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Brooklyn Artists to Film Newtown Creek Filth with Remote-Control Boats

By Meredith Hoffman | February 14, 2012 1:50pm
Chipley caught images of factories surrounding Newtown Creek in her past film.
Chipley caught images of factories surrounding Newtown Creek in her past film.
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Laura Chipley

GREENPOINT — This is video livestreaming at its wettest — and dirtiest.

Three Brooklyn artists are plotting an "artistic intervention" for the polluted Newtown Creek, using remote-controlled boats with cameras attached to them to capture images of the waterway, as well as onlookers willing to stand on shore to guide the vessels.

Screens will display live footage of the creek's oil and sediment as it's filmed snaking beneath the surface of the federal Superfund site that divides Brooklyn and Queens. The three artists, who call themselves the Newtown Creek Armada, hope the interactive project will draw attention to the creek, which has been polluted by decades of oil spills and dumping. 

"It's to open people's eyes to a part of the city that they otherwise might ignore, to have people come out to this place that is a toxic wasteland," said Armada artist Nathan Kensinger, who has experience documenting industrial spaces.

This spring, the Newtown Creek Armada plans to set miniature vessels with attached GoPro cameras in the creek's 3.8-mile tributary, Whale Creek. The public will be invited to steer the remotes, as screens on shore broadcast the footage. After filming is complete, the Armada will compile a film to present at a gallery show.

"We wanted people to be able to engage with the water without having to physically interact with it," said another Armada artist Laura Chipley, who has underwater filming of the creek herself already.

She noted that people are reticent about coming into contact with the pollution, even though groups like the North Brooklyn Boat Club believe boating on the water is perfectly safe.

In September 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency designated Newtown Creek a Superfund site after decades of spills that dumped an estimated 30 million gallons of oil. As a result, more agencies will get funds for creek-related cleanup projects this year.

Chipley said her group will buy eight remote-controlled tug boats and redesign their tops to match styles inspired by Newtown Creek's historic vessels. The artists will also make two remote-controlled "amorphous lumps of trash" from found materials in the creek to join the boats, as a way to highlight all elements of the waterway.

"It’s a total mix of nature and refuse," said Armada member Sarah Nelson Wright of the found objects. "For me what's interesting is thinking about the things we find, not as litter, but as engaging with different uses of the creek and history of creek so it becomes a conversation about what [the] creek is for."

The project will take place every Saturday or Sunday for a month this spring, for about four hours each day, though Armada members have yet to set specific dates. Participation will be free, and the Armada plans to contact school groups and local workers to encourage community involvement.

The public can reach the interactive event via the creek's Nature Walk, a public walkway beside the Newtown Creek waste treatment processing center. The project is backed by the North Brooklyn Public Art Coalition and is funded by the coalition's open call for ecologically conscious initiatives.