Mary Mattingly: Public Water
On ViewProspect Park, Brooklyn
A Year of Public Water
June 3 – September 7, 2021
In June 2020, Mary Mattingly and More Art launched A Year of Public Water, a collaboration that uses various platforms to inform its audience about the sources of New York’s water supply. Beginning with the premise that knowledge of the watershed’s history is a key to its sustainable future, the project’s goals include promoting stewardship of the water system that connects upstate to downstate and fostering greater cooperation between the communities that maintain it. 19 reservoirs and lakes feed the city’s drinking water system, and the water, while treated to make it safe to drink, is unfiltered. Strict standards have to be met to protect the water supply and avoid the costs of filtration, requiring cooperation between the city and the residents of the towns and farms along the watershed. The project, carried out by Mattingly and the staff of More Art, a non-profit organization that supports socially engaged public art projects, started with a website: http://public-water.com. The website relates the economic, political, social, and scientific background of New York’s water supply, stretching from geological time to the present. Now, site-specific components of the project have been installed in Prospect Park, addressing issues facing the park, the watershed, and, by extension, the entangled histories of human intervention into natural resources.
Mattingly’s larger art practice centers on ecological concerns and fosters a reciprocal relationship between humans and nature. Swale (2016–ongoing), for example, is an edible floating forest that makes fresh produce available for free in New York Harbor. Vanishing Point (2021) focuses on the evolution of plant life in the Thames Estuary over millions of years as the climate has changed. In 2020, as artist-in-residence at the Brooklyn Public Library, she created Core, a geodesic dome installed in the Central Library’s lobby. Core contained live tropical plants of the varieties found in fossil records of the New York area.
For Public Water, Mattingly has created a sculptural coda to Core in the similarly named Watershed Core, a dome filled with native plants that are an integral part of the watershed today. The 10-foot-high structure is mounted on a plywood platform by Prospect Park’s Grand Army Plaza entrance where the East and West Park drives intersect. A nearly complete sphere, Watershed Core resembles a model of planet Earth and contains a functioning microcosm of the New York watershed, visible through permeable screens. Rain water enters catchment basins at the top of the dome and seeps through a system of piping, where it is filtered through several descending rows of plants and soil. Ultimately, it flows into smaller containers, reservoirs that collect the purified water near the lowest portion of the dome. The gravity-fed design and plant filtration mimic the passage of the rainwater collected in the Croton, Catskill, and Delaware watersheds, which is naturally purified as it flows downstate to rivers and lakes, eventually filling the reservoirs that provide nine million New Yorkers with 1.3 billion gallons of clean water daily. The relatively modest scale and lightweight structure of Mattingly’s sculpture suggest the system’s vulnerability and its surprisingly simple logic.
Like the New York watershed, Prospect Park is a combination of built and natural infrastructure that requires ongoing care and attention. With 10 million visitors a year, people depend on the park as a green space. Mattingly and More Art have produced a ten-stop self-guided walking tour that begins at the Watershed Core sculpture and ends at the Wellhouse, now an eco-friendly comfort station. Each marked stop has a QR code providing access to written and audio information, from a reminder that the park is part of the ancestral land of the Carnarsie, a Lenape tribe, to the development of its constructed features over 150 years ago by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. A notable stop on the tour is found at Dog Beach, where one can learn about ecoWEIR . This is a recently installed experimental plant filtration system designed by Brooklyn College Professor Jennifer Cherrier to remove phosphates from the park’s waters. The park’s watercourse, including its waterfalls, streams and lakes, looks natural but was engineered—ecoWEIR represents just the latest of many interventions—and has been fed by the New York City water supply since Brooklyn’s annexation in 1898. Phosphates in the water cause excessive algae growth harmful to other forms of life, and have forced closures of sections of the park in the summer. EcoWEIRuses a plant-based approach to water filtration that mimics the ecosystem of the New York watershed, as well as the analogous structure Mattingly has built in Watershed Core. One known barrier to public participation in tackling ecological problems is their seemingly overwhelming scale. Watershed Core and the tour of the park provide manageable entry points.
A Year of Public Water reminds us that as recently as the early 19th century, New York City’s foul well water caused outbreaks of disease that disproportionately affected immigrant and low-income communities. It was not until 1842, when water from the New Croton Aqueduct began flowing to the city, that the public water system as we know it began to take shape. Maintaining it is a continuous process. As future additions to the project’s website will detail, climate change is creating warmer, wetter conditions that could impact the city’s water quality, increasing turbidity from erosion caused by extreme rainfall. Turbidity is not only aesthetically displeasing, causing water to appear murky instead of transparent, but it can also shield pathogens from disinfection processes. Protecting the watershed from such challenges and avoiding the need for costly filtration systems will require adaptation and cooperation among local and regional partners. Public Water not only raises awareness of the need for ongoing stewardship, but is also a successful example of collaboration around common environmental education goals, involving the Prospect Park Alliance and the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation as well as the Brooklyn Public Library, More Art, and Mattingly herself. The artist’s sculpture, Watershed Core, anchors the project, providing a public site around which people can coalesce, a manifestation of what is at stake, and a basis for participation in future dialogue.