A toxic waterway brimming with oil, raw sewage, garbage, industrial wastewater, and volatile organic compounds probably isn't the first choice for a weekend outing.
But the creative minds behind The Newtown Creek Armada beg to differ.
For the site of their collaborative public art installation, artists Laura Chipley, Nathan Kensinger, and Sarah Nelson Wright have chosen one of America’s most heavily polluted waterways, Newtown Creek, as their playground in September. Each Saturday and a sprinkling of Sundays in September, the channel that borders Brooklyn and Queens will transform into a boat pond from 1 to 4 p.m., when the public will steer nine remote-controlled crafts armed with underwater cameras, and microphones to document the area. The installation's purpose: to invite the public to explore the past, present, and future of a contaminated NYC waterway.
"We want visitors to experience the wonderful things about the creek—the history and fascinatingly weird landscape, and even the horrible things, like the environmental degradation," Chipley says. "We want visitors to consider the value of industrial waterways—for commerce, leisure and a place for plants and animals to live. We encourage them to pilot the boats in a way that allows the camera to capture footage of pollution, the other boats, and the surrounding area."
Planning for the project began in November 2011, when the three artists responded to the North Brooklyn Public Art Alliance's request for environmentally conscious artwork proposals. Each of the artists had previously worked on projects connected to the creek.
On September 8, the trio launched their fleet into its murky depths. Six of these boats are armed with GoPro cameras in waterproof cases to capture footage both underwater and above. Visitors can steer the craft for 15 minutes at a time, or simply watch videos from three kiosks at Whale Creek, an inlet off Newtown Creek where the boats will be located, that will display unique footage from contaminated parts of the creek uncovered by the mini-boat voyages.
While the footage is the central point of the project, the boats are each carefully crafted pieces of artwork. The nine ships range from 2.5 to 3-feet long and were constructed from a variety of items found near the creek including plastic trash, plants, and scrap metal. One of the boats even holds vinyl tubes filled with creek water samples on deck.
Because the creek was recognized as a Superfund site—defined by the the Environmental Protection Agency as "an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located, possibly affecting local ecosystems or people"—on the National Priorities List in 2010, there will eventually be some form of clean-up. In the mean time, the Armada hopes to raise awareness among the general public.
"There will be significant efforts to clean the Newtown Creek up, but as the oil spill polluted the groundwater in the surrounding area, there are questions as to whether or not it can be completely rehabilitated," Chipley says. "Also, there is a problem with the illegal dumping of garbage and wastewater and the fact that the creek continues to function as a recepticle for raw sewage overflow. Ideally, encouraging the public to take stock in industrial waterways by inviting them to the waterfront will win greater public support for environmental regulation."
The final video piece will be shown in a gallery installation, and the artists plan to have outdoor projections in a public space as well. They hope to take their boats to explore other polluted bodies of water in New York and around the world.
First photo by Carolina Ferrares; bottom two by Laura Chipley