My Evening In Battery Park’s $960-Per-Square-Foot Art Project

07.05.12 Andy Cush

We’re lying in the grass of Battery Park, drinking Budweiser tallboys out of paper bags and talking conspiracy theories—the one about how the Nazis escaped to the center of the Earth at the end of World War II, mostly, and the one about how Stanley Kubrick staged the lunar landing in the ’60s.

“We” is Brian Zegeer, video artist and current inhabitant of the Flock House in Battery Park, Todd Fine, a loquacious Harvard grad who’s here to speak about a hundred-year-old Arab-American novel, and myself.

The Flock House, designed by the artist Mary Mattingly, is a small, modular, ultra-efficient living space that straddles the line between art and civil engineering. This summer, several Flock Houses will travel over the city, housing a troupe of artists who will use them as equal parts apartment and studio space.

The houses look a bit like miniature Epcot domes, a look Mattingly says is inspired by data visualizations of people’s migration patterns, “pared down to something architectural.” They’re built from recycled materials––one early version used hunks of fiberglass the Parks Department had hauled out of the East River––and designed to run on recycled rainwater and a combination of bike and solar power.

About a week before visiting the Battery Park Flock House for the first time, I’m sitting with Mary Mattingly in a back room at the Clocktower Gallery in lower Manhattan. The band DW-DK has just served up a 20-minute set of bracing electronic drone to commemorate the launch of the project, and the mood in the gallery is one of muted conviviality––friends drop in here and there to congratulate Mary over the course of our interview, chatting her up and asking if she’d like to grab drinks after everyone leaves, or what she’s doing tomorrow.

“Sometimes they meet up, but usually they’re on their own,” she tells me. “The point of it is to think about a future where maybe a city is mobile. Maybe you’re designing infrastructure from scratch; maybe you’re designing houses that can be taken apart and put back together, attached to each other. Maybe everything is more flexible, so in times of need, you can actually dismantle and move.”

“But on a smaller scale, I think these will be personal stories.”

Mattingly’s personal Flock House story begins with another project. From 2006 to 2009, Mattingly conceptualized and built the Waterpod, another portable, efficient space for urban living that laid the groundwork for the Flock House. The Waterpod was a repurposed barge, outfitted with bike power, composting toilets, and a system for using and recycling rainwater for drinking, bathing, and laundry.

In 2009, the Waterpod traveled around the five boroughs, docking at various locations for two weeks at a time. During the voyage, the Waterpod’s crew of artists and scientists created art, held public sustainability workshops, and logged information about the production and use of energy and food. The goal: to create an experimental, completely autonomous living system, and to assess the viability of that system through use.

By nearly all measures, Waterpod was a success, garnering coverage from The Discovery Channel, BBC, and MSNBC, winning the support of the mayor’s office, and generating loads of data. Mattingly, however, was not completely content.

In the early spring of 2010, the artist found herself on a roof. She had come into contact with the owner of a building in downtown Brooklyn who was excited about getting a rooftop farm going, and he needed someone to act as caretaker. Mattingly asked if, in exchange for overseeing the farming operation, she could build a house on top of the infrastructure from an old water tower.

“We started making something out of all this mess that was on his roof,” Mattingly says. She and her friends began work on the structure, repurposing Waterpod’s dome and reusing its spare parts and gardening supplies. Then, nine months in, the building’s owner put the brakes on the whole project, citing construction going on in the building next door that might pose danger to Mattingly and her crew.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I just spent a lot of time, spent my own resources trying to make this a house,'” Mattingly tells me. “That’s when I rethought the idea, starting to think of it as more of a temporary, movable space.” That space would become the first Flock House.

Flock Houses deviate from their predecessor in two key areas. First, they’re modular and portable in ways the Waterpod only hinted at. Mattingly cites statistics about people’s migration––14.2 percent of the U.S. population moves every year, for instance––when talking about her vision for cities composed of mobile, self-sustaining structures, as well as anxiety over the centralization of resources.

“My fear is, if resources are centralized, they’re almost useless if anything goes wrong,” she says. “In a way, a Flock House is decentralizing those things, because you have these miniature systems in each Flock House.” Sophie Nichols, a living systems designer who’s working on the Battery Park house, likens the feeling of having so many resources available in the house to “the specific delight derived from fitting all your belongings into a van.”

