Don’t Rock The Boat: Mary Mattingly’s Waterpod Project


When one imagines boat living, images of gleaming mahogany surfaces, crisp billowing sails, and spotless navy deck shoes come to mind. Yet Mary Mattingly’s Waterpod Project couldn’t be farther from that Cape Cod fantasy. For the summer, Mattingly (a working artist) along with a team of other artists, scientists, engineers and sustainability experts, will be living and working on the Waterpod, which is currently docked at South Street Seaport. (It will be moving to various other locations around the city as the project continues.)

Her team has created a living space-cum-art gallery which is entirely self-sufficient: they will generate their own electricity through pedal bikes, grow their own food and vegetables, recycle and purify their own water, and even have four chickens on board to provide them with the requisite eggs for breakfast. Astounded by the ingenuity and scale of this project, we jumped on board to check it out…

Flavorpill: This is a very ambitious project that must have required a lot of foresight and planning. What was your inspiration for it?

Mary Mattingly: I started working on it about three and a half years ago, when I was really interested in the idea of creating an autonomous, self-sufficient system that a group could inhabit. I was thinking of the notion of global nomads, and how we as different cultures could interact and travel, through these mobile sustainable platforms. As I brought more people into the project, it became more complex and the system really started to take form. We’ve got a sustainability adviser from California [Loni] and students from his engineering class actually did a lot of work on this project. For me, the most exciting thing about this is its function as a public space — being able to have people come on to the boat, tell us how we could be doing better, bringing people and their ideas together, and hopefully inspiring some of the art that is created.

FP: You mentioned you’re planning some events. Can you elaborate a bit on what sort of events you’re going to run?

MM: We’ve got some tutorials coming up — from topics as diverse as New York City waterways, to ecology, to geology; we also have a couple of artists, such as Robert Stradi, who is organizing an interactive event this Saturday. His event is called “Robert Stradi Library.” It’s a collection of art that he has made, and he has two or three librarians who accompany him. A guest can sift through his card catalog, find the piece that they want to look at, and then the librarian will go and fetch it for them. We have many other artists coming over the next few months, from 11 different countries, who will be staying on board. There will be a rotation of writers, artists, scientists and people from the community and curators living here throughout the summer.

FP: You’ve been living on board for a week so far. What have been the biggest challenges?

MM: Well, we don’t have our electricity set up yet, which has been a huge problem. Our plumbing is also not completed yet, but in a couple of days, the system should be done. As for the living experience, it’s beautiful being on the water, and I love being rocked to sleep at night, and waking up with the sunrise.

FP: The project has a dual focus of art and sustainable living. Where do you see the connection between them?

MM: I think if we create an artistic platform and bring artists here who are doing art about sustainability, or whose art simply makes the space richer, I think we’ll produce a mutually influential atmosphere. I don’t know what the outcome is going to be, but bringing people together whose worlds don’t normally collide, I’m sure will create very interesting results.

FP: You’re a working artist. How do you feel that the project has affected your own work?

MM: Working in a collaboration like this has been very challenging, and I’ve had to learn to step back — I’m used to being able to control the aesthetics of everything, but this has been more like a collage of people’s ideas coming together! The logistics also had to be taken into account. We don’t have a huge budget and we’re relying very much on recycled material. We need to think about how we can make it function well whilst still trying to fulfill the aestethic direction and vision that I have. It’s been a huge learning process for me.

FP: What sort of visitors are you hoping to attract?

MM: We really want to attract a diverse, curious audience. I’m hoping that passers-by will just see it and want to come on board. We’ve also already arranged visits from various school groups and scientific learning programs.

FP: Where do you see the project going beyond the summer?

MM: We have two ideas: one is to keep it going, evolving and improving in different forms, and the other is to get the plans for this structure online so that other people can create community based living projects like this.

FP: Do you think undertaking this project will change the way you live?

MM: Definitely. I mean, this cabin room is like the size of my apartment, so it’s hardly a shift! I’ve been living a fairly mobile lifestyle for a long time, and this has inspired me, if anything, to continue to do so.

Images courtesy of Alan Parker, a New York-based photographer and stylist.