Snowflakes were falling soft and thick on the February morning I met Marie Lorenz in Bushwick, and, à la “My Favorite Things,” it stuck to our noses and eyelashes while we loaded her fiberglass rowboat into a U-Haul van. The boat turned out to be two feet too long and kept the rear doors from closing. Unconcerned, Lorenz just tied them together with rope, leaving the back open for snow to blow into, which it did periodically. We drove like this to a nearby inlet, carrying the boat down to the water’s edge over rocky black mud covered by fresh white snow. She told me the tide was very high. Once we set the boat into the water I stepped inside, crawling to the bow, and with a single suave gesture she gave it a shove and hopped in herself. Marie paddled us into the center of the channel, flanked on both sides by assorted industrial machinery. Bobbing there, facing each other, I turned on my audio recorder:
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Can we just describe where we are right now? What is this place?!!
Marie Lorenz: The Newtown Creek is the body of water that separates Greenpoint from Long Island City. It goes all the way into Bushwick, so if we paddled west we’d end up a few blocks from where you met me at my house, and if we paddled east we would see the UN building. In 2010 it was designated as a Superfund site and is now in a period of evaluation and study while the EPA figures out the best strategy for remediation. I think that cone-shaped building is where the sanitation department stores road salt, and those massive white cylinders are the National Grid gas tanks. This is really the back-end of industry; it used to house business that needed the waterfront, now it’s just cheap land. Did you notice that parking lot when we put in?—the back ends of all those cement trucks? That’s a sign of the times along the waterfront: even the trucks have turned their back on us!
Rail: Yeah, I also noticed that the water is bright green.
Lorenz: The water in the Newtown Creek is a different color every time I get into it. Last summer it was really red; nutrients in the wastewater were making these really intense algae blooms. You’ll notice it changing as we move around. Some people would be freaked out to even be in here, and they would be right, it is really polluted, but I think there is something fresh about being on the water in New York City, because you can always smell the sea. Low-tide is a different story.
Rail: How did you start building boats?
Lorenz: I was an undergrad at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) from 1991 – 1995. At that time downtown Providence was like a huge construction site. They were building the “waterfront district,” basically removing the bridges and roads that for many years had covered the Woonasquatucket River. The construction revealed miles of tunnels, and I started building boats to navigate those places. My friends and I would go exploring at night in these little boats. I realize now that we were in the sewer, but back then I thought it was like the caves in The Goonies. We had a clubhouse under a bridge where all the boats were stored on pulleys.
Rail: What were the first boats like?
Lorenz: I would cut a rib-frame out of plywood, skin it with canvas, and use roofing pitch to seal it—a really cheap way to do it, all with materials available at art school, and I could build them in my living room. At first I was just thinking “boat shape!” and those early boats were really tippy and didn’t move through the water well. Whenever I would take them out I would have to patch and fix them. There was also a raft made of plywood and barrels, and a rowboat that was a two-by-four frame covered with bent aluminum.
Rail: Through doing this what did you learn about forms, about boat shapes?
Lorenz: Once I graduated from RISD, I actually went to a boat-building school in Sausalito—they milled their own timber and used only hand tools—it would take them months to build one boat, but it would last forever—they had a very sophisticated shop to do that. If they saw the boats that I was making they would have disowned me—they don’t like fiberglass or plywood. It was all very traditional, it was great. The thing I studied there that I still use now is lofting—when you take a set of numbers and turn it into a full-scale plan. I learned the mathematics of drafting a curved hull. But still, if real boat-builders looked at this boat, they would think it sucks.
Lorenz: Look at this edge here—last winter I was rowing this boat with an ore-lock and cracked the whole side away. I build them too light—they have to weigh under a hundred pounds so that I can lift them onto the car and get into the water by myself. I end up with something that is cheaper to make, but very delicate.
Rail: How did you start the Tide and Current Taxi (2005 – present)?
Lorenz: When I moved to New York in 2002 I looked at the East River and thought: “This is big—now I have to make something that really works!” I started looking at plans for boats online, which I had avoided before, and began using fiberglass and plywood so that it could be strong and light. I made a boat to circumnavigate Manhattan. I took pictures with my cell phone along the way. This was before Instagram, so I was emailing them to a friend who uploaded it all to a website. I had given out a flyer telling people where they could follow the trip. The website had pictures and a little descriptive line of text, updated every hour or so.
I knew how to read a tide table but in the New York Harbor that doesn’t give you the whole picture. We ended up struggling against the tide most of the time. It took three days to get all the way around Manhattan. We camped along the way but we’d go have nice dinners in Manhattan. On Sunday morning when we were coming back into Brooklyn the name for my new project came to me: The Tide and Current Taxi!I found a more nuanced map of the way the tide works in New York, and the next week I emailed everyone I knew with the parameters for the new project: you tell me where you want to go and I’ll look at the tide and figure out the best time to get there. I made a week-long schedule where I would pick people up and drop them off based on when the tide was moving. That first year it really was like a taxi; I would pick someone up in Brooklyn, take them to Manhattan, then pick someone else up to come back. I was making two or three trips a day. Now I give each trip more space: one trip might take the whole day. We still take advantage of the tide, but it works less like a taxi and more like a field trip.
