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Pollution as Art: Radio-Controlled Armada Floats Where Canoes Dare Not Go

posted Sep 10, 2012, 3:15 PM by Cesar Harada
thanks to Raoul Ollman for link. 

Nathan Kensinger (right), shot from the camera on one of the Newtown Creek Armada remote-controlled boats. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Kensinger

Newtown Creek, stretching along the border between Brooklyn and Queens in New York, is in rough shape. Famous for its black mayonnaise, as the oily, polluted muck that lines it is called, the creek is full of trash, oil slicks, PCBs, heavy metals, and more. It’s not the nicest place for an art installation.

But that’s the point. Starting today, artists Nathan Kensinger, Laura Chipley, and Sarah Nelson Wright are launching a fleet of nine remote-controlled boats, carrying GoPro cameras, and inviting visitors to drive them. The Newtown Creek Armada is a temporary installation by the three artists, built both to help people get acquainted with the creek and to explore a new way to monitor it.

Newtown is a superfund site — that is, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has deemed it one of the most polluted sites in the country and a priority for ongoing clean-up, passing the costs back to the companies responsible for fouling it up so bad in the first place. Despite the EPA’s intervention, Newtown is still surrounded by industry, and hard to get close to, says Kensinger, a documentary filmmaker and photographer.

“We’re hoping to bring people out to the creek and have them actually learn a little more about it,” he says. “Part of what we’ll be presenting at our installation is the video that we actually filmed using the boats on Newtown Creek.”

Along with the fleet, which is scheduled to operate on Saturdays (and some Sundays) throughout September, will be three video kiosks, playing footage from previous expeditions up the creek and its tributaries. The Newtown Creek Armada got grants from several organizations, including the Brooklyn Arts Council, Ioby, Macktez, and picked up further funding through Kickstarter. The rest of the video will be available online — eventually. Their immediate goal is to get people to go see the installation.

One of the Newtown Creek Armada. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Kensinger

The 3-foot boats were built using material scavenged from the creek. One is metal, another is covered in plastic debris, and “The Nature Boat” is so named because it’s built from bamboo, reeds, and invasive plant species.

“Each boat has a different kind of personality, almost” says Kensinger. “Each boat … represents a different aspect of the creek and what we discovered along the creek.”

And each boat carries a camera or microphone (or both) to record its travels, tested extensively by the trio, who followed along in canoes. Angled down to scan the bottom, positioned right at water level, or pointing up at the shore, the cameras show different aspects of the creek.

“There’s definitely a huge amount of visible pollution that’s there,” Kensinger says. “There’s sections of the creek where a surprising amount of nature has returned, but then other sections are really just, I would say, dead.”

Laura Chipley carries one of the boats up from Newtown Creek. Photo: Courtesy of Nathan Kensinger

Kensinger, Chipley, and Wright took the boats deep into some of the tributaries where propellers got caught up and boats got stranded.

“We had a few incidents where some of the boats almost were lost at sea,” says Kensinger. “There’s so much pollution, even just at surface level, the propellors will get fouled.”

“There were sections of the creek that we were canoeing in wearing respirators because it was so polluted.”

Ultimately, Kensinger wants the boats to have live-stream capabilities and first-person video so they can be useful as tools to monitor conditions in other polluted waterways. But that technology isn’t quite ready, he says. Waves and water tend to disrupt the signal, and the remote controls can interfere as well.

“Part of the design of the boats is that they’re these playful, sculptural objects,” he says. “But I do look at the practical side of this and see that some of these boats could actually be used to be practical tools to look at this kind of environment … there’s areas of the creek where you really can’t get into on a regular boat, and you really can’t see what’s going on there.”