Artists Bring Attention to “One of the Nation’s Most Polluted Waterways” With Art Boat Project

Newtown Creek forms the border of Queens and Brooklyn, its industrial parks, warehouses, and sewage treatment plant rarely visited, the trash and contamination below its oily surface unseen, as only a suicidal few would risk a plunge into what the EPA deemed “one of the nation’s most polluted waterways.” But on Saturday three artists — Laura Chipley, Nathan Kensinger, and Sarah Nelson Wright — are launching a small fleet of remote-controlled boats to shed light on the Creek’s underwater world.

Cameras and microphones attached to the Newtown Creek Armada will stream footage from just below the murky surface, which the artists hope will raise awareness of the Creek as both a place of pollution and potential. Visitors to the Newtown Creek Armada will be able to drive the boats around a designated area of the waterway off of the Newtown Nature Walk — a waterfront promenade managed by the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

As DNAinfo reported, the Newtown Creek Armada was originally expected to launch in spring of this year, but is now set to have weekend accessibility throughout September. Support for project comes from the North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition, as part of its “open call for ecologically conscious initiatives,” as well as the NYC Department of Environmental Protection and the North Brooklyn Boat Club, an organization that actually takes full-scale boats into the Newtown Creek with real intrepid humans inside.

All of the artists have urban and ecologically conscious elements in their art practices. Chipley created an experimental documentary series called “Deep Black Sea” on oil spills from all over the globe; Kensinger regularly captures forgotten or abandoned urban spaces in photographs and videos that he posts on his popular blog; and Wright‘s 2009 video installation “Brooklyn Makes” focused on the subject of manufacturing in North Brooklyn.

The 3.8 mile long Newtown Creek has never been a glamorous place, having more than 50 refineries at its peak as one of the city’s most dense industrial areas in the mid-1800s, according to the EPA. These businesses included oil refineries, fertilizer factories, coal yards, and petrochemical plants, while daily traffic had boats hauling in and out large quantities of industrial materials, so it didn’t help when on top of that, raw sewage started to be dumped in the water by the city in 1856.

Recent water samples reveal its grimy history through the presence of, according the EPA, “pesticides, metals, PCBs, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are potentially harmful contaminants that can easily evaporate into the air.” Some 30 million gallons of oil have been spilled in the creek, according to New York Public Media, which also noted in 2008 that due to a lack of water flow all of the run-off, sewage, and industrial waste fermented into a layer of “black mayonnaise” 15 feet deep over the bottom of the creek.

Industry is still present along the Newtown Creek, but in September of 2010 the EPA listed it as a Superfund Site, making it part of the National Priorities List. While it is unlikely that it will ever be the Venice of the East Coast, it is possible to make it less hazardous, and perhaps the charming art boats of the Newtown Creek Armada can make visible that which has been ignored for so long.

— Allison Meier