For a visual artist, Mary Mattingly has spent an inordinately large amount of the last decade in the company of engineers. Her two latest projects, The Wearable Home and Waterpod, have been experiments in survival in a rapidly approaching dystopian future and they have gained Mattingly widespread praise for her ambitious employment of sculpture, living systems, and sheer resourcefulness.
Originally a child of Northern Connecticut, Mattingly has pursued a visual arts career that has taken her as far afield as the Parsons School of Design, NYU, Yale, Paris, and her current home of New York City. Among her varied accomplishments are included a post-apocalyptic opera, a series of inventive and functional Wearable Homes, and—most recently and perhaps most notably—the Waterpod Project.
A collaboration between Mattingly and a series of environmentalists, sculptors, marine engineers, and designers, the Waterpod was a self-sustaining experimental home, contained on the space of a floating barge. Meant to supply food, electricity, and shelter for up to four people, the Waterpod launched in June of 2009 from a peer in the Bronx and made a well-publicized, three-month voyage up through Queens, serving as a hub for community-building and environmental awareness along the way. It is an outstanding example of the environmental consciousness and boundary-pushing creativity that have so far defined Mattingly’s career and continue to do so as her international reputation expands.
Mattingly recently took time from her schedule to chat with me via email about the Waterpod Project, life in New York City, and the legal challenges of blending the line between one’s art and one’s living space.
Shane Danaher: I was surprised to learn that you actually went to Pacific Northwest College of Art for a while. I was curious about “Portland of the past” as I only moved here a couple years ago. By this point we’re kind of patting ourselves on the back for having a large “creative class,” I was just curious if this was the case at all when you were living here or if it’s a more recent development?
Mary Mattingly: I moved to Portland to attend PNCA from Boston, where I was living from 1997—1999 (after high school) because I had heard of the art and indie community there, and read about the community-based political activity there. I imagined it as a movement. Of course there is a very established history of Portland and modernism in the ‘60s. I was aware of some of this before moving there, and found the art scene to be very different from Boston, more grassroots and refreshing. When I moved there, First Thursdays were a big event, and it felt like there was a lot going on. People were engaged. There was a small crowd of engaged artists in Boston but people were a lot more isolated from one another at the time.
SD: With Waterpod, Wearable Home and several of your other projects it seems as if you’re blurring the line between “art” and “experimental engineering.” I was curious about your opinion on what constitutes an “artist” at this point in history and what role artists should be playing in our world.
MM: I think that the in-between spaces are one of the most interesting areas of art today, and they are clear ways for art to intervene in society. While I’m interested in the history of art, I am not interested in repeating history. I know that I am full of contradictions but I like using spaces that are not prepared for art to instigate, and spaces that are prepared for art to tell stories about evolution and ideas.
SD: Your art is obviously very much intertwined with activism, is this something you see as a personal choice or is it something you think should be a goal of artists in general? In your opinion, is there such a thing as art without a political subtext?
MM: The act of making art is infused with political subtext, and activism. Art is an agitation to the status-quo space and artists are agitators. Art is a freedom and opportunity to improve sociopolitical shortages in a society. It’s hard to ignore the world surrounding us. As a human, if we are political then as an artist we should be political. I believe that a person’s life and art should reflect one another.
SD: In your Wearable Home series you’ve mentioned how one of your goals with the project was to create a “general look de-emphasizing self and re-emphasizing everything else.” Seeing as art is for so many people a work a self-actualization, how do you balance this view of the artist as an individual achiever with the stated goal of the artist being the exact opposite of that?
MM: I am interested in community. The Wearable Home is designed looking at uniforms around the world. It is designed to depict a dystopic future, but one that humans are swiftly approaching, and there is a safety in being part of a group, being identical to a friend and an enemy. Theories behind uniforms usually have to do with striving for a deeper consciousness. The idea is that people would spend less time focusing on appearance and more time focusing on questions about life and the worlds around us, or with the Wearable Home, more time focusing on survival and play.
But to respond to these ideas as being the antithesis of artists today, I think that there is a general understanding that artists are committed to a life of study and reexamination that is less based on personal appearance than most of society. But it is true, people in our culture in general spend a lot of time and energy attempting to be different, and our culture encourages that, largely to sell more products. There can be an infinite amount of things to sell if individuals are exponentially in process of differentiating themselves from one another and expressing uniqueness through products instead of ideas.
SD: It seems that from most angles Waterpod was regarded as a success. Could you talk a little bit about what surprised you most about the project and any areas that you would have changed in retrospect? I know there were some more Waterpod concepts floating around, are you planning any other iterations of the project?
MM: The planning process for the Waterpod felt endless and demanded my total attention for a solid year before we launched. With a new request and demand daily from one agency or another, the only way to adapt to the situation was just to focus on completing one small step at a time.
Knowing that there was so much to do before it could be realized, I could not really take time or a step back from my position as organizer to consider what the reality would be like if it was achieved, because that reality was always so far away. So when we moved on to the Waterpod this past June, I didn’t really have any preconceptions about what it would be like. I had hopes, and imagined many different scenarios, and none of them prepared me for the incredible kindness, engagement of many communities, and the welcoming aspects of the project. Nothing prepared me for life under a microscope either. In a way I hadn’t really imagined, the Waterpod was an endurance project and a performance, but coupled with a place for scientific data collection for appropriate technologies. At times I imagined that it felt like the Biosphere II must have felt, but really it was so different from that. It was truly a living sculpture, influenced by every person that set foot on board. Being in New York, each neighborhood is extremely different, and the Waterpod was docked in a different neighborhood every two weeks. Because people move here from all over the world, the interactions that took place on the Waterpod were very rich and instigated a lot of unexpected meetings and collaborations. People left inspired, and I think empowered.
