This conversation was recorded, and subsequently transcribed, at Grizzly Grizzly gallery, taking place between Philadelphia based artist Sean FitzGerald, Johanna Povirk-Znoy, and Brooklyn based artist Marie Lorenz at the time of her exhibition, Derelict, in March, 2016.
Derelict Conversation – Transcript – 4/5/16
Sean FitzGerald: So while I was researching to prepare for the interview I happened to also be reading some books on Cezanne; there was an interesting questionnaire I came upon that was included in the catalogue for his first solo show of drawings. The idea behind the questionnaire was that it might reveal something fundamental about the person who answered it and it’s this amazing relic-document that Cezanne filled out. So I thought that it would be fun to punctuate our interview with some of the same questions.
Marie Lorenz: I love it. That sounds perfect!
S: So, to begin, what is your favorite smell?
M: I like the smell of low tide. Some people think this is a bad smell, but to me it is the smell of adventure. I like that you can smell low tide all the way through the city. It permeates the city even if you can’t see the water. Low tide reaches out to you like an invitation to explore.
S: So I guess another way I thought about beginning…I think it’s really important to view the work that’s in here within the framework of the larger context of the Tide and Current Taxi. So if you want to just begin and say something about what that project is and how the work in here relates to that, in a larger context.
M: The Tide and Current Taxi is a project that I’ve done for 11 years. I take people around the waterways of New York City using the tidal current to push the boat, and then I make a blog about each trip. People email me with a place they want to go, I study the tidal charts and suggest a time based on when the currents moving.
I design and build the boats that I use for the Tide and Current Taxi. The print on the wall at Grizzly is of a boat that I made two summers ago. The shapes you see on the far right and left, those are the ribs of the boat. The long vertical strips toward the center are the planks. I cut out the shapes of the boat, then printed them, then assembled the boat, so this print was made when the boat was all flat shapes.
S: So the boat’s made of plywood?
M: Yes, a simple construction of plywood and fiberglass.
The mobile in the center of the room at Grizzly is made from things I found in the New York Harbor. There is a buoy, a skull, flotation foam, those are typical things you find floating around New York. Then I like to have some anomalies. The glass buoy for instance, my parents found on the beach in Japan in the 70’s.
S: That actually leads well into the next question that I wanted to ask you. We’re super privileged, I feel like, to be actually in this space talking about the work and having it in front of us at the same time. So I wanted to really focus on what we have in front of us and maybe if you could go through and just talk about some of the objects that physically compose the mobiles; where they come from, how did you assemble them, what was the criteria for selecting them, and how they relate to each other.
M: Most of the stuff is from Shooter’s Island, a tiny strip of land between Staten Island and New Jersey. It is one of my favorite places to go in New York. Not many people land there because it’s an industrial area surrounded by landfills. But the island itself is really wild, nesting birds, trees, grass… and tons of garbage.
S: Is it the current that makes so much stuff accumulate there?
M: Yes, the currents, and the fact that no one sets foot on the island. It feels extremely remote, even though it is geographically close to Staten Island.
S: Wow, so it’s like a huge repository?
M: Yes, a huge treasure chest of trash. Sometimes you can find really old stuff there because it’s washing out of landfills that were capped in the 70s. There are old ceramic dishes and antique bottles, things with an almost historic value, but then real junk too. There is a section of beach on Shooter’s island with hundreds of balls; soccer balls, basket balls, and every size of rubber ball, you would not believe it. Things kind of sort themselves out on the beach. I guess when I started making the mobiles I was thinking about that, how I like to see where different things wind up, how the curve of the coast and can affect how currents will deliver objects with certain properties.
S: So the tide kind of organizes things by their density?
M: Yes, like insanely so. I once found a little stretch of beach with hundreds of drinking straws – all different colors and shapes… How did they find each other?
S: Like a gigantic trash centrifuge….
M: Yes, so I guess the mobiles started because I was thinking about that. I wanted to create the pleasure of beach combing without overtly enacting that for the viewer. I feel like the mobiles offer a version of that centrifugal sorting because they also organize things by mass. They are also floating.
S: I’d like to switch focus for a moment and talk about the large prints that are hanging on the wall behind the mobiles. Can you begin by just describing to us briefly how you made them?
M: Technically the process is called ‘nature printing’, because people traditionally use sumi ink and mulberry paper like this to print leaves or wood, or in the case of Japanese anglers to record the size of their catch.
S: Fish prints…
M: Exactly! The prints on the column are of more plastic junk from the harbor. I like the association of using a process called ‘nature printing’ to record plastic debris. It seems to suggest this plastic as our new nature.