Rail: Who are the people you take out?
Lorenz: A third of them are friends, because that is who ends up hearing about it the most. Another third are friends of friends, but I always reserve the last third of the time for people who are complete strangers, who find out about the project online. When I pick them up with the boat, it’s the first time we’ve ever met. Usually they find the Tide and Current Taxi looking for a place online, like doing a Google search for North Brother Island, and pictures from my website will come up. They get interested and ask for a ride. I like the idea that the Tide and Current Taxi is an archive that lives online for anyone to access, but they can also add to it by requesting a trip.
Rail: How does the tide act differently in New York City?
Lorenz: Well, the New York Harbor is affected by three major bodies of water, the Atlantic Ocean, the Long Island Sound, and the Hudson River. The tide comes into the harbor twice a day, but it also empties out of the Long Island Sound through the East River. The interaction of all those things pulsing, plus freshwater coming down the Hudson, makes a very complex map. Hypothetically, the tide could draw a boat completely around Manhattan in one direction, then a few hours later, take it back around in the opposite direction. I mean, this is hypothetical—you would need to move yourself into the maximum current and time everything perfectly, but you could use tidal energy to travel the thirty-five mile perimeter around Manhattan, in both directions. There is nowhere else in the world where that happens, at least not surrounding a major metropolitan center!
Rail: What have you learned about New York City doing this?
Lorenz: The thing I noticed immediately, even back in Providence, is that being at water level eliminates the street from view. Being down here reveals all the structure and material, without the traffic and movement you traditionally associate with cities. Looking at Manhattan from the water, you can see the vertical mass of architecture, but also what it’s built on—the foundations and pilings and even bedrock in some places, at low tide that stuff really comes out. When I first started the Tide and Current Taxi, it felt like using a tide chart to navigate New York City was like using the wrong map, almost like a Situationist dérive. But after doing this for a while, I realized that it’s the right map, the key to the city in a way. I think New York City became what it is because of that unique tidal situation, going all the way back to the original inhabitants who used Manhattan as a meeting place, a trading site, because people could canoe here from a hundred mile radius, and then get home on the outgoing tide.
Rail: What has this project shown you about the growth of industrial cities and waterways?
Lorenz: Well, I guess in most coastal places, cities evolved out of trading ports, then grew because of the water’s industrial uses. In Providence, the river could cool machinery and flush away pollutants, in addition to shipping stuff in and out. Then in many cases, when the industry changed, cities turned their back on the industrial ports, like how all the fanciest addresses in New York city used be along Central Park, facing away from the water. Now there is a move back to the water, like on the west side of Manhattan, and plans for the development of Greenpoint and Williamsburg—it’s going to be like a wall of glass, looking across the East river. It doesn’t solve the basic problem that we still live around a toxic waste dump. It adds value to real estate while being completely abstracted from any use.
Hey—I think its getting too cold. Let’s go in!
As we approached the shore I noticed an iridescent rainbow of petrochemicals blooming across the surface of the water. While we were boating the snow began melting, carrying the chemistry of the streets and construction sites down into the Newtown Creek in a glittering rivulet. It was sickeningly, but undeniably, pretty. We carried the boat back up into the van, and headed for the warmth of Lorenz’s studio.
Rail: What are you working on for your residency at Recess (New York, March 12 – May 7, 2016)?
Lorenz: The Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey has a giant tank where they test the hydrodynamics of ship hulls, called the “oblique sea basin.” I proposed to make a smaller version at Recess to test things out. But I also want it to be like the wave pools at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. I want to try and make a rocking mechanism so you can see how a wave forms. The tide is gravitational—the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon—and the pool at Recess will use the earth’s gravity to see how water moves. I’ll experiment with floating video cameras and microphones, and do some performances with the wave pool. It will also be an experiment just to get several tons of water into the gallery.
Rail: You teach a lot and I know people who love you as a teacher. Teaching is driven by an underlying conception of what art is. So in that vein, I want to understand what you think is important in an art experience?
Lorenz: I like art with a lot of loose ends, a thing that is hard to separate from daily life. I was just visiting Andrea Zittel in Joshua Tree last month, and I was admiring the bookshelves in her living room, telling her what I liked about them. It dawned on me that she had made them, they were a work of art—part of a show she did in Berlin called Pattern of Habit. We were talking about art, but the conversation kind of snuck up on me, from the corner of the room. I love when that happens in teaching too, when things have problems and unfinished edges, and the whole thing seeps into your life from all sides.
Rail: What was the process of isolating the act of taking people out in a boat and labeling it an art experience?
