Floating a Food Forest with Artist Mary Mattingly

“What if healthy, fresh food could be a free public service, and not just an expensive commodity? That’s the question we really want to ask with Swale.” – Swale website

Swale docked on its way up the East River, July 19, 2016. (All images c. Mary Mattingly and collaborators, unless otherwise noted)

Getting ready to open this Saturday, Swale is a collaborative floating food project that seeks to reimagine food as a public service. After months of collaborative planning and weeks of construction, the 130-foot by 40-foot floating platform and edible garden will make its first stop at Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx on July 23rd, with stops at Governors Island, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and Army Pier in Sunset Park to follow later in the summer and fall.

Acting as both a sculpture and a tool, Swale will be an education and advocacy platform for public food sources, as well as a performance venue, meeting space, and gallery.

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Initial rendering for Swale.

Swale is a project by 2015 ABOG Fellow Mary Mattingly, an artist who works in wide-ranging forms of sculpture and photography to focus on environmental, economic and political change. To make Swale a reality, Mary has been working in close collaboration with a host of local community groups, nurseries, schools, and naval specialists. One of these specialists is Rik van Hemmen, President of marine engineering firm Martin & Ottaway, who I corresponded with over e-mail. As Swale prepares to launch this week, get an inside look at the project below.

Swale under construction in Verplanck, NY, July 2016.

Joelle Te Paske (ABOG): How did you involved with Swale and working with Mary?

Rik van Hemmen (RH): This is my third project with Mary Mattingly. All of them have been floating projects and I help Mary where I can with practical and engineering afloat issues. Sometimes it relates to finding the proper contacts, sometimes it relates to structural issues and sometimes it relates to operational issues such as gangways and mooring arrangements.

ABOG: What has made you want to keep collaborating?

RH: I like what Mary tries to do as an artist. All art deals with looking at things in a different way and her work makes the public look at water, self-sufficiency and being afloat for unusual reasons. At the same time her work makes me look at the water in a different way, too. I often deal with designing flotation for different commercial projects, but Mary has her own unique floatation requirements, which then drives different solutions. Mary’s specific requirement resulted in the SCABU brainstorm; basically using an upside down shipping container for floatation. This is not something that has been done before, but in Mary’s case, responding to her specific needs, it has become an interesting exercise. More interestingly, it provides new thinking about reuse on containers for temporary flotation purposes.

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Swale under construction in Verplanck, NY, July 2016.

ABOG: Do you see art in the project?

RH: I have worked as a yacht designer and am a naval architect. Beauty and ships are synonymous, beauty and art are closely related. As such, I see art everywhere, especially in clever or graceful design. But Mary’s projects are a little different; her job, as an artist (not a designer) is to mess with people’s heads. That is why her projects are art, and not ship design.

ABOG: What is beautiful to you about it?

RH: The beauty in a project like this depends on clever artistic solutions to questions that the viewer (or visitor) has not yet realized they had intended to ask themselves. In other words, a viewer sees an art project and thinks: “What?” And then looks again and thinks: “I never realized that!” Using the water to support an artistic project by itself has beauty. To live on a piece of art has beauty (which is then a reference to yacht design). To be able to move a piece of art around has beauty and all of this actually is a very powerful artistic discovery driver.

Swale under construction in Verplanck, NY, July 2016.

Swale is an artwork. Art is integral to imagining new worlds. By continuing to create and explore new ways of living, we hope that Swale will strengthen our ways of collaborating, of cooperating, and of supporting one another.– Swale website

ABOG: What has been the biggest challenge of working on the project?

RH: I can only spend a limited amount of time on this type of work. If I had more time, I could enjoy it more.

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Swale under construction in Verplanck, NY, July 2016.

ABOG: If you had to pick one moment that has been most meaningful to you thus far, what would it be?

RH: As far as Swale is concerned I do not want to pick any meaningful moment at this time since the meaning of art is in the executing, and not until the project is complete does the meaning fully arise.

My most meaningful moment on any of Mary’s projects occurred a number of years ago on the Waterpod project where a number of artists (including Mary) would live on a self-contained barge. The artists were under the impression that they were going to be able to create art while living on the barge. I have lived on boats, and know it is hard work. You only get time to do art when you are offshore and when there is a steady course or no wind. However, in port there are so many distractions that there is no time for art. Mary and her colleagues quickly realized that there were many tasks ranging from feeding the chickens and weeding the gardens to dealing with the hundreds of visitors. They were overwhelmed and had no time for art. To provide them with more time I helped them with the concept of shipboard hierarchy and shipshape. A ship needs those things to function, which is inherently hard for artists. As such the only way for the project to succeed was to for the artist to adopt maritime concepts, this was frustrating to some of the artists but also added new meaning to the project. In essence, it reinforces the notion that art only erupts once the issues of survival have been dealt with.

Waterpod Dome, 2009. Photo: Mike Nagle

This is why some cultures generate a lot of art and others don’t. My favorite example is Inuit culture. They generate tremendous amounts of art. This occurs because, while their environment is harsh, there are tremendous amounts of food available and therefore there is lots of free time. In the long winter nights the Inuit get to spend a lot of time decorating their tools and often just creating art for art’s sake. Meanwhile in other societies life is such a drudge that there is no time for art.

Interestingly there are also societies where the rich have little time and they actually commission art, which then results in professional artists. This, by itself, introduces an conundrum. Is a society with professional artists a fair society or not? It is difficult for artists to change that balance, but public art at least provides everybody with the thrill of discovery.

Swale opens to the public this Saturday, July 23, at Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx.

Swale on Facebook

Swale on Instagram


Rik van Hemmen is the President of Martin & Ottaway, a marine engineering firm that has been in continuous operation since 1875 that deals with maritime technical, operational and financial issues. By training he is an Aerospace and Ocean Engineer, but his career has run the gamut from yacht designer, to forensic engineer, to man/nature experimenter. His entire family is a messy collection of engineers, scientists, mariners and artists, where none fit in any one category.

His main interest actually is complex man/technology/art interactions, some of which are part of his business and some of which are a personal interest.

His latest personal project is to explore the creation of the Sandy Hook Bay National Marine Sanctuary in New Jersey’s Sandy Hook Bay and the Navesink and Shrewsbury rivers. This would be the nation’s first urban man/nature interactive National Marine Sanctuary.

If it succeeds, he and 200,000 other people will be living on, and interacting with, a National Marine Sanctuary in Monmouth County, NJ that supports fisheries, hunting, commerce and all the other fun things that can be done on the water, including art. Click here to learn more.


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By Mary Mattingly
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