S: Do you think of the prints as almost like an index of a performance, or more like autonomous pieces that exists beside a performance?
M: Yes an index, or a remnant of the performance.
S: I’m reading this particular set of prints as indexes because of how schematic they look. But more importantly, many of your prints, especially the collagraphs and the other flotsam prints are really beautiful and set up a kind of poetics of trash and they almost look like tapestries. They’re undeniably quite beautiful and elegant. Would it be wrong to read this as a schematic drawing of a boat?
M: It really is! I made this print initially to record the shape of the planks in case I wanted to build the same boat again, and then I was like oooh…this could be a thing…
S: I wanted to talk a little about nature and the Tide and Current Taxi. The river, in a lot of your work, acts as a vehicle or lens through which the familiar or the everyday becomes destabilized and unfamiliar. And I think it’s interesting that you’re using nature to render the contemporary uncanny in some way, and I was wondering if that was an accurate read or something that you think about or relate to?
M: Yes. I think that’s a great read. Because I make boats, people often ask I’m interested in the sea or exploring rivers in wilderness. I like that stuff, but my project is about the city. Nature, or the natural force of the tide, is a vehicle for looking at the city. It is exactly what you said, a vehicle for destabilizing our perception of the city.
S: Most people don’t even realize that’s what’s happening with the tide. They’re so close to it, and they see it every day, but don’t ever interact with it.
M: Yes, I love thinking about that. The gravity of the moon can pull you to Harlem…
M: or downtown. It’s crazy to think of this as a viable way to travel, but it really is.
S: So here are two big questions: How would you define nature today and how does it exist within or alongside the metropolis?
M: I think there’s been a push with speculative realism to redefine the nature/culture binary, to stop thinking about nature as other and to see what we are actually left with on the planet. I think that reading speculative realism hasn’t changed my concept of nature so much as my concept of culture. Before I would have said that culture is, you know, art and theater and stuff. Now I think of plutonium and global warming as cultural products. So I would say that nature is… I don’t know what it is. I guess that’s what the project is about, finding weird boundaries, looking at the wilderness that encircles Manhattan, and how it penetrates the city in the form of sewers or something…
S: It’s also how those boundaries exist, that they’re very permeable and they’re not necessarily static throughout time…It’s constantly evolving and de-evolving and coalescing, even though we don’t necessarily pay attention to it.
M: Exactly! And it is exciting to think that more specific our instruments get, the more we study, the more we realize how even the human body is an amalgamation of non-human habitats.
S: What’s your favorite form of relaxation?
M: Ha! It’s amazing how all the Cezanne questions relate perfectly to going out in a boat! But really, it is very relaxing to boat in the city, a complete anecdote for normal city life. If you have enough time, I highly recommend it.
S: Are you reading anything interesting right now?
M: mmmm… The Dark Forest. This is the second volume of a science fiction trilogy by Liu Cixin. Oh my god, it’s so good. So scary and weird…
S: I was trying to think about art historical points of reference for boating. The three most obvious ones I could think of were Bas Jan Ader, Monet and Turner. And I was wondering if you identify your work with any of them.
M: (27:58) I love Bas Jan Ader, of course. I love all the references to falling and (of course) searching in his work. Also, I like to think about the Tide and Current Taxi as analogous to painting, like an impulse to represent the landscape. It is also in the lineage of land art too, thinking about Agnes Denes, or the Robert Smithson field trips.
S: Going back to Bas Jan Ader, were there ever any sublime moments of terror during the project or anything related to the project where you felt like you were in real danger, or you were on the verge of losing control?
M: Being in the water is like always on the verge of losing control.
S: There is always an accident waiting.
M: It’s true, because you are suspended over this place you’re not really supposed to be. At the same time, it’s all very familiar on a neonatal level. I think it’s a challenge that the human body is capable of solving. In the boat, small problems keep arising that your body is perfectly capable of solving, it’s like this low level emergency unfolding every second, and you solve problems without even thinking about it.
S: Who’s your favorite painter?
M: …Sean Fitzgerald.
M: Who did Cezanne say his favorite painter was?
M: Who’s your favorite painter?
S: In 2002 you did a performance called Ice Flow, Where you…
S: …dressed up as a seal and floated down the East River, on a Styrofoam iceberg.
M: It’s true.
S: Can you talk a little bit about that?
M: [Laughing] I made these costumes in grad school – a seal and a sea lion – they looked like huge stuffed animals but you could get inside and zip yourself up. Your little arms fit into the flippers, but you couldn’t do much from inside, you couldn’t see, you could barely breath, you were completely in this sack It felt like some sort of deprivation chamber. But from the outside, you were a seal! I didn’t originally make them for the river, it was actually my Yale thesis show in 2002.