SD: You mentioned some of the problems you had with the red tape surrounding Waterpod and I was curious about what the reactions of New York City officials were once they learned about the project. Do you feel like they took something away from the experience as well?
MM: I think so. None of the agencies we worked with knew exactly how to permit a project like the Waterpod, because it fell somewhere between public art on land (being attached to a pier at most times), an event space, and a boat. So we all learned about all of the nuances in permits and codes between different city departments. Some agencies were worried because they thought our budget was unrealistic, so I think that they were nicely surprised to see a project of that scale and requiring a lot of surrounding infrastructure, pulled off for a minimal amount of money, and I think that they really saw different communities pulling together to help the project succeed, from Miller’s Launch, the company that towed the Waterpod from pier to pier, to Blank Rome, our legal counsel, to the many talented people who volunteered their time and knowledge.
SD: It seems like you’re drawn to the idea of utopianism in an era where it feels like many people have simply given up on the concept. Do you think utopian ideas are still worth exploring and why?
MM: Utopia, like a boat, is a placeless place and a vestige of our imagination. I am interested in utopias as a concept, and accept that to attempt to create a utopic space is a romantic and nostalgic idea that stems from literature more than reality, because in reality a utopic space cannot be sustained due to human nature. The Waterpod was somewhere between real and imaginary and I imagined it as a constantly changing space, which is maybe the only way to sustain a utopic environment. Although these are intriguing concepts, I’m more interested in the reality of heterotopias, and am much more worried about the fate of humanity than about creating a utopia. I believe we can create some kind of personal-bubble utopias, and the artist-worker is an action that embeds a thread of necessary utopian points of view into society.
SD: If the past is any indication you simply must have more projects coming up. Could you give me a brief rundown of what you’re working on in the next year?
MM: I’ve been working on many things, including a book about the Waterpod Project, and a project with a working title Air Ship Air City, which is an elevated living systems lab. I’m also working on a body of photography that stems from the idea of being trapped in the same space.
SD: I’m curious about your idea of art as “using spaces that are not prepared for art to instigate.” You mentioned also that your upcoming photography project deal with the idea of place. Could you tell me what it is about the idea of location that attracts you?
MM: I’m interested in boundaries that we have as individuals or as communities, towns, and countries. I’m also interested in systems of control, from value systems to political systems. Distorting boundaries between places and combining different geographies has this affect of distorting our spatial memories and expands our ability to imagine why and how this could be. Places are also metaphors of states of being, and a place that is a collage or cut-up of a post-industrial society, while although it is altered as I create it, it is true to my own state of mind, and I imagine the state-of-mind of many other people living in this spatiotemporal reality.
SD: Speaking (again) of “place” I was curious about how you feel about operating in New York right now. Do you consider it your home and how do you think that location influences your work? There’s been a lot of talk about it being the “capitol of the twentieth century” and as someone who I imagine would have mixed feelings about the twentieth century, I was curious about how you felt.
MM: I moved to New York in August of 2001. It was a place I had wanted to live after graduating High School, but my parents were very worried about me moving there so I stayed in Northern Connecticut (where I grew up) and went to a community college in Manchester, CT before moving to Boston the next year. For a number of reasons, I had resigned myself to thinking my parents were right.
Before moving to Boston, I went to New York alone for a week, without telling anyone and with not much money. I walked around on the streets all night, or rode the subway, taking naps in Port Authority and places I thought were safe and for travelers. The trip was about coming to terms with a place I had romanticized since my first trips there, which I think is something that everyone who has a relationship with New York deals with, whether you grow up, immigrate, or find yourself there. To me, that trip was a romantic action, but it was also a trip to find out if I should believe that romance. I think that affirmed an obsession I have had with New York.
Then, moving to this city right before the September 11th attacks, this tragedy that everyone felt and dealt with on a very present and personal level, made me feel a bond with the people who live here that I had not felt anywhere else I have moved to.
I continue to feel like the rules for survival in New York are grey and challenging. I enjoy feeling the speed and motion of the city as well as solitude, facelessness, and at the same time the individual character in each expressive moment, and general leveling and mutual respect that I feel I witness now. It’s a city that cares a lot about history, art and culture. A city of immigrants with a very layered, rich depth allowing for unending exploration. Whenever I leave, I want to go back.
SD: There’s a lot of well-earned worry in your work about the future of humanity and I was curious about what, at this point, you see as a cause for hope.
MM: Growing up with parents who were children of the Great Depression, my family reused everything. I have a habit of saving things, and since I move around often, I am careful about acquiring things. Ten years ago, I saw the excess in people’s habits as a lot greater than I believe it is now, in the USA. I witness people’s resourcefulness more-and-more, and I see people in the city wanting to connect with nature. I see so many inspirational role models in people today at every age. I also see the increasing leveling of technology as a truly remarkable marker of this time and place in history. Technological advances can be made very quickly now that so many more people have the tools to discover and create. The acceleration rate of technology is both frightening and exciting.