This week I am an artist in residence at Mary Mattingly’s WetLand project — a sculpture / habitat / provocation floating in the Delaware at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. We’ve got chickens, bees, solar panels, a wetland habitat drawing from the river, ripening jalapeños, a rainwater bathtub … each day Mary, the FringeArts staff supporting the project, and the fellow residents and I talk to the public about the future, ecology, technology, and DIY. Kids, coast guard, native Philadelphians, and international visitors have all been drawn to what is a bit of a spectacle here among the historical ships, hotels, and beach bars — today the hive was kind enough to let me share fresh honey with passersby.
What I appreciate about this situation and Mary’s work in general is that it doesn’t shy away from existing in an indeterminate zone that invokes architectural, design, sculpture, conceptual art, and performance discourses without fitting very well into any of them. It is an exercise in interpretation, ultimately, and interpretation that exceeds the spatiotemporal bounds of the piece and slips into how we talk about ‘habitat’, or maybe ‘inhabiting’ in general. Bees, reclaimed materials, collective living, here they are conversation starters about what is novel, tolerable, exciting, or uncomfortable, and what it is that makes a habitat permanent or transient relative to the diverse everyday conditions of our visitors. In that sense, I don’t really read WetLand as a critique of our consumerism, nor a utopic vision of some bourgeohippy future, though it might easily be understood as such. I think it’s somewhat darker than that, where Mary’s living and (tireless, unceasing) labor are laid bare in an attempt to exist in conscious relation to a society that may be failing, or which we can imagine as failing. Her precarity stands in for our collective precarity. The form of WetLand is then simply her perspective rather than a polemic about how anyone should live. But that perspective includes the collaborations that she has cultivated to realize the work, from volunteers to artists to institutional support — and it’s openness to participation and interpretation that undergirds the richness of the piece.
For myself, I’ve chosen to take inspiration from that and make this residency less about producing a work as reflecting on the state of my practice and looking into future directions. I am reading theory texts, learning new software, and sketching out several small research works I’ll hopefully be able to complete in the next weeks. One of those is mechanism for rhythmanalysis, with no code or electricity involved, but through which I make temporal notations of my surroundings with the help of a stethoscope. That a boat is in constant motion makes it easy to bring rhythm into the foreground, and it has lent my time here a special kind of pulse.