The ebb started mid-afternoon last Thursday, which means that while I was fussing with chairs and helping tape down microphone cords in preparation for Oceanic New York, the ocean itself was retreating from the city. That’s the way of performances: no sooner here but gone. I miss Oceanic New York already. What a tide it was!
A sea of things
These events are driven by humans but float along with a crowded sea of things. Setting up meant assembling an intricate chain of supporting objects. Chairs, screens, and microphones. Tables and a podium. Gallery space and abstract renderings of Hudson River water peeking out from behind the slideshow. An image of kayaks, boats, and bodies in the current. Dinner reservations. Taxis and the F-train. Institutions helped also: St. John’s, the Yeh Gallery, SwimNYC (for the picture).
A sea of voices
It still seems amazing that it all came together. A full house inside Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall in the middle of campus on a Thursday night. Everyone got there, mostly on time, ready for action. Each presenter with a personal ocean, which will serve in this post as an extra middle name.
A short list of images projected or vistas imagined:
- Glass on Dead Horse Beach, from Jamie Big Thompson River Bianco
- Glacial ice covering Manhattan, from Jeffrey Maine Coast Cohen
- An erratic boulder in Central Park, from Lowell Puget Sound Duckert
- The Statue of Liberty drowning, from Eileen Cape May Joy
- Miss Newtown Creek, from G. Newtown Creek Ganter
- The incoming tide in the Hudson, from Steve Hudson River Mentz
- Homer’s poetic seas, from Allan Semiahmoo Bay Mitchell
- Citizen Bridge, from Nancy Buttermilk Channel Nowacek
- Oysters, from Karl Constant Grey Mist Steel
- Soft edges, from Marina Atlantic Ocean Zurkow
Ten rapid-fire talks surged forward in under an hour, bringing with them more salt water than one brain can assimilate. Where can I put all the flotsam? Matter in decay / the geopoetry of a “sea machine” / “errant” New York / making art out of the mess we live in / rough industrial poetry / “passion for the real” (or is it the Real?) / “measures of sea” / Citizen Bridge / living rocks / soft edges.
We followed the talks with an initial round of intra-panel discussion, talking about human and nonhuman scales, how oysters can build bridges or at least bays, how different kinds of media, from poetry to video, catch different sea flavors.
And the questions after! Beach culture! Flotsam, jetsam, derelicts, the Law of the Sea! Nihilism and Utilitarianism! Social Justice! “Improving lived experience”! Letting go of permanence!
One of the comments that lingers was Nancy Nowacek’s direct statement that we must live in more than one temporal register at the same time. As her Citizen Bridge project struggles with NYC bureaucracy and the changing coastline, she’s working across many chronologies: local and human, environmental and planetary, political and administrative. Oceanic New York, like most events, caught that multiplicity: surely it’s a delicious irony that the thing I forgot to arrange for this salt-water symposium was fresh drinking water for the speakers?
Where does all the water go now? In the Hudson estuary, it circulates: up past the Tappen Zee pushing all the way to Albany, then back out to the open sea, every six hours. I’m hoping to catch a little of that salt-wash in readable form, a monument and dynamic response to that night’s engagements.
Which is to say: look for Oceanic New York to appear from Punctum Books, in not all that long. With shorts essays and two-handed exchanges from the ten presenters, plus an assortment of responses and provocations from the audience.
My own alter-ego on a night in which I spoke about swimming under the George Washington Bridge and revealed the gory details of the surgery I’ll need on my ear canal next month was Melville’s Ishmael. Schoolteacher turned whaleman and mast-head Platonist, Ishmael clogged my heels from the event itself to dinner on Hillside Ave to a bar in mid-town where the party ended. He should get the last word here, I think:
And thus, though surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy.
Thanks to all who made to St John’s last Thursday, and to all virtual Oceanic New York-ers as well!