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Artist Sweeps Harlem's Hallways, Lifts Spirits

Bramwell hopes to transform attitudes, living spaces

IT'S a hot, oppressive morning, and people are moving slowly. Michael Bramwell is the exception. Dressed in a janitor's uniform and wearing a mask to muffle the stench from piles of trash baking in the sun, he strides into an apartment building in Harlem and begins sweeping the entranceway.

Tenants stare as Bramwell gathers garbage in the dirt-encrusted corridor. ''Who is this man?'' they wonder aloud. He's certainly not the superintendent.

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Amazed to see someone actually cleaning up, they start yelling at the superintendent to come out of his apartment and see, too. ''Maybe he'll be shamed and do some work for a change,'' says resident Jubert Pickering.

A half-hour later, the tenants are baiting the superintendent like a trapped rat. He's screaming; they're all screaming.

''I'm overwhelmed,'' Bramwell says euphorically. ''That's the whole project.''

It's a rave review for the artist's latest work, ''Building Sweeps,'' which addresses the failure of spirit among America's poor and turns art into life by trying to move people to help themselves and demand their due - in this case, that their superintendent clean the building.

When people ask about the unlikely connection between sweeping a hallway and art, Bramwell explains: ''It's about transformation. On one level, it's about turning buildings from dirty to clean. On a more important level, it's about changing people's perspectives. And that's what art is about.''

Bramwell has no illusions his work will inspire momentous change. He compares ''Building Sweeps'' to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, damned to eternally roll a stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down.

Bramwell used to be a therapist, but he recently left the profession to devote himself to art. Some of his first works - pop pieces - were shown in galleries.

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Bramwell dresses as a maintenance worker both to express his thoughts about cultural elitism and to confront his past. Bramwell, himself the son of a Bronx building superintendent, was ashamed of his father's livelihood. In his art, he embraces it.

Creative Time Inc., an organization that sponsors public art in the city, recently commissioned an essay about ''Building Sweeps'' to create a permanent record of the piece. ''We were interested in it because of the intersection between art and life - the artist's desire to take action based conceptually on art, but with an effect in the real world,'' says Creative Time's Alyson Pou.

Bramwell began the piece in June 1994 after scouting Harlem for the worst possible hallway. His criteria were filth, urine, graffiti, and drug dealing. When asked why he was there, he would say only: ''The hallway needs to be cleaned.''

He decided the project would be a success if people reacted to it and, after several months, they did. One tenant offered him hot water to clean floors. Others asked if he could remove a pile of garbage. Ultimately, he wanted residents to take matters into their own hands and demand action from the building's owner - in this case, the city.

''I'm real concerned about not turning this into a political-activist thing,'' he says.

But just as the project was gaining momentum, Bramwell was run out of the building by crack dealers. To dissuade him from returning, they started making sure the superintendent cleaned regularly. So Bramwell moved his show to a nearby, equally filthy apartment house, where ''Building Sweeps'' provoked the screaming match.

As he worked the hall on a recent Sunday morning, a loud thump announced the arrival of a bag of garbage into the building's already squalid courtyard. Tenants shook their heads. ''You just gotta close your eyes,'' Carlos Ferrer said as he coasted down the hall on his bicycle.

But as Mr. Pickering watched the silent Bramwell clean, he was getting angry. Soon, the superintendent emerged from his apartment and began helping. ''This is very nice,'' Pickering said as he watched Bramwell stuff garbage in bags.

Bramwell plans to stage his show in Lodz, Poland, this month and then in England. He also may take it to Houston. In January, he'll begin his next project, a performance piece called ''Working-Up'' in which he'll get a dishwasher's job and see how far he can advance in a year.

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