Works on Water
New Georges & 3LD Art & Technology Center, NYC
In June, while art dealers and collectors flocked to the fairs in Basel and Venice—where you could nab one of Damien Hirst’s massive, bronze shipwreck fabrications for a cool five million dollars—a different sort of exhibition launched in downtown Manhattan. Works on Water is the inaugural triennial devoted to works made on, in, or with water. Unlike Hirst’s Treasures, which raids maritime mythology for luxury goods, Works on Water is rooted in the social practices of artists responding to changing urban ecologies. Presented by the theater company New Georges, with 3LD Art & Technology Center and Urban Water Artists, in collaboration with Guerilla Science, the month-long event brings together visual and performing art with environmental and social science. Through its gallery programming and off-site expeditions, curators make the case for an emerging genre that is interdisciplinary, collaborative, and community-based—a counterpoint to the global commodity-fetish.
In translating site-specific work into the exhibition space, the show aims for more than documentation. Sarah Cameron Sunde, Deputy Artistic Director of New Georges, exhibits a multi-channel video installation, 36.5 / a durational performance with the sea (2017). In this iterative piece, Sunde stands in a tidal bay for the full temporal extension of the tidal cycle. The work references performance art and the deep time of land art. As the water climbs toward her neck, the artist uses stillness to navigate the currents of change.
Other work in the gallery offers direct encounters with the water or its artifacts. There’s a flotilla of artist-built boats by the collective Mare Liberum, whose open source methods and “right to the city" ethos inform their collective action. Choreographer Paloma McGregor collects visitors’ written histories of water in her interactive installation, Building a Better Fishtrap (2017). Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies created a self-guided audio tour of the Newtown Creek Nature Walk and a sculptural installation in the gallery, A Field Guide to the Place Where You Are (2017). The guide maps the relationships between the people in the room and the built environment. From the top of a lifeguard chair, we see the social, economic, and ecological systems that collide here and extend outward.
The installations share exhibition space with (Not) Water (2017), a play by Sheila Callaghan and Daniella Topol. The piece begins with a farcical premise: two playwrights are penning a script about water. The minimal set is built with video projections and recycled and inflatable plastics. As it jump-cuts through the creative process, the immersive work invites audience-participants toward an intimate encounter with the changing faces of water—catastrophic and banal. It highlights the challenges of tackling this vast subject, and of staging a dramatic production in a gallery setting.
“There was a lot of learning in this process about the differences between theater culture and art culture,” said Nancy Nowacek, an artist and member of the curatorial team. One of the differences is procedural, she told me. “In the art world, you’re really expected to work in isolation. There’s still the myth that the artist is the sole channel of the work. In theater, the path is co-created.” Nowacek’s own project, Citizen Bridge (2017), relies on collective action. Her proposal to build a temporary floating walkway to connect Brooklyn to Governor’s Island brings together architects, engineers, and a fleet of city agencies to greenlight the project.
For Sunde, it was natural to put visual art and performance in the same room. Like theater, she says, art that works with water is time-based. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. “I’m interested in encouraging the theater world to look outside itself to see how things are happening in other time-based forms.”
But theater-goers may have different expectations than the gallery crowd. “Theater audiences are used to checking things off their list,” says Sunde. “We’re trying to create this event that people are present for and then keep coming back to, as opposed to seeing something and then you’re done.”
With Works on Water, seeing is an act of complicity—a commitment to a shared vision. On a recent Saturday, the artist collective TRYST, which includes Works on Water curator Clarinda Mac Low, led an expedition around Lower Manhattan. Their project, Sunk Shore (2017), creates an augmented reality through sensory engagement and cheap props. Wearing orange jumpsuits, the group steered us along the shifting shoreline of New York’s past and future. We reached South Cove in Battery Park City in the year 2080, where a construction barge was moored near the pier. “A floating home,” our guides told us. “Here, in the future, this is how people live.” As we moved along the walkway, someone on a park bench in 2017 said to her friend: “A floating home? I didn’t know anyone was living there.”
NICOLE MILLER is a Brooklyn-based writer and coeditor of the digital arts journal Underwater New York.