Interview with Mary Mattingly

VN.N::Your work has been described as a form of science fiction. The parallels between art, science and ecology are certainly evident in such works as “Flock House” and “Waterpod”. I'd like to propose that your work propels us into an uncommon cosmology. The work certainly contains new structural and revolutionary reconsiderations of our world. You've developed a creative practice that seems to reside in-between fact and fiction, an intervention of art into life. Is it your intention to produce outcomes that permit parallel and interdisciplinary interpretations of our post-industrial life? In a way, you're a bit of a trouble maker; creating cosmic slippages within a collection of post-industrial narratives.

MM:: The average American is largely disconnected from the land and animals that supports him or her. Automated mechanisms that remove people from the subjects of their necessities allow for a lack of knowledge or caring for the natural systems we depend on. As the USA transitions from industry and micro-scale specialization to post-industrial life, looking at and understanding systems as a whole (or sphere, in the case of the Flock House) I think requires a level of re-skilling. I’m working towards full integration of fact, fiction, human-made and natural living systems by setting up living systems as intervention/situations through which experiments, dialogues, and skill-sharing can happen. These projects are in part to spark that. I focus on whole living systems and learn while I’m making. I’ve been working on making contained living systems and ecosystems with holes that leave room for necessary sharing within the experiment while I try to understand how humans will survive in the future, so perhaps this is a bridge between the present conditions and the future. With some of these projects like the Flock House, I’m predicting a time when supply chains like we have in the U.S. today are less reliable and humans turn towards their community for goods and services, and are prepared to move more for reasons including more frequent political, economic, and environmental shifts.

VN.N:: You say you are “working towards full integration of fact, fiction, human-made and natural living systems by setting up living systems as intervention/situations through which experiments, dialogues, and skill-sharing can happen.”

This reminds me of Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of the “chronotope”, a concept of time that is inseparable from space as “artistically expressed in literature.”

I mention this because “Waterpod” seems to collapse a possible future into the present. It places an emphasis on space (the barge) as a self contained and imagined “world” with a crew of participants (co-authors?).

Science Fiction tends to reside solely in an imaginary present while “Waterpod” inhabits a “physical imaginary” much like the performative play of LARPS—live action role playing systems.

Do you see “Waterpod” as an attempt at reconfiguring our understanding of space and time for the purpose of generating a new artistic expression; an expression that also employs a form of role-playing?

MM:: Yes. I thought of it as training for the participants (myself included), but it became our reality. It was very raw. We had given up our apartments, moved all of our possessions into the “Waterpod”, and really there was little distinction between what you may call physical or imaginary—they merged. My reality on the barge was myopic. I was so concerned with people seeing the vision that the vision took over my life. On the other hand, our living accommodations were not much different from those in our daily lives: most of the people who agreed to take up residence were already itinerant and without many belongings, and were in some sense used to communal living. From a storytelling perspective, it was a physical, sculptural manifestation of both science fiction and life elsewhere. In “Poetics of Space”, Gaston Bachelard wrote, “it is living nests that could introduce a phenomenology of the actual nest, of the nest found in natural surroundings, and which becomes for a moment the center—the term is no exaggeration—of an entire universe, the evidence of a cosmic situation.” That’s how I saw “Waterpod”—it emulates and improves upon watery human habitats that exist around the world—from boat cities in the Philippines or parts of China to human-made islands. For the most part, role-playing existed for the camera. I gave people an assignment, some chose to follow it exactly (scenario-playing life on a barge), some followed it to an extent, and others dropped out. It was like being given any assignment or a choice and then deciding to take someone up on that choice. Although living on a barge and public space was an absurd choice to be handed, and it does remind me of games I designed as a kid for friends, ie: we are trapped on a horse-drawn carriage traveling across the country and can only take a few things, or we live on an island and have to survive with the tools we bring…I never saw it as role-playing but more as a test, an experiment, a preparation.

VN.N:: Your answer reminds me of active participation and notions of “retreat”—especially when you say that everyone gave up their apartments and their possessions.

Similar to argonauts, astronauts and cosmonauts…meanwhile, the work of Tehching Hsieh comes to mind. Especially his “One Year Performance 1981–1982”. In this work, Hsieh lived outdoors for one year, never going inside a building, subway, train, car, airplane, cave or tent. There is an element of endurance, sacrifice and renunciation associated with this work. “Waterpod” seems to follow along on a common trajectory, but you veer off (radically) from the path of individual endurance and self-deprivation. You develop a system that points to a greater benefit—by the removal of the body from the world and creating an absence, you present a new potential for the rest of us who have stayed behind on the shore.

Can you comment further on the differences between an individual performance like Hsieh's and your collective action? Where does the potential benefit reside and how does it “improve upon watery human habitats?”

MM:: Well I did intend for us to be removed from the hustle of artists trapped in an unforgiving economy in the city while still being part of its fabric in a very simple way (which was possible since we made everything we needed to live on board) and still being able to enjoy and learn from meeting with people who visited. Instead of going “out” for cultural activities we brought events there, and focused on artwork, cooking, leisure, and taking care of the space, it was in essence an experiment but also an example of something that worked.

To speak to Hsieh’s work, it’s fair to say that inevitably sacrifice, renunciation, and self-deprivation are an irrevocable part of my work and Catholic upbringing. Creating a group action as opposed to a singular action brings a reality people can immediately identify with to these projects, as most of us live and travel in packs. While for all practical purposes, these projects demand several people to stay afloat, the more people who participate in them the more the story travels, allowing it to take on a life of its own. In a way, self-deprivation happens in our daily lives within the city’s fabric and systems when we cater to it (I’m thinking about Jan Verwoert's “Exhaustion & Exuberance: Ways to Defy the Pressure to Perform”) with, most likely much more than it does when you impose a set of limiting rules on your daily interaction with it.

These projects also engage with the commons (the “Waterpod” with the rivers and sea and “Flock House” with parks, abandoned lots, rooftops) and as a result, question our collective understanding of ownership and property. Mobile, communal spaces speak to Foucault’s concept of heterotopia or spaces of otherness that exist anywhere, both physically and mentally, not only as a space of difference, but also as a means of escape from repression. The projects are about potentials people have to forge their own collective pathways and change our relationship wit h our immediate communities and surroundings, with nature, and with a global supply chain.

VN.N:: Regarding “potentials”…describe your imaginary future.

MM:: Inter-planetary communion, new nets and webs, scalable infrastructure, local trade, pirates, plastic islands, platforms, deserts, NEWater, underwater housing, more tunnels and converted missile silos, Cloud Nine, prehistory. Einstein said, “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”

VN.N:: Yes, “sticks and stones”…Einstein also said “I never think about the future it happens soon enough.” Thank you Mary for this gift, an insightful conversation about your work and ideas.