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River to Creek: A Roving Natural History

Collaborators: Carolyn Hall, Kathleen McCarthy, Clarinda Mac Low and Paul Benney

River to Creek: A Roving Natural History is a participatory research project and art action that will draw attention to the geographic and ecological connections across the industrial landscape of North Brooklyn, from the wild empty lots at the end of Newtown Creek in Bushwick to the East River at the edge of Greenpoint. It is a collaboration between marine scientist/dancer Carolyn Hall, ecologist/visual artist Kathleen McCarthy and Clarinda Mac Low and Paul Benney, members of TRYST, a New York-based performance and art group.

In New York City we tend to look at each environment as separate in space-a park is separate from a river is separate from a built structure, a river stops at the riverbank, and each neighborhood is an isolated phenomenon, when all these environments are actually highly interdependent. The collaborative team will highlight the connections between the different environments and illuminate the geographic continuity lying under our built structures and transportation networks. We will study the natural history of the current environment over the course of 15 weeks, compare it to historical records, and present our findings. Our research will bring in the public as research partners, asking citizens to become scientists and artists and observe their environment using scientific, somatic and sensory methods-science research and movement research. We will have several public events during the research process:

  • July 17: Walk through the wilds of North Brooklyn, with an informal talk by a specialist in plants and botany.
  • Aug. 21: Paddle and boat ride up the Newtown Creek and around the East River and informal talk by a specialist in marine life.
  • Sept. 11: Bike ride through the environment with informal talk by a specialist TBA

For the presentation of our data, professional performers and scientists and general public will create events that will reflect what we’ve learned over the months of research-a dance on site, both performed and participatory; a kayak convoy that is both experiential (for the kayakers) and performative (for the invited audience on shore); a sound collage transmitted by radio along the route, a film of movement research in secret sites. Events will take place on the weekend of Oct 2 & 3.

Project Collaborators
We are a group of artist-scientists who are choosing to exercise both sides of our professional lives simultaneously. Carolyn Hall is a marine scientist who just received her MS in Marine Science from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, New York in December 2009. Her thesis dealt with marine historical ecology. Hall is also an accomplished dancer who has been recognized internationally for her work with several cutting-edge choreographers. Kathleen McCarthy is an ecologist who recently received her MS in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University, with a focus on freshwater ecosystems and the urban environment. Her thesis looked at amphibian life in storm water basins. She is also an award-winning visual artist who created work in public spaces for many years. TRYST is a collaborative group of artists who specialize in creating public interactions to create an unexpected set of circumstances. The two main TRYST collaborators on this project are Clarinda Mac Low and Paul Benney. In addition to her art practice Mac Low has been a researcher and science writer, mostly in HIV and medicine, for many years.

Notes from the RIVER TO CREEK Collaborators:

Carolyn Hall – What can stimulate creative thoughts, observations and movement about nature and history? I learned that simple activities are not boring as long as they have a clear direction with an open-ended interpretation. Some of the most successful activities were ones that in only one small way redirected how to feel or hear an environment and how to move through a place with a new awareness. The changing of the familiar surface one is walking on (oyster shells, sponges), or adding a representative costume part to identify with another species (feathers for birds, silver mylar tape on the side of the torso as a lateral line for fishes) were simple solutions to heighten participants’ senses beyond just seeing.

Clarinda Mac Low – I found it exciting to learn a new scientific discipline, and to apply my skills to a situation that blended physical experiences with actual scientific research skills. It was valuable to me to have the resources to create a wide range of experiences, and to have a venue where I could work with other scientist-artists on something that truly addressed both passions.

Kathleen McCarthy – I gained valuable insight into how we can approach experience (and learning) physically, as a formal process, rather than relying exclusively on an intuitive physical experience of place, which was my habit as a sculptor. My own methods of learning have expanded as a result.

Creatively experiencing a place and making connections to the plants and animals that inhabit that space was energizing for me, my collaborators, and all the audience members I met during our events. I want to continue to experiment with methods that create a structure for the public and professionals to experience and contemplate the ecological connections surrounding them.

In the process of developing our final event I began to clarify the concepts that are personally most important to me, the story I want to tell. I hope to build upon that clarification with insights into how the story might be creatively conveyed.