Mary Mattingly: The Art of Inter-Action

BY Robert DiGiacomo  
Cover Image
Swale, NYC, 2017
Photo: Strongbow/Cloudfactory

Mar 16th 2021

Multimedia artist Mary Mattingly has been thinking beyond the canvas. The climate crisis, food justice, and sustainable resource management have inspired her to create large-scale works to enlighten, engage, and—ultimately—galvanize audiences to take action.

The Brooklyn-based artist has shown her highly interactive works around the world, including at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and the Seoul Arts Center in South Korea, but often focuses closer to home in New York City and the surrounding region. According to Mattingly, these public installations help imagine “what is possible by creating platforms for neighbors and strangers to build their visions for more regenerative eco-social systems together.”

Mattingly thinks big picture, taking a multidisciplinary approach to her work. Her current project, Public Water, explores the history of New York’s water supply, starting 550 million years ago and stretching through today. The year-long exhibition, which runs through June 2021, uses weekly posts on its website to tell the story of New York City’s drinking water and the watersheds that supply it. The posts include historic photos and hand-drawn maps, and dive into such milestones as the formation of the Finger Lakes 2.6 million years ago and the completion of the New Croton Dam in 1906. It will conclude with a major installation: a large-scale “water-filtering, sculptural ecosystem” to be installed from April through June 2021 at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

A Year of Public Water
Image courtesy of More Art

The exhibition’s online centerpiece, A Year of Public Water, reflects Mattingly’s commitment to public dialogue by highlighting issues of water quality, access, privatization, and infrastructure facing the water supply. The artist has also engaged locals in related art projects, such as environmental sciences students at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics High School.

A Year of Public Water is both action and art. According to Mattingly, it’s designed to foster conversations about drinking water systems and to build ties between the New Yorkers who consume the water and those who live in the watersheds along the Hudson Valley that supply the water.

In another ongoing project that reflects her commitment to the intersection of art, environment, and activism, Mattingly has adapted her Ecotopian Library project, which appeared at the University of Colorado Art Museum in 2020, for an installation at the Hudson Area Library in Hudson, New York. The Ecotopian Library’s “collection”—which pulls double duty as a kind of public tool kit—covers topics like forestry, botany, art, literature, political science, and social science.

Visitors can access books and artwork you might expect to find at a library, as well as less likely items, such as local water and soil samples, fossils from the Eocene era that might point toward regenerative forestry practices, and manifestos to establish ethical ecological practices.

Each version of the library is place-specific and includes opportunities for visitors to contribute by filling out climate change comment cards and sharing stories about the local environment. It continues Mattingly’s exploration of the idea of the commons—the natural and cultural resources accessible to all members of a society.

By positioning this iteration of the project in a public library, she underscores the value of libraries as places where information is accessible to all and as a familiar, but often overlooked, model for sharing resources efficiently.

Her concern about another key environmental resource—the food ecosystem—informs one of Mattingly’s signature projects. Swale is a floating “food forest” assembled on a 140-by-30-foot barge that launched in 2016. The barge has since docked at public piers throughout New York City, inviting the public to harvest herbs, fruits, and vegetables for free.

Mattingly hopes the experience of stepping on board Swale triggers “a perspective shift” that helps inspire visitors to further consider issues around how they and their neighbors access food and the use of public waterways and land. The barge often docked in communities with little access to fresh food. By inviting residents to step onto a boat docked in their neighborhood and sample a tomato right from the vine, Mattingly aims to create a visceral link between people and their local food ecosystem, spurring dialogue about their community and its relationship to its food sources.

gallery video poster

The Swale barge is currently undergoing renovations and should return to the New York City waterways in 2022. A land-based extension of Swale created for Governor’s Island in the New York harbor features related programming and exhibitions.

Throughout her ambitious public art projects, Mattingly draws together teams of collaborators and audiences to imagine and create. By devising communal spaces to share water, ideas, and food, Mattingly enables us to better understand our shared responsibility to care for the earth—and each other.


Four More Artists Addressing Environmental Issues with Socially Engaged Art

Worldwide, people are facing a diverse range of critical environmental concerns. Artists addressing these systemic problems through socially engaged art strive to create social or political change through collaboration with individuals, communities, and institutions. These adventurous artists are interested in the process—the person-to-person interactions—more than a finished product. They devise activities, initiatives, and platforms that invite the public to become participants. Group activities might involve knowledge sharing, coalition building, stewardship, or activism. In addition to the examination of specific ideas, locations, and issues, these projects serve to remind us that the complex problems we face can only be successfully addressed through collective action.

Jeppe Hein

Jeppe Hein is a Danish artist who creates experiential and interactive works that invite the viewer to activate the exhibition space. His works in the forms of benches and labyrinths capitalize on a sense of play and surprise to engage the public. In 2019, Hein and sustainability non-profit Art 2030 created Breathe With Me, an ongoing initiative to unite the world via one simple action: breathing. The project invites audiences to paint their own "breath" as a vertical blue line on the artwork's canvas walls, creating a poetic representation of society living and breathing together. Breathe With Me, which has been presented in New York City, Beijing, Denmark, and Switzerland, is meant to advance specific goals for health and well-being, as well as sustainable cities and communities outlined by the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Mary Miss

Mary Miss is a pioneer in the field of environmental art. Her work utilizes elements of sculpture, architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning to engage audiences in public spaces. Miss founded CALL: City as Living Laboratory to work with artists, scientists, and residents of urban communities to create sustainable solutions for urgent environmental issues, including climate, equity, and health. Her recent works include Watermarks, a project designed to help the residents of Milwaukee better understand their relationship to the city's water systems; and Rescuing Tibbetts Brook, a series of artist-led initiatives to restore wetlands and create much needed green space in the Bronx. CALL's artist-facilitated programs bring together community groups, scientists, planners, and government officials to address local and larger issues around sustainability.

Lauren Bon

Lauren Bon is an environmental artist based in Los Angeles. Working with colleagues at Metabolic Studio, she explores self-sustaining systems through collaborative works spanning architecture, performance, sound, and farming. Her studio also engages the public through salons, talks, and print-making workshops. Her current project is Bending the River Back Into the City (2012-present), a multicomponent sculpture that will divert water from the Los Angeles River, process it in bio-remediation gardens, and make it available for use to irrigate arid sections of the river's flood plain. Bon is also known for her major public artwork, Not a Corn Field, which, in 2005, transformed an abandoned train yard near downtown Los Angeles into a 32-acre cornfield, remediating the soil and bringing attention to the underutilized land.

Alicia Grullon

Alicia Grullon is an artist and activist whose work examines power dynamics, communication, and issues related to race, class, and gender. She believes that using art to address complicated issues makes the process more accessible and less threatening. Her project Percent for Green (2014) focused on developing a legislative bill that would allocate 1 percent of New York City-funded construction budgets to support environmental initiatives in underserved parts of the Bronx. (The project references the Percent for Art funding programs that exist in many US cities.) Percent for Green organized public workshops in community centers, schools, and museums that served as forums for discussing attitudes about climate change and the environmental health concerns of communities of color. Other works have addressed politics, immigrant rights, and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color.
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