S: Oh really?
M: Ha! Yes. The costumes were lying open on a Styrofoam iceberg unzipped, and the insides were bright red satin. It almost looked like they had been flayed open, but also very inviting for someone to get inside. I realized a year later that the whole thing would float, the styrofoam iceberg and everything so I got inside and floated inside the sea lion for a bit down the East River. I had a paddle hidden under the costume so I could unzip myself and paddle to shore. A police helicopter followed me down the river, and then it followed back home and hung out above the house for 20 minutes.
S: [Laughing] Did they come talk to you?
M: No one came. Just the helicopter.
S: I bet you were on at least one person’s news feed: “I saw a seal floating down the East River today”.
S: Speaking of seeing crazy things, what is one of the craziest things you have seen through having access to these liminal spaces?
M: One of the unusual… there are so many things, I guess…
S: Or maybe just one of the most memorable…
M: One thing I see very often in New York City (and you would never know this from land) many people sunbath nude along the water’s edge. Sometimes folks will hop a fence, and get down to the water on the rocks around Roosevelt Island or Queens, completely invisible from the shore and it is so nice down there, like having a huge park all to yourself, no one else in sight for miles, except then I come by… It is interesting to see how people use the liminal space, like you said.
Johanna Povirk-Znoy: It’s weird that you guys were talking about nature earlier and thinking about rivers and cities, but there is an attitude, in general, as urban waterways being really dirty nasty places. Like the way you hear about the Schuylkill river being used as the water supply, and what a problem that was. Also like that Seinfeld episode where Kramer goes in the East River and gets so dirty and gross, no wants to smell him. In the city people relate the water with relaxation, but they also think they can get an STD from it.
M: It’s so true, I love that it can be both ways. The New York waterways have some real problems, the sediment is full of old industrial pollutants and new pollutants get dumped in every day from the Combined Sewer Overflow. But there are still more things, or a greater variety of things living in the water around New York than on land.
S: Have you heard of plastiglomerate?
S: Some of the things in the mobile definitely…
M: They look like plastiglomerates.
S: Totally. The Styrofoam, or whatever that thing is, immediately made me think of plastiglomerate.
M: I would love to find a plastiglomerate.
S: I’m surprised you haven’t.
M: I guess it depends on how you define a plastiglomerate. That weird rock thing in the mobile is the home of a tubeworm – a snail that dissolves the shells of its host and secretes calcium carbonate in that tube shape. I have definitely seen that around plastic, so it would be like a rock and plastic mixed together – but I does that really count as a plastiglomerate?
J: You also have the barnacle on the Buoy.
M: That’s true! Would that count?
S: I think the defining characteristic is that It’s from molten plastic; molten plastic that had rocks and other debris accumulated into it. But it’s like its own geological classification of a new rock.
M: I think you have to go to Hawaii to find them…
S: Alright, well, to wind down, maybe one last Cezanne question. You can take one person out on the boat with you, dead or alive, sky’s the limit: Who would you take ?
S: [Laughing] That is a hard choice…
M: So if I could take anyone out in a boat…ok, Bas Jan Ader.
S: Well of course, many people speculate that his disappearance was part of his performance…
M: Maybe he is still out there…
Since 2005, the artist Marie Lorenz has been operating the Tide and Current Taxi, a rowboat water taxi in New York Harbor. Carefully planning each trip to coincide with strong tidal currents in the harbor, Lorenz documented the journeys through stories and photographs. ‘Derelict’ at Grizzly Grizzly makes tangible several facets of the on-going project. She describes the pieces in the exhibition below.
To find out more about the project, visit: http://www.tideandcurrenttaxi.org/
Right Wall: Boat Print (Derelict)
“For the wall paper, I printed the planks of a boat during my building and design process. I make a new boat for for the Tide and Current Taxi every couple years, designing something that meets changing conditions on the East River. I always think that the boat planks look more interesting before I put them together, like sound waves or parentheses. In maritime law, the word ‘derelict’ refers to something at the bottom of the ocean, or a drifting ship.”
Center of the gallery: Mobile (Flotsam)
“The mobile is made from things that I use out in the boat, the actual ropes, ores, and paddles, but also stuff that I find in the New York Harbor. Operating the Tide and Current Taxi over the past 10 years has increased my interested in debris and pollution. There is all this material out there being carried around by the tide that I interact with. Those materials are like my collaborators or my copilots. Making the mobile made me very aware of the weight and balance of the objects, the same way that floating makes me aware, it was disorienting in the same way. In maritime law, the word flotsam refers to floating wreckage (as opposed to parts of a ship that have drifted to the bottom of the sea).”