The other, more surprising difference in intention between the two projects: while the Waterpod was designed to be an autonomous, fully self-sufficient system for living, the Flock Houses are not––only minimal food can be harvested at the houses themselves.

The idea is that by limiting the amount of resources that are available directly from the house, Flock Houses encourage, even necessitate, their residents to interact with the community around them. Mattingly calls it a “test” for the people living in the Flock Houses, and offers a situation in Battery Park as an illustrative example.

Mattingly arranged a barter system between the Flock House inhabitants and an urban farm in the park: in exchange for vegetables from the farm, the inhabitants will take photographs to document various events held there. Mattingly expects similar bartering situations to evolve at all of the Flock House locations.

Awesome high-tech/low-tech amenities abound: first, there’s the pot-to-pot refrigerator, a centuries-old device that’s been enjoying a resurgence as of late. Food is placed inside a pot, which is itself placed inside another, larger pot, with water and sand in the gap between the two. By some magic of science beyond this writer’s understanding, as the water between the two pots evaporates, it cools the food inside.

Equally ingenious is the system for collecting and recycling rainwater. Rain is collected in gutters and buckets–– “the kind you put ice water in at middle school soccer games,” says Nichols––then transferred to a bucket where it’s held to be used for showering. After it’s used, the water is purified in a sand-, gravel-, and activated charcoal-filter system, and then sent into the bottoms of vegetable planters around the house.

Mattingly will live in the Battery Park Flock House along with Brian Zegeer and painter Rob Colvin, while a second house in Queens’ Flushing Meadows Corona Park houses “sculptural interventionist” Christopher Robbins. Over the course of the summer, the houses will move across the five boroughs, picking up and dropping off artists along the way, all of whom will live and work inside the structures.
Midway through our conversation at the Clocktower Gallery, Mattingly makes a proposition, a hint of mischief in her voice.

“So, do you want to try it?”

I’m a little off my guard. “Try living in a Flock House? Sure, I’ll write my little blog posts in there.”

After some banter about the best way to get Internet in the houses––stealing it from nearby buildings, natch––I take it as a joke and put my interviewer face back on. We talk about the specifics of the Flock Houses’ rainwater filtration systems, Mattingly’s horizons as an artist, and about DW-DK, the duo that performed earlier tonight.

As we’re wrapping up, another handful of Mattingly’s friends pops in. I take the hint and start packing up my things, telling Mattingly I’m excited about the piece, and I’ll let her know when it goes up.

She responds in kind. “Yeah, I’m glad you’re going to be living in it.”

When I arrive at Battery Park, Brian Zegeer is standing on a stepladder, hurriedly hanging a projection screen between two trees. We talk briefly, he on the ladder, me on the ground; he thanks me for coming and I thank him for having me. Zegeer is a fast, sincere talker and wears a dusty baseball cap pulled low on his forehead. (When he wakes the next morning, his arm moves as if by reflex to grab the cap off the ground and plant it back on his head, like he can’t start the day without it.)

I drop my bag in the Flock House and poke around a bit. It’s small, and it’s a bit of a mess; Zegeer’s tools are strewn about the floor and there’s an open bag of popcorn in the corner. I sit down on the hammock and the whole house creaks. For kicks, I do my best to ascertain the area of the house, multiplying it by a rough average price per square foot for a condo in the area. I come to a cool $39,920.40, just for the ground the house sits on.

Tonight will be Zegeer’s final night in the Flock House. While here, he’s created an impromptu museum highlighting Little Syria, an old lower Manhattan neighborhood that’s largely been forgotten by history. Little Syria was the first Arab-American enclave in New York and possibly in America, having begun in the 1880s and lasted through the mid-twentieth century, when eminent domain actions to build the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center sent many residents fleeing.

“As Mary’s Flock House project seemed to be a way of looking at provisional or nomadic living in an urban setting, I felt like there was a sympathy between that and the provisional stake that conventional history has in looking back at this ethnic enclave,” Zegeer tells me. “This nearly-lost history is fragmentary in the same way that the Flock Houses are.”

