Tuesday, September 23, 2014


In 1968, J. G. Ballard wrote a novel called The Drowned World. It is a science fiction where London is underwater and all the famous landmarks peek out above the famed city. Londoners have always feared the Thames. This sort of dystopian future may have been with us since Noah and the Flood. The Dutch have lived with rising tides and floodplains forever. In 1953, the dykes failed. Holland was inundated by a massive storm surge. That is why they stay well ahead in planned protection of their “coastline.” New York City had no such mindset in 2012. Then along came Sandy, a hurricane that may have been (for many) the first indicator of significant climate change.
From my comfortable perch in the Independence Seaport Museum library (where I have been researching naval battles of the Great War) I watched artist, Mary Mattingly and friends’ six week Fringe project develop. Eventually, it dawned on me that the off-kilter shack growing on a small house-boat (circa 1971) was sculpture. What else could it be? Unless it was a project from the This Old House crew on acid.  The Do It Yourself ethic is definitely there. The use of salvaged and re-cycled material is there. Self-sufficiency is the watchword. In this case, the builders were living on site!
Admittedly, my activist beginnings are benign. As they say, if you lived through the Seventies you probably can’t remember most of it. As a member of the original Save The Planet crew, I do recall the first Earth Day. It was nearby. Future Shock was on my reading list as was Orwell’s 1984. Atom bombs were expected any minute aimed at the Empire State Building. Smog, acid rain and nuclear winter were terms used a lot. The Clean Air Act passed unanimously in 1970! No squabbling. How things change. Other things not so much. Many years onwards the problems are more pressing and contentious. History itself seems to have paused. Similarly, the end of civilization is now more ubiquitous. So commonplace are disaster scenarios that whole generations are formed by them. This spectacle encompasses several familiar tropes: zombies, viral plagues, radiation beasts (my favorite), demon hackers, transformed computer droids. Flying sharks now jump themselves.
But seriously, we are in deep shit. We just don’t know from what. Perhaps they will work it out today at the United Nations. Lighting the top of the Empire State Building with green light will undoubtedly help. Technically speaking, apocalyptic futures and climate change may not amount to the same thing at all. For some, petrol engines, coal use and greenhouse gases are the main culprits. For others running out of crude is the problem. I’m in the middle on this because I would like to drive my ‘73 Pontiac Lemans into the last hurrah (whether fiery comet or tidal wave) blasting Ozzy Osbourne on eight track. Is that old school or what? My main worry (beyond climate disaster) is the Singularity given character by writer, William Gibson in his cyber-punk phase; he gave it up when all his prophecies came true. Putting micro-chips in our heads and linking human kind with machine? Haven’t proponents of this future prospect seen Terminator? The acting isn’t much better in Gibson’s Johnny Neumonic!
In my favor, I compost and recycle. I don’t own a clothes’ dryer and I wear unlaundered, worn out jeans because it looks more Ramoney. Still, who am I to decry dedicated artists who live to educate the public about eco-systems and co-operative work. Some use homemade bread, brew and beards for style. I am envious because I wouldn’t last a day without my television. Still, I want to believe. The series of questions raised by WetLand as experimental sculpture, performance and sustainable living space are vital and the interaction with Penn’s Landing crucial. Each visitor will leave with a different message. Subsistence on this crowded lump spinning in space is key whatever the danger. This link between ‘Earth Art’ of the near past is re-assuring; Smithson’s obsessions derived from post-industrial wastelands of New Jersey in particular. We see echoes of that tradition in Mattingly’s work. She also stress’s the burgeoning local businesses going green together in a positive way.
Millennials do this efficiently armed with charts, graphs and wiki-facts. Mary Mattingly has done this before on the Hudson River aiming somewhere between Buckminster Fuller and Robert Smithson. Mattingly’s Waterpod  (2009) is much more retro-futuristic. Geodesic domes and such. Life on Earth as art? Why not? On the Delaware, the house boat’s mismatched wood (think Philadelphia’s Dumpster Divers) is downright charming. Inside the cabin, on loan from a dismantled vintage gym floor in Iowa, these panels have a lovely pentimento echoing thousands of Converse All Stars; a conservation of past events. Always way ahead, artists are natural re-cyclers. The solar panel on the roof updates the whole thing, while the chickens at the back keep a rooted barnyard feel. Did I mention the bees? Fresh honey from Hives in the City and eggs! Sounds like heaven. Dinner on board was delightful, made with local produce by visiting artist, Mollie McKinley. The yoga teacher brought the local shrimp and I brought a South American Pinot Noir. Fresh herbs filled the air. They came from the floating farm. The experience was not like a Viking River Cruise. Occasionally, the wake of a passing ship would rock the boat reminding us all we were on a river. The Delaware is not the cleanest of waterways so drinking/cooking water was carefully collected rain or carried on board. A hose was set up for the vegetable farming. On hot sweaty days, the crew resorted to showers on Admiral Dewey’s historic cruiser, Olympia docked nearby! Edwardian comfort on a coal-eating monster!
The project’s proximity to warships (USS New Jersey guarding Camden) and frivolous riverfront entertainment was intriguing. Initially, from my vantage point in the Seaport museum (in the shadow of the Hyatt) I couldn’t quite make out the shape of a sinking house, Mattingly’s fine metaphor for the state of the world both lyrically and in reality. The shape developed slowly into a distinct wedge reminding me of a chunk of organic gouda with a bay window.
Social awareness of both art and ecology is oddly similar. Broadly speaking, the ‘public’ doesn’t seem to have a clue about future or past and the crucial connection between them. Can you have one without the other? The WetLand, floating art installation stood out in the excellent 2014 Fringe Festival and presented the city with a great conversation piece about environmental issues. I am told the environment may find another home soon. Possibly at another hidden refuge, Bartram’s Gardens – John Bartram was America’s first Botanist – on the Schuykill River in South West Philly. That would give the autonomous living system a different sort of historical and popular resonance sorely needed these days. Failing that, the East River by the United Nations would be appropriate. WetLand will successfully address all that and give a distinct, personal touch to fundamental issues relating to World’s End or a new start.

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