be 26’ long and will start with a 6’ opening that expands to 10’ in the center and then ends with a 6’ opening at the other end. Saplings will be used to weave the skin and, since the construction will be completed in the fall of 2023, corn stalks may also become part of it.

Browne and her team are partnering with the Local 1688 Steelworkers Union who are assisting in reaching out to connect with past and current steelworkers. They are also donating space for interviews and recordings of a large variety of Steelton residents – working, retired, social clubs, schools, and churches. The stories will focus on the migration of people from Eastern Europe, and the deep south to Steelton, to find good work in the steel mills. In the case of people already living in this country, many of them headed north to escape the Jim Crow laws in the south.

Barbara Barksdale, who is part of Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds, a group that raises awareness of the legacy and burial places of US Colored Troops, has been working with Browne on the history and people of the area. Barksdale is lovingly known as ‘the cemetery lady’ because of her mission to restore, preserve, and educate the public on the vast history of those who are buried in the historic Midland Cemetery, in Swatara Township.

People taking part in this project will create a procession through town, each carrying lights down the hill with the country, town, or state of their origin emblazoned on them. As spectators walk through the structure, they will hear the recorded stories of the participants and see large scale projections of the people who took part in this project along with photos of memorabilia important to the participants. After its brief one night stay in Steelton it will be partially disassembled and brought to Harrisburg and reconstructed for an exhibit at Susquehanna Art Museum.

Lauren Nye, Director of Exhibitions for Susquehanna Art Museum has this to say about the project, “We will be hosting an exhibition comprised of the sculpture, photography, and mixed media in our Lehr Gallery beginning in February 2024. This will be an opportunity for those who participated in creating the work in Steelton to revisit the project and reflect on the stories that were shared. It also gives a new community the opportunity to learn about site-specific sculpture, and the ways that art can extend outside the walls of a museum or gallery. The exhibition will be a unique way for this important project to continue on!”

For more information on Browne and the COCOON projects: Facebook: @CocoonbyKateBrowne, Instagram: cocoonbykatebrowne, LinkedIn: Kate Browne Performance Artist.