Imagine a personal flying machine, equipped with jetpacks, that could collect dew from clouds to supply fresh drinking water to the traveler; or a futuristic, water-based floating city designed to mutate with the tides and serve, at once, as transportation, island, and residence—Mary Mattingly did. At the turn of the millenium, after three consecutive catastrophic floods prompted privatization of water resources, the Brooklyn-based sculptor and photographer took note and started drafting. As so began Mattingly’s mission to create imaginative-yet-practical solutions for imminent world change—none, as of yet, which have proven too quixotic to be realized. Mattingly’s latest venture, Triple Island, is a scalable, amphibious ecosystem parked at Lower Manhattan’s Pier 42, providing regenerative shelter, power, food, and water to a future New York. On the occasion of her public project and a new exhibition of photographs at Robert Mann Gallery, we spoke with Mattingly on nomadic homes (her “Flock Houses”), the post-humanist future, and the issues she carries with her—just like her wearable home—wherever she goes.
Artsy: What issues are you currently most concerned with?
Mary Mattingly: In the year 2000 there were three reported catastrophic floods in the world, and people had begun protesting in Cochabamba, Bolivia after the World Bank, Bechtel, and several other companies privatized water resources there. Watching one of our four basic human necessities get consumed by the commodity sector changed the nature of the work I was making. Instead of always depending on exterior sources for basic necessities, I worked to imagine possible futures when more and more people may have access taken away.
Artsy: Could you tell us about your Triple Island project that is currently on view at Pier 42 in Lower Manhattan?
MM: Triple Island celebrates the opening of a new park by taking into account the geographical history of the site—it is built on the East River from landfill and was recently flooded during Hurricane Sandy. It is a scalable and amphibious ecosystem that acts as a temporary habitat for residents. As a public experiment, Triple Island is an approach to living in a future New York replete with an acceleration of environmental challenges. I want it to address the importance of decentralizing our basic resources by creating a regenerative living system that provides food from healthy fruits and vegetables such as potatoes, eggplants, squashes, corns, and kale, solar and lever-generated power, basic shelter, and purified rainwater for its inhabitants from natural systems. I hope it can encourage community-based interdependent networks to further establish means of resource and skill sharing in our daily lives.
Artsy: Can you explain the concept of a Flock House and what exactly one is comprised of?
MM: With the Flock House I asked myself, how can safe, portable housing with self-sufficient living systems be built cheaply and with a variety of materials yet still meet local building code? Instead of depending on industry, how can we make homes that are portable, or alter them so they have a certain degree of autonomy, whether that means rain water collection and purification or a greenhouse? How can the infrastructure in each settlement be portable as well: what would that look like and how would that function? ... [The Flock House] utilizes the dome shape for wind load, and metal conduit for its prevalence in New York’s waste stream and also its strength and ease of assembly. The curve of the wood adds strength and grounding to the structure and allows glued together scraps of wood to function as stably as possible.
Artsy: We’d love to hear about some of your experiences with Flock Houses—have they been successful in bringing communities together and interacting with the environment? Have they achieved the goals you’ve set?
MM: Some of the best moments were when the residents bartered with local shops, businesses, and residents to supply some of their needs in exchange for a service they could provide. For instance, one resident acquired additional fresh food from the Battery Park Urban Farm in exchange for documenting a school group’s visit to the farm. A barber shop in DUMBO utilized a Flock House as an additional space for haircuts one afternoon in exchange for giving the resident a free haircut. Exchanges like that were really fun and rewarding, but daily goings-on ranged the gamut of using the Flock House to live and work and as a gathering place for community events, but there were plenty of crazy moments too. For instance, one Flock House sat empty for a few days only to be taken over by a group of young kids (4-6yrs old) who decided they didn’t want to go back to their homes!
MM: I was building and documenting Wearable Homes until around 2006 when their prediction of dystopia and bubble-like singularity made me search for another possible future, one that is based on utopic and communal units and working together, as well as questioning present conditions. Mobile housing is something that I believe more and more people will be forced into in the future, whether they want to be mobile or not. I see it as a powerless condition, because we are all at the whim and mercy of the economic, political, and environmental climate. Everywhere, these climates are becoming more and more extreme.
Artsy: Can you tell us more about the work in “House and Universe,” in particular about how you digitally collaged photographs of Triple Island and flock houses with new environments? What was your intention here?
MM: For “House and Universe,” I looked at the micro (my personal life and possessions) and the macro (the global supply chain, its formal and informal sectors). In a global supply chain, commodity production can be deadly. Extraction of minerals has been known to fuel wars, and it’s peoples’ desire to consume that is the primary driver of wars like these. I visited different points in the supply chain, from factories to ports and transit points, to its end. Describing Rauschenberg’s Combines, Robert Hughes commented, “Societies reveal themselves in what they throw away. The city describes itself in its own waste.”
I wanted to turn my useful objects into something very useless so wrapped them into these big boulder-like forms that really illustrate their mass and obstruction. I made a decision to live my life from now on without them. In their place I’m faced with these sculptural boulders of excess that are very Sisyphean. The photographs in “House and Universe” are collages that include these boulder-forms and the similar-shaped and sized houses that are equally cumbersome within their intended portability. One dictates and necessitates the other. The collages are made up of photographs from multiple places and times, re-emphasizing the lack of place-specificity and illustrating their interconnection.
“House and Universe” is on view at Robert Mann Gallery through October 19th, 2013.