Zegeer has organized a multi-part educational event for the evening to mark the end of his residency. First comes a tour of what’s left of Little Syria by Joseph Svehlak, a prodigiously mustachioed native New Yorker who peppers his deeply researched history of the area with funny and poignant anecdotes about his mother and grandmother. Following that, Zegeer projects two abstract 3D animations he’s made that were inspired by the story of the neighborhood. Finally, Todd Fine gives an inspired talk about Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid, a book set in Little Syria that Fine calls the first Arab-American novel; he’s recently led a successful crusade to end the book’s near century-long tenure in out-of-print limbo.

Symbolic and literal links to Mattingly’s vision emerge through all of it. Svehlak mentions that the residents of Little Syria were “peddlers, moving from place to place and carrying things on their backs,” much like Mattingly’s nomadic future urbanites.

“There’s a fear that comes from entering the gates of New York,” Fine says of Khalid’s title character. “All of this activity, all of these monstrous buildings, all of this noise, all of this consumption of the Earth. It’s very disconcerting, and Khalid comes into this environment and tries to make something out of it, tries to use New York as the basis to create a philosophy.” My mind goes back to Mary on the rooftop, building experimental systems for living out of hunks of detritus from the East River.

When all of the event’s 20 or so attendees are gone, Fine, Zegeer and I lie in the grass, drinking our tallboys. Fine has just returned from walking to the south end of the park to gaze at the Statue of Liberty.

We’d been arguing over the tenets of Mattingly’s project; Fine is just about ready to call bullshit on the whole enterprise. Native Americans were living off the land and like nomads for thousands of years, probably on this very same ground, he says. Why, when the same thing is attempted in a more high-concept way, are we all of a sudden calling it art?

Zegeer counters, calling the Flock House “a showpiece for a better-managed world,” and comparing it to a concept car you’d see at an auto show. The idea, he says, is to provoke thought and start conversations. The system for living isn’t perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. If people see the house and begin to think about a world in which they live in a similar fashion––efficiently and modestly, ready to move at a moment’s notice––then it’s doing its job.

After some talk about global warming and militant environmentalism, Fine softens his earlier point. “I think we’re entering an era when the existing modes of living are failing,” he says. “It’s time humanity start thinking about alternative living structures that are more sustainable. Artists need to be a part of that, because aesthetics and communicating ideas to the public are going to be an important part of the process.”

It’s something like 2:00 A.M. and it’s time to get to bed. It’s been a long night; all of us are sufficiently whooped. Zegeer and Fine elect to sleep out in the grass so as to get some fresh air, so I take the hammock in the Flock House. Earlier in the evening, Zegeer had warned me that if I had clothing covering 85 percent of my body, mosquitoes would treat the remaining 15 percent as an open invitation. He wasn’t kidding.

Aside from the bugs, it’s a surprisingly pleasant sleep. No neighborhood crazies wander into the house in the middle of the night, as several friends worried might happen, and the sweltering heat that had enveloped the day mellows out to a livable seventysomehing degrees.

I wake at around seven the next morning to the sound of the Staten Island Ferry’s bellowing horn. I see people walking dogs, curiously regarding the house and the three people sleeping inside and around it, and I instantly feel like I’m on display, like I’m performing for these people, part of the exhibition.

At this moment, I think I truly understand the Flock House for the first time, and why Mattingly’s always referring to the artists who live in it as performers. It’s not about me, Brian, and Todd, sleeping in this absurd, retro-futuristic structure; it’s about you seeing us do it. It’s something I grasped on an intellectual level before the morning, but it hadn’t really hit home until I experienced it myself. That feeling of being in a fishbowl, gazed at and inspected by outsiders, is both exhilarating and a little unnerving.

Once I make the realization that the people living in the Flock Houses are at once serious artists and bizarrely comic actors, living out an improbable vision of the future, the parts of the project that didn’t immediately make sense to me come into sharper focus––the fact that Mattingly chose to obscure the beautiful geodesic structure of the houses with a layer of ugly spandex, for example, or the ramshackle materials used in construction.

“She’s creating systems that are based upon practical tenets, but absurd in their realization, and loving the absurdity,” Zegeer had told me the previous evening. “There’s a pathetic quality in the way that things are pieced together, which she, I think, nurtures. Everything’s sagging in an alive way, because she touches everything just enough to keep it aloft, to keep it from crumbling.

“It shouldn’t be a house that takes care of us, as much as it’s tailored to be efficient. The living entity should be constantly having new ideas, just like Mary does.”