In 2005, a group of Brooklyn artists working under a loose collaborative called “Bruce High Quality Foundation” (BHQF) fashioned a small boat with a single replica of one of Christo and Jean-Claude’s bright orange post-and-lintel Central Park “gates.” They then motored around Manhattan, orange gate fabric flapping in the wind, as they chased another large-scale work of art: Robert Smithson’s Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan, which the artist had conceived 35 years earlier, but was realized posthumously in 2005. Here, Smithson recasts Central Park as a detached, unreachable fragment of the city, floating counterintuitively around the island that keeps it landlocked. The reformation of Central Park as an island reframes not only the natural environment of the park but also its relationship to the city, and the city itself.
This absurdist scenario—a small motorboat trailing a landscaped barge behind a tugboat—is the jumping off point of the catalogue for Andrea Grover’s Radical Seafaring, which recently closed at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, NY. Grover told The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) that she was “born to curate this show,” because “my father started out as a commercial fisherman in the late 1930s and then ran a marina for 50-plus years. My mother was a painter and a sculptor. The two sensibilities merged in my childhood. In 1985 my father crossed the North Atlantic in an outboard-powered boat of his own design, and my mother helped him create some of the safety features that helped him survive the nearly 3,000-mile journey.”
The catalogue is a gorgeous silver edition that, like the BHQF’s affection for Smithson, connects the radical water-based art and architecture of the 1960s and 70s with today’s contemporary seafarers. It shows the works indexically, with accompanying essays that elucidate the four categories:
Exploration (the quest for new experiences, the ineffable, and living in an exhilarated state), Liberation (self-reliance, freedom from terrestrial social contracts, the desire to shape one’s world, and utopian (impulses), Fieldwork (hands-on, methodological intelligence gathering about the environment, such as an artist laboratory at sea), and Speculation (waterways as a tabula rasa on which other realities can be built).
Within these headers is a collection of architectural works that have taken maritime themes, from large-scale housing projects to a structure that would facilitate humans’ diplomatic relations with marine life. Conceptually, the show has a range of connections to architecture. All of the categories deal with the sea as a new territory where we can redefine ourselves and how we relate to one another and nature. It is not only defined by a different ground plane (water), but also by a different set of rules due its extra-legal, non-sovereign state. Once outside of the limits of “the law of the land,” new possibilities arise from this tabula rasa condition. Dutch studio Atelier van Lieshout (AVL) built a floating abortion clinic for Women on Waves, a Dutch health nonprofit that provides reproductive health services to women in countries with restrictive laws. A-Portable was a gynecological unit that helped women from Ireland, Morocco, Poland, Portugal, and Spain.
The Brooklyn collective Mare Liberum takes its name from the 1609 treatise by Dutch jurist and philosopher Hugo Grotius that described the sea as “one of the last free spaces in this densely occupied urban landscape.” The artists channel Grotius as they work to explore and inhabit New York City’s waterways and waterfronts, the last open spaces where the artists feel they can be marginal and ambiguously outside of civilization. An essay by Dylan Gauthier, a founding member of Mare Liberum, can be found in the front of the book and elucidates how the collective’s two-year occupation of a yacht on the Gowanus Canal was possible due to ambiguous law and overlapping bureaucracies. The group is experimenting with new territories and space-making outside of the traditional realm of architecture or urbanism.
Mare Liberum’s work also provokes new ways of living, as does Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for Triton City in Baltimore, where large housing blocks would be built on autonomous ships, and anchored in the ground. The 100,000 units were stacked like blocks within a large superstructure. If this sounds like Metabolism, it is because Fuller and Japanese architect Shoji Sadao originally designed the project for Tokyo Bay, typical of other water-based architectures of the 1950s and 1960s in Japan. When its client died, the team was commissioned by HUD and President Lyndon Johnson. It never was realized, despite being verified by the U.S. Navy as fit for building. The model is now on view at the Johnson Presidential Library. Building out onto the water is a popular proposal these days, as Diller’s Island in New York and the Garden Bridge in London compete for most controversial territory.
Also projecting new forms of interaction is Ant Farm’s Dolphin Embassy. The speculative underwater diplomatic center was conceived for exploring interspecies communication. This dolphin research platform DOLØN EMB 1 took multiple iterations, as it grew from a simple catamaran-like vessel to a futuristic, technology-driven vessel called Oceania. While the group published numerous articles and received grants for the research, the project was abandoned when they broke up in 1978.
The architectural works in the show fit in well, as they are the spatial manifestation of the pioneering and experimental attitude of the whole exhibition. The works by Pedro Reyes, Mary Mattingly, and Dennis Oppenheim could easily have been included in an architectural survey, because of the territorial and social implications of the art that blur the distinctions between architecture and performance. In a way, getting in a boat is an architectural act and a performance at the same time. This speaks to not only the breadth of the Radical Seafaring catalogue but also to its aesthetic and conceptual clarity.