I am reminded of the old phrase “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” This essentially becomes the story of the socially engaged collaboration of the English Kills Project with the Newtown Creek Alliance (NCA).
Everyone in Brooklyn has commitments. Things change. Focus is redirected. They say they are all over committed on the ground. Well, one commitment was dropped, the English Kills Floating Island project and it shows a lack of consistency and trust.
Socially engaged art projects are about commitments. One must be able to trust the other parties to follow through on what is promised. While it doesn’t have to be grandiose, nor should any party over commit beyond their resources, certainly a commitment based on trust, feasibility/affordability and conceptual flexibility is reasonable to expect. At the same time one has to weigh whether the parties themselves are the right fit for delivering on the project. In the collaborative EKP-NCA floating island project, each of us had the requisite experience and availability. Most certainly there were questions about my time since I moved back to Houston in August 2016. But as I have continued to stress and remind my collaborators, I was more than willing to make the back and forth trips from Houston to NY to assure the fabrication, launch and completion of the experiment. However, if one party backs away from the commitment for reasons that were never an issue, then it is fair that the other party hold them accountable. This collaboration was worked on through numerous meetings, events and talks, and has been advertised for over a year. All of which suggest a commitment to the project. Therefore holding those to account for backing out of commitments on an unfounded premise is to be expected.
Admittedly the communication between all the parties has been sporadic at best. Almost all of my attempts to reach them have been missed, ignored or forgotten. I guess it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. Still, there can be no doubt that I was consistent in my efforts to stay in touch with everyone. I made all the efforts to do so. Perhaps this is where the major weakness existed. If there is no robust communication things will fall apart. Which is exactly what happened.
Our English Kills Floating Island Plan was a collaboration with the NCA. It was not an independent project of the EKP. It was designed and agreed together with Dr. Durand and the NCA leadership. An English Kills Floating Island Project is a bio-remediation experiment that tests the viability of an unobstructed and a more natural wetlands habitat with different substrates. It is more green and organic than it was floating dock. This project did not reinforce the grey infrastructure of Newtown Creeks’ metal bulkheads.
Flexibility and feasibility were important principles throughout the planning. My vision for floating island was different than the NCA. But in order to accommodate, my design was sacrificed in favor for the experiences of NCA and their cautiousness. Therefore the floating island design was based on the NCA Living Dock.
The EKP Floating Island experiment is an affordable project. At the time of the crafting of the design and agreement it was described to me as affordable because of the excess material left from the NCA Living Dock fabrication. At the same time the EKP has cultivated financial support from two individual sources to help defray an additional fabrication costs. The NCA would not have to incur any significant costs for the floating island project.
There is currently a team of people that were willing to maintain any new EKP and NCA collaborative on English Kills. Each of the team members are residents of Bushwick.
However, it was strongly conveyed me that I was the one that must cultivate community support or at least identify the demand for helping, participation, collaborations, and volunteers in my old neighborhood. This is difficult to do now as I live in Texas. But as I demonstrated, I did my best through numerous workshops, events, talks and openings. When I did it was one of the few times that NCA actually made a appearance in Bushwick and East Williamsburg. Currently the NCA makes little effort. I argue, how can I be expected to find neighborhood support if my supposed partners and collaborators wont start a project that can actually help create the constituency they seek. “You have to start a parade in order for people to follow.” Again, another proverb, it’s like “putting the cart before the horse.” Should I shoulder the all the blame when it is the NCA that has been negligent in cultivating support!?
If there is a concern that the number of team members I identified to maintain a floating experiment in English Kills are not sufficient, then the NCA should feel an obligation to do greater outreach in Bushwick and East Williamsburg. The NCA cannot expect to have potential shareholders on the English Kills side of Newtown Creek for a Floating Island project without stirring interest in the Superfund process among the residents of Bushwick and East Williamsburg. The NCA should have an established presence with a more inclusive programming for a neighborhood of people of color, Spanish speaking and low incomes. Part of the mission of the EKP was seeking neighborhood support for bio-remediation strategies, the NCA objectives, the Superfund process and creating a greater awareness of the problems of English Kills, Newtown Creek and the rest of its tributaries. The EKP would be appreciative of similar help from the NCA in a neighborhood deserving of the same kind of attention as Greenpoint and Queens.
Should I write a letter to the NCA board? It could detail the merits of the project as well as the disappointments due to the lack of follow-through from the NCA. I would insist that the NCA do more outreach to other parts of Brooklyn. Areas and places could be identified to hold meetings, CAGs, fundraisers etc. But they must to do the legwork, not me.
The letter will, of course, add to my assertion that English Kills is a major source of freshwater to Newtown Creek. It will discuss my intention to return to Brooklyn periodically to work on the English Kills Project.
The EKP still has work to be done, video primarily. Plans are in process about the Schamonchi, killi-fish, shrimp and underwater videos. I would like to turn this rejection into something creative. How? Obviously it’s time to put these journals in article form. With the failure of a socially engaged facet, all the more reason to get this first-hand experience in shape. It will take some time as three journals need to be transcribed. It must be reshaped into something engaging, with humor and in a form that can impart some scholarship. An EKP history will be the first written experience of a socially engaged artwork from the viewpoint of the artist initiator. The literature of social practice is missing this perspective.
With a lingering sense of the dejection, I called my assistant Elizabeth to explain what occurred and basically told her that the NCA and other supporters are out. She was understanding but was still optimistic. Elizabeth feels that there are other organizations in New York that would be willing to help, provide their imprimatur, or be a fiscal sponsor. She feels it is too good of an idea to abandon. I wasn’t expecting this this much confidence, and I am grateful. She is right in the sense that I don’t have to worry about problematic collaborations and can now be free to do a more daring, more organic, exciting design. I don’t have to rely on ideas of gray metal habitats on gray infrastructure. Unfortunately, I wont have the obvious community organization for input. Elizabeth gave me a different way of looking at what should have been a great disappointment. We will be doing research in the summer months to find the right organization to work with. When I come back to New York in the Fall maybe we can set up a meeting!