By Polly Bates
Mary Mattingly is an interdisciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, New York. Mattingly co-creates sculptural ecosystems that address forms of public food and commons in New York City. In 2020 she was the Brooklyn Public Library’s Artist in Residence and launched Public Water with +More Art, a project that comprised a history of New York City’s Drinking Watershed and a sculpture that mimicked the watershed while cleaning water. In 2016 she co-launched Swale, a mobile free public food forest on a barge in New York City. Docked at public piers but following waterways common laws, Swale circumnavigated New York's public land laws, allowing anyone to pick free fresh food. The project helped instigate the "foodway" in Concrete Plant Park, the Bronx in 2017. Considered a pilot project, the "foodway" is the first time New York City Parks is inviting people to publicly forage in over 100 years. In 2021 Mattingly was working in Glacier National Park in Montana on a water clock called Limnal Lacrimosa, and completed a two-part public sculpture called Vanishing Point at Southend Pier in the UK with Metal and Focal Point Gallery. Her work has been featured in Aperture, Art in America, Artforum, Art News, Sculpture Magazine, The New York Times, Financial Times, Le Monde, New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and on BBC News, MSNBC, Fox News, NPR, WNBC, and on Art21. Her work has been included in books such as the Whitechapel/MIT Press Documents of Contemporary Art series titled “Nature”, and Henry Sayer’s A World of Art, 8th edition. Mattingly has a monograph, “What Happens After” that will be released in December 2022.
© Mary Mattingly ‘In the Navel of the Moon’ Inflatable home, 2008.
POLLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us Mary, it is an honour to speak with such a powerhouse artist who explores issues of sustainability, climate change and displacement, with a deep dissection into your personal footprint.
Your earlier works ‘Elysian Fields’ (2006) and ‘Inflatable Home’ (2008) imagine futuristic nomads labouring under the weight of their possessions, whilst in ‘Watershed Core (2021) you begin to invent specific solutions and architectural prototypes which embrace adaptable strategies for the survival of a return to a nomadic existence, forced upon us due to severe floods, war and the decay of our urban habitat.
We are currently experiencing what feels like ecological and political warfare, with environmental decline, the aftereffects of a global pandemic and the alarming threat of World War 3. Innovative designs like those within your practice will soon become what our future relies on.
Could you tell us a little about ‘Watershed Core’ and how you approached the research and experimentation for the design?
MARY: I’m drawn to sculpture that can be read as a possibility for interactions in daily life, and think of sculpture as a proposal or a platform that can participate in public space.
Watershed Core mimics the watershed of NYC (the 200 square miles of land in upstate NY where city residents get our water). Rainwater enters catchment basins at the top of the sphere and seeps through a system of piping, where it is filtered through several descending rows of plants, rock, soil and a layer of carbonated charcoal. Bullrush and cattail were present at the lowermost layers, and the uppermost layers included pollinator plants found around the watershed. Ultimately, it flows into smaller drinking water containers that collect the purified rainwater near the lowest portion of the sphere.
'Watershed Core' enacted the workings of the plants and geology in NYC’s drinking watershed to filter rainwater. It’s important to point out positionality. Besides curiosity, what drove me to do this was that I needed to ask myself to be a better partner to the people who provide my water, and to find more ways to be in alliance with them. In NYC our public water is expected, profuse, and currently is relatively clean. Yet for people who live within the watershed area in the rest of the state, the rules of the watershed dictate their lives and livelihoods - how they can farm, what businesses can exist, what lands they have access to.
© Mary Mattingly ‘Watershed Core’
POLLY: What were your experiences and relationships with water growing up in an agricultural town, and how have these encounters informed the issues highlighted within the public artwork?
MARY: I grew up not too far outside of NY’s drinking watershed in CT where the well water we had access to was polluted by agricultural chemicals. Well into the 1980s, the surrounding farms would spray chemicals on the land and would visit the nearby homes to tell us to stay inside on the days they sprayed. The town Government was slow to respond.
POLLY: ‘Watershed Core’ also reflects on the privatisation of local water systems in the United States, making drinking water a luxury which many find difficult to afford. What do you think are the impacts of privatisation on local communities, and how can we support them? Especially as cost-of-living increases are being felt worldwide due to the aftermath of Covid-19.
MARY: The US’s ageing infrastructure has been helped into disrepair by a lack of public funding. In the town I grew up in, I see that people have a private water infrastructure system now, and I‘ve looked at the Environmental Working Group stats on it and the water conditions today are still pretty bad, different sets of chemicals are in the water and now people are paying more for water from a private company with less accountability. We must advocate for public-public partnerships for small towns or large cities that can’t afford the costs on their own of public water system. They should be able to look to other cities and towns and form partnerships with them to cost share, instead of turning to a private company because it’s convenient. We need to advocate for this on the local level.
