SeaChange activists paddle by the United Nations building as part of an environmental art project (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

“Sécurité, sécurité, I have 16 canoes and a marching band northbound on the East River, just north of Newtown Creek.” Those were the words radioed to Vessel Traffic Services yesterday afternoon as a group of activists circumnavigated Manhattan, some in handcrafted boats made of paper.

The flotilla launched as part of a climate change resistance project and art piece, “SeaChange: We All Live Downstream,” organized by Brooklyn-based maritime arts collective Mare Liberum and Calling for environmental justice and in an attempt to build momentum for the People’s Climate March occurring September 21 in New York City, the SeaChange crew had paddled their paper fleet the full length of the Hudson River estuary, starting in Troy, New York. Along the way, they held community performances, screenings, and talks in riverside towns on the transportation of crude oil, fracking, and water quality. In New York, they plan to hold roundtables at the pop-up Floating Library this week as well as a water ceremony and rally.

Yesterday marked the fifteenth day of the trip, and the crew invited me to paddle with them as they launched from East River State Park to circumnavigate the island of Manhattan and provoke conversation about regional threats posed by the petroleum industry. Shortly into the route, we met up with rowers from the North Brooklyn Boat Club and Rude Mechanical Orchestra, who were packed into two war canoes with flutes, trombones, drums, and a tuba.

“We wanted to spend time in the weeks leading up to this historic UN Climate Summit drawing attention to the river, and learning from river communities about these threats which most of us don’t realize are looming just a few hours north of NYC,” Mare Liberum members Sunita Prasad, Jean Barberis, and Dylan Gauthier wrote to Hyperallergic over email. “As artists, we’re interested in the poetry of the paper boat, and in modeling the slow, river-timed life of a post-cheap-petroleum society … And yet, we see the Hudson as emblematic of the global risks and struggles around climate change, and we encounter much-needed policy fixes every day.” One of the major regional concerns includes the increasing transportation of crude oil by train and barge — processes that risk derailments and spills affecting anyone connected to the area by water. Specifically, the Port of Albany plans to expand and build another oil terminal and a giant processing facility in New Windsor to ship refined oil products overseas.

Mare Liberum spent the last two years crafting five paper boats, replicating the design on patents from a 19th-century paper boat factory. The results are lightweight, sturdy, and biodegradable: the artists layered strips of craft paper in a herringbone pattern, reinforcing the structure with wooden gunwales, stems, and floorboards and sealing everything with resin. They built the first skiff — christened “Massicot” (French for “paper cutter”) — during a 2012 residency at the Antique Boat Museum, inspired by the 19th-century explorer Nathaniel Bishop’s book Voyage of the Paper Canoe. (I sat in it for three hours and quickly forgot its papier-mâché skin, its performance was so smooth.) One boat has drawings on its exterior illustrating the two-week journey, added by artist Patrick Porter in Troy; another is decorated to resemble a beaver.

A fleet of paper boats traveling 160 miles on the Hudson seems unfeasible, but the project’s daunting nature reflects the feelings the activists have about confronting environmental issues.

“Such a complex problem, not to mention the rich and powerful industries that are responsible for driving it, can seem as impossible as navigating a boat made out of paper down a massive river,” the Mare Liberum artists wrote. “But in working together on this project, we feel certain now that if we apply our resistance layer by layer, we might come up with something sturdy and strong enough to keep us afloat.”

The organizers of SeaChange chose yesterday’s route specifically because it passed the UN building, but as we rowed alongside the city, we faced constant reminders of environmental menaces and the corporate capitalism to which the project responds. Drifting by warehouses, factories with pumping smokestacks, and Costco — and being tossed by the wakes of jet skis, ferries, and yachts — only emphasized the vulnerability of the small paper boats, highlighting the urgency of the cause.

“This is what we’re up against,” one crew member yelled, as we inhaled the very pungent, fecal odor of Newtown Creek, one of the nation’s most polluted bodies of water.

The project is not meant as a direct solution to climate change, of course, but it seems to have drawn the public’s attention to environmental issues — on top of displaying the fact that one may actually circumnavigate Manhattan by rowing. As SeaChange shouted about the People’s Climate March and the band played and chanted slogans such as, “When the planet is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!,” people gathered by docks and waved from the shore.

“We want New Yorkers to turn and look at the water,” Barberis said, while rowing Massicot. “And see the waterfront as not something that increases real estate value.” His statement resonated as residents came out onto balconies fastened to luxury waterfront condos, drawn by the music and applauding for the fleet.

SeaChange: We All Live Downstream” will be in residence at the Floating Library (The Lilac, Pier 25, Tribeca, Manhattan) Sept. 17–19. A water ceremony and boat bloc will take place on Sept. 20.

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

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