Walt Whitman famously celebrated New York as a “city of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts! City nested in bays! my city!.” Over a century since the poet’s death, New Yorkers tend to look inland. Sure, many residents still rely on ferry service for their commutes, but most of us rarely interact with the rivers and harbor. Yet there is active engagement by some artists, whether boat-building, intrepid voyages on the often polluted currents, or quixotic attempts to build a bridge from Brooklyn to Governors Island.
That last action, the ongoing “Citizen Bridge” project by Nancy Nowacek, was dramatized this Tuesday night within the exhibition at 3LD Art & Technology Center for Works on Water. The triennial, presented by New Georges with 3LD and Urban Water Artists in collaboration with Guerilla Science, is having its inaugural edition this month. Two actresses moved around two chairs, performing a short play on the red tape, bureaucracy, Port Authority permissions, and other challenges that have turned what Nowacek thought would be a months-long project into years of effort to, as she puts it in the piece, “walk on water.” The play, created by Nowacek with Celine Song, is a clever way of including her unrealized bridge in the Works on Water exhibition, which is a group show for the triennial’s participating artists. Many of these New York-based artists are also leading expeditions, such as the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies’s “A Field Guide to Whale Creek” audio tour at the Newtown Creek Nature Walk, and the exhibition is an experiment in bringing time-based, site-specific practices indoors.
For instance, one screen streams recorded and live footage of Marie Lorenz’s “Tide and Current Taxi,” a rowboat taxi that cruises the tidal currents with volunteer passengers; nearby for Eve Mosher’s “Liquid City: Desire,” you can grab a map and bottle of water and head out to Lower Manhattan to explore its waterscape. Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies (the collective of Marina Zurkow, Nicholas Hubbard, and Rebecca Lieberman) installed an industrial ladder in one corner, from which you can survey the architecture and art of the gallery with binoculars. In another corner, a flotilla of artist-built boats are suspended. These represent a decade of DIY boat construction by the Mare Liberum collective. The blue of a police barricade can be detected on one oar, while broadsides they’ve issued for boat building cover an adjacent wall.
With toxic pollution in the New York waterways, including Superfund status for both Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal, and limited accessibility from the shores, the currents around the city can sometimes feel untouchable. Each piece in the Works on Water installation has some tactile response to water. Sarah Cameron Sunde’s durational performances in which she stands in the water for a full 12 to 13-hour tidal cycle, letting the water rise and fall over her body, encircle viewers in a multi-channel installation. Torkwase Dyson’s “The Color of Crude” has abstracted views from her dives to the underwater nature and oil infrastructure from Cape Town to the Gulf of Mexico, which simultaneously respond to the “current ecological crisis in relationship to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.” The personal geographies present in these pieces, where an individual is finding place of interaction with water, are a reminder that these liquid landscapes can be as much a part of our city experiences as the land.