Mary Mattingly ‘Swale’ in the East River. Photo by Cloudfactory ©
POLLY: There is common attention to increasing accessibility within your more recent works, looking less into imagining the future and more into resolving issues in the present, with a focus on clean water, energy supplies and fresh food. Your work ‘Swale’ does just that, as a floating edible landscape built on a reclaimed barge. Could you tell us about the urban forest project, and what inspired you to bring free, sustainable cultivation into New York City?
MARY: I found a lack of access to fresh food when my diet had to shift after I learned I had celiac. I suddenly couldn’t eat much of anything I was used to and couldn’t afford the foods that would keep me healthy. I was also inspired by the waterways here: they’re areas that are removed from the bustle of the city, and give people a respite from the daily motion of our lives. I had known urban farms that had closed when the real estate was valued, and also had known that the rules on the water were different from those on land. I thought an art project could pressure the city to open up public land for foraging while being a space people can enjoy because it asks people to visit those spaces of respite in NYC.
POLLY: You have described ‘Swale’ to be a “social sculpture” which ignites important conversations on food sovereignty, the right for communities to have access to fresh food and water. 39.5 million Americans are living in food deserts, where affordable fresh food is scarce to none.
What do you think are the benefits of shared, public food crops, and what impact do you hope the project has on public land laws?
MARY: I hope the project continues to make planting and picking on NYC’s 30,000 acres of public land possible. It’s another use for NYC parkland and one that many people are ready for: when we can pick and steward land in the city together we can strengthen commons in so many ways.
Mary Mattingly ‘Swale’, photographed by Subhram Reddy ©
POLLY: How do you select what edible plants grow within ‘Swale’, and how important was it for you to include plants with medicinal properties?
MARY: Swale’s edible and medicinal plantings were first planned around what plants could be donated in bulk to Swale through NYC urban farms, the NYC Department of Parks, and a network of small agroforestry initiatives in the tri-state area, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. From there, Casey Tang, an artist and permaculture gardener, planned a companion planting map of the first plantings on Swale.
From there, the plants evolved when the barge was on site, and people started bringing their extra seedlings to plant on the barge. Finally, with a grant in year two, we were able to purchase fruit-bearing saplings and integrate them into the ecosystem.
POLLY: ‘Swale’ provides access to sustainable food, but it also yields opportunities to garden and forage. Outside space and gardens are a sign of opulence, especially within a metropolis. What do you hope providing first encounters with growing seeds, gardening and essentially, farming will reveal about sustainable agriculture?
MARY: Agriculture can be sustainable the more people care about it and participate in stewarding it, even in small ways. People who visit and pick foods from Swale immediately ask where the soil and water come from before they take a bite. This is key! We want to trust the food in stores too but don’t have the opportunity to ask the same questions.
Mary Mattingly ‘Inflatable Home’ ©
POLLY: Throughout your artistic career you have constructed wearable homes and boulders of consumption, captured through photography and performances. You are now increasingly engineering sustainably functional structures; how did you make the shift into environmental engineering solutions?
MARY: They both work together and reflect one another. While the structures take more time, the sculptures help me look critically at my daily life. One is personal and one is more social, and I haven’t shifted from one to the other, but oscillate between both, largely depending on access and opportunity.
© Mary Mattingly ‘Pull’ Havana Biennial, 2015.
POLLY: You continue to invent hand-made ecosystems which are built from reclaimed or reused materials, and as a sculptor, you seem incredibly mindful of your responsibility to keep your waste to a bare minimum. How does this impact your practice and your approach to projects?
MARY: I usually start with materials I locate in a waste stream: infrastructure with a past life, and tie that into a regenerative story I want to tell. The first use of the materials I start with determines much of the sculpture, so in some sense, they all start from a compromise.
© Mary Mattingly ‘Pull’ Havana Biennial, 2015.
POLLY: In September you will be participating in Klima Expo & Conference in Washington, DC with a sculpture that “listens and responds to glacial time”. Could you give us a taster of what to expect from this sculpture and what projects you are currently working on?
MARY: I’ve been making these DIY clepsydras that tell water time. They are set to keep a certain amount of time but are never exact, depending on environmental conditions and the variations in the water as it evaporates. I plan to make one for the Klima Expo in Washington in September.
POLLY: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss your practice with us, it is incredibly inspiring to discover the inner workings of an artist like yourself. We would like to finish off with one last question - if you could offer one piece of advice to our creative community, what would it be?
MARY: Recently I’ve been writing about the complexity of an artist’s material use and its footprint. It has reminded me to have reverence for everything I work with when making art. While we still live under an economic system that externalizes so many costs, thinking through how art can engage other ways of bringing forth possibilities for being with (but not being paralyzed by) contradiction, while focusing on expanding collective potentials for transformation has become so important. It’s not what we do alone, but what we do in networks, in tandem, in community and in unison.