SAG HARBOR, NY — Shortly after the 45-foot-long, angular vessel docked at Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, a mallard settled into a planter affixed to the bow and laid six eggs. It seems inevitable that waterfowl would choose to roost on the modified houseboat — a floating, plant-covered ecosystem meant as an educational space to reflect on and experiment with self-sufficient living. Created by Brooklyn-based artist Mary Mattingly, “WetLand” draws its name from those watery areas of land that are among the world’s most productive natural ecosystems, featuring on board its own simply engineered systems that may help provide resources from food to clean water to air-conditioning.
Bobbing on the Peconic River for select weeks in June, the boat is an off-site commission for Radical Seafaring, an exhibition currently at the Parrish Art Museum that examines the history and future of water-based projects that deal with exploration, escape, fieldwork, and speculation. Curator Andrea Grover has selected a fascinating and diverse range of projects by 25 artists that date to the 1960s, but Mattingly’s, one of the more recent examples, is the only one actually presented on the water.
The repurposed 1971 Rockwell Whitcraft houseboat now has a floor and walls featuring colorful wood panels stripped from the floor of a gym in Iowa. Solar panels adorn its roof; hanging on its railings are old ammunition cans that foster plants such as mint and bee balms. A small garden on the stern, growing in recycled plastic bottles made by schoolchildren, may provide vegetables from eggplants to carrots. More greenery lies indoors, with a greenhouse next to a bathtub for water collection, which nestles next to a self-composting toilet.
First launched in August 2014 on the Delaware River, “WetLand” also floated on the Schuylkill River last year, then organized with University of Pennsylvania Program in Environmental Humanities. This most recent iteration is smaller in scale than previous ones — which have included additional floating docks for sprawling gardens, a chicken coop, and an apiary — but it still draws attention to the same concerns over the future of our environment. The architecture alone resembles a structure partially submerged; it suggests the possibilities of either rising out of the water or sinking.
Raising questions over how we attain basic needs of food and water, “WetLand” feeds off the growing movements of urban farming and food cooperatives. As a water-based structure, it recalls Robert Smithson’s idea for a floating island to travel around Manhattan — one of the projects Radical Seafaring surveys — that became a reality in 2005 when a tugboat pulled a barge of trees and plants through the city’s waterways. But unlike past projects that attempt to attain complete self-sustainability — architect Dennis Holloway’s 1970s, land-based Ouroboros Project particularly comes to mind here — Mattingly has not envisioned “WetLand” to be a fully autonomous home independent of the outside world. Rather, much more than a place of residence, it is one for learning, where you may realize the simplicity of projects that may yield big results. Solar distillation to purify water, for instance, requires just a basin with a transparent glass cover; Mattingly didn’t need to work with expert agriculturists to create her plastic bottle-based garden.
Since its launch, “WetLand” has hosted artist residences, performances, and talks, from the programmed to the impromptu. A boat with its appearance also tends to easily attract passersby, even if it’s parked at the end of a dock. During my visit, people from the Netherlands popped in to marvel over its design, comparing it to the region’s plentiful houseboats; a man who’s spent decades living on his own neighboring vessel seemed skeptical of the project and was eager to offer some of his own insights on a water-based lifestyle. Mattingly’s project is a platform for all sorts of conversations, with contributions from all its visitors reminding us that collaboration should be a key part of addressing ecological issues.
Constantly exploring the possibilities of mobile, water-based habitats — see her nomadic, geodesic shelters “Waterpod” (2009) and “Flock House” (2012) — Mattingly will soon bring a floating food forest into a much more urban setting. This year, perched on a fleet of repurposed shipping containers, “Swale” will launch on Manhattan’s waterways, where it will feature water purification systems and invite visitors to harvest some of its food. Mattingly hopes it will increase visibility of and attention to the surrounding waters that New Yorkers may regularly overlook.
“WetLand” similarly stirs new awareness of one’s relationship to the water even while docked at Sag Harbor, a coastal village with a history as an old whaling port. With slits in its walls, the boat is constantly exposed to the sights and sounds of its surroundings. As I sat on one of its benches, encircled by planters, the luxury of the larger yachts bobbing around me became more apparent; it was impossible to not think of the impact they may have on the environment. And only a few feet away, directly next to the refashioned boat, a group of men balanced on the deck of a shiny vessel, generously hosing it down. It was a scene that made Mattingly’s cause resonate more acutely with the visitor — a reminder that the choice does lie with us to attain and manage our natural resources with a clear consideration of the consequences.
WetLand continues through June 23 at Long Wharf in Sag Harbor as part of the exhibition Radical Seafaring, which continues through July 24 at the Parrish Art Museum (279 Montauk Highway Water Mill, NY).
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