Open Engagement Saturday: Focus on Newtown Creek Armada

by Paddy Johnson and Matthew Leifheit on May 21, 2014 Events

The Queens Museum

The Queens Museum

Saturday proved to be a light day at the museum for Open Engagement, the three day conference on social practice. The crowds weren’t dense, but lawn was often filled with small working groups, and for the most part, the atrium space was filled with participants watching ten-minute lectures. I saw a smattering of these projects including Taryn Cowart and Corbin LaMont’s presentation on their book Day Job, a collection of works by artists and designers who have a day job, and then later, Martin Rosengaard from Wooloo on “Human Hotel,” a pre-Airbnb initiative that matches visiting artists and urban planners with residents to give them places to stay.

It’s hard to take too much away from some of these ten minute presentations, which is fine. The Atrium space is open, which means conference attendees can drop in and drop out whenever they see fit. In other words, the structure of the conference seems to assume attendees won’t be interested in all the presentations.

Of all the talks I saw Saturday, The Newtown Creek Armada presentation in the Panorama interested me the most. As such, this post focuses on them.

The Newtown Creek Armada in the Panaroma

The Newtown Creek Armada in the Panaroma


“Part of what people are looking for in a wilderness experience is the sense that it’s not a mediated thing, that it’s not made for them. A place like Newtown Creek isn’t a product. It’s supposedly a place that no one wants to go. That almost makes it more wild, makes people feel like they’re discovering something about the world.” Andrew Blackwell, author of Visit Sunny Chernobyl in The New York Times.

The Newtown Creek Armada didn’t start with these words, but I cite them anyway as a way of explaining my own interest in the Creek. It’s so polluted, even touching the water or breathing the air near it is an invitation for a life threatening disease. That makes it both wildly frightening and a site for miracles. Somethings still survive there, but Lord knows how.

This came up in the The Newtown Creek Armada presentation by artists Laura Chipley, Nathan Kensinger and Sarah Nelson Wright, which at one point showed footage of a raccoon wandering a dock at the water’s edge. Danger!

The project itself, is a little more cautious in how it got the public to interact engage with the body of water. In the summer of 2012, they invited people to visit New York’s sewage plant and play with their remote controlled water boats. The plant is located on the Newtown Creek.

Here I am playing with a remote control boat on the Newtown Creek.

Here I am playing with a remote control boat on the Newtown Creek.

As it happens, I visited the sewage plant when the Newtown Creek Armada event was taking place, and had a chance to control a few of the boats.  I attended because I found the spectacle of sewage, oil spills and art a draw.

As was mentioned during the presentation, each boat had a particular relationship to the creek. One, dubbed The Digester, was made of recycled materials and Newtown Creek water and carried three sewage plant eggs. Another, was simply called The Nature Boat, and carried plant samples. Most tended not to care too much about those gestures—they wanted the fastest boats—but people were talking about the pollution of creek so it definitely helped spread awareness. More than anything else, seeing a couple of people wearing industrial thick gloves and respirators paddling below me to rescue a boat stuck in a bit of goo drove the point home.

The underwater footage they’d shot from the boats faired less well though. It was a good idea, but visually fails to communicate the horrors of the creek. It just looked like dirty water. Ultimately that’s a small criticism though. During the presentation we were told that 800 people came out over the course of four weekends, thanks in no small part to a very effective PR campaign and partnerships. Given that sewage plant is a 20 minute walk from the G train, those attendance numbers are no small accomplishment.

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