Lorenz: I guess going all the way back to RISD, I was doing these very theatrical boat projects in the canal where people passing by would see a fantastic image, and it would enliven an area that they had previously considered a dump. That was my idea for art at age twenty. Now, rather than being looked at, I like the idea of a viewer looking through me, through the boat, the camera, the computer, into this world, and essentially looking back at themselves. Now my ideal viewer would be someone on a computer in Manhattan searching around online and finding an image, a story, taken from the perspective of the water, looking back at their city: a full circle of internet/tidal navigation, with the computer as the portal. That is when I label it as an art experience. I like thinking about the Tide and Current Taxi as an archive that continues to grow online. I have pictures of the New York waterfront dating back to 2005, and extending all throughout the city. I want the archive to keep growing, to capture this incredible transformation that is happening on the waterfront.
Rail: I heard you almost drowned in Rome.
Lorenz: I made a sailboat in Rome while I was a fellow at the American Academy. I built it just like my crummy row-boats, because I wasn’t really thinking. It looked very “self-taught”—the rigging was made of plumbing fixtures and art supplies, not really made to withstand the incredible force of the wind. I took it to the beach at Ostia for a test run. It was a windy day in March. I set out in this protected lagoon and the wind immediately pushed me out beyond the jetty, out to sea. The center board just popped up through the hull and was lost. The rudder ripped off and floated away, and the boat was spinning around the sail, going out to sea. My dad was visiting me at the time. He had helped me carry the boat down to the water, and now he was watching all this unfold from shore. Thankfully, the boat capsized, or I think I would have just ridden out with it across the Mediterranean. I was about 100 yards from shore and I swam back. At the time, the boat appeared to sink, but a few days later I found it a few miles away. It was half buried in the sand, all chewed up from hitting the jetty. I dug it out and brought it back to the American Academy, fixed it, and two months later took a more successful trip down the Tiber River through Rome all the way back out to Ostia.
Rail: Your video camera was recording your boat capsizing, which you later showed as the video piece Capsize (2010). Why did you put the camera in your mouth and swim with it?
Lorenz: My dad lent me this little waterproof camera and I attached it to the boat. Actually, it was the most valuable piece of equipment on the boat, so when I swam away from the wreck, I grabbed it. While I swam, I was holding the camera in my mouth by something that protruded from the side. It turned out to be the microphone, so the video was shot sideways and the sound was recorded from the inside of my mouth. When I got back to the Academy and watched the video, I thought “No one can see this.” It felt very raw and panicky, almost illicit—it wasn’t art. I’m not sure what changed. I cut out the beginning and end so it plays like an endless swim, the whole thing just became a swirl of color and sound. Then Jack Hanley asked me to show it in 2010.
Rail: It’s interesting that you said at first “it wasn’t art.” I’m happy to accept anything as art if someone says it is, which just means it gets attended to with a certain kind of care, or is subjected to certain questions. For you, how does did that move from being a document of almost dying to “video art?”
Lorenz: I’m actually not claiming that there is a difference. I have a weird relationship to this because when I feel a question forming like “why are your boat trips ‘art’ and these other practices are exercise, recreation, or a hundred other things”—I’m profoundly affected by this question. Most relational practices reserve a certain response, like participation is a shift in the viewer rather than the work of art. For me, I don’t know. Having the work exist online might be part of the answer for me.
Rail: It is striking that the language you use on the website and in speaking about Tide and Current Taxi make almost no special claims for what it’s “about”—not the quality of the experience, or its relationship to environmentalism, or whatever. That seems very canny. How has the way you’ve framed it in language evolved?
Lorenz: That comes up every time I give a lecture—my relation to environmentalism. Let me just say right off that as a citizen of the planet I believe we should do better [laughter]. But my project’s relationship to the environment is much less defined. In some of my artwork I use junk and debris from the beach and weave it into forms. People ask me how I feel about litter and what I know about the “Pacific Gyre.” It turns out most environmentalists believe that we could leave all that marine debris exactly where it is, and the most urgent thing effecting ocean health would still be global warming. If I wanted to make art about the saving environment, pointing to a plastic water bottle would actually lead away from the subject, and the deeper one looks into marine debris as political symbol, the stickier it gets.
Rail: Do you think art can have a direct effect on political problems?
Lorenz: I think artists are in a unique position to work critically, but I don’t have a prescribed way of doing that. I don’t come into a project knowing what I want people to think. It’s much more effective to not know. That is why the Tide and Current Taxi is an ongoing story. Each trip in the boat finds out something different, each one poses a different question. Last year I blogged about a trip out with Willis Elkins, an environmental educator and program manager of the Newtown Creek Alliance. We had a long conversation about sewer overflow and the way it damages the water quality in New York. We actually paddled into some of the sewers and took samples, looked at those algae I was talking about under a microscope. That was an eye-opening day. Another trip a few years ago, I took the artist Anna Betbeze into the Coney Island Creek. We took pictures of mud soaked tires and collected junk. She was making prints by pushing fabric into the sludgy bank at low tide. I mean it was revolting and we were really getting into the apocalyptic trashiness of it all. Those two stories exist simultaneously within the Tide and Current Taxi archive—almost back to back. Art is a place where you don’t have to decide.
JARRETT EARNEST is a writer who lives in New York.