Sensing Site: Performance & Herbarium

Sensing Site is a performance staged on Newtown Creek – an industrial waterway separating Brooklyn and Queens – based on historical field expeditions to explore and survey new territories. A cast of characters travels on the water of this industrial waste zone to find what remains of this once pristine natural watershed. During their expedition they and the audience who are also participates, are tasked to collect specimens of non-native invasive plants. The journey is documented on a GPS and the mapping data is converted into a musical composition. This song of the journey is activated in an interactive art installation that stores the collected plants.

By blurring the lines of a performance with an real expedition, exploring a high traffic urban environment, converting mapped movements into music, a cast of characters that play themselves, the audience as participants, or the poetic with the scientific, I am creating a stage where unpredicted outcomes can emerge. My goal is to create a perspective shift by building new communities within spaces and gaps and to call attention to our social landscape, generating critical sites and developing voices. In my work, viewers are invited to reconsider the gaps from previous interpretations of established systems and consider the new gaps that are in the process of developing.

As the first Artist in Residence at Newtown Creek Alliance, I want to insight the imagination to re-envision this area, one of the most polluted waterways in the country. According to the EPA – “In the mid 1800s, the area adjacent to the 3.8 mile Newtown Creek was one of the busiest hubs of industrial activity in New York City. More than 50 refineries were located along its banks, including oil refineries, petrochemical plants, fertilizer and glue factories, sawmills, and lumber and coal yards. The creek was crowded with commercial vessels, including large boats bringing in raw materials and fuel and taking out oil, chemicals and metals. In addition to the industrial pollution that resulted from all of this activity, the city began dumping raw sewage directly into the water in 1856. During World War II, the creek was one of the busiest ports in the nation. Currently, factories and facilities still operate along the creek. Various contaminated sites along the creek have contributed to the contamination at Newtown Creek.”

This performance is modeled on historical field expeditions such as Lewis and Clark’s or the United States Exploring Expedition, where geographic and scientific data is collected. Paradoxically in the Sensing Site: Performance expedition the cast and audience venture out on boats into a heavily used and polluted urban waterway.  In Sensing Site, instead of actors, a diverse cast including a scientist, a composer, a journalist, a choreographer, a filmmaker, and a cultural anthropologist, will head their own expedition on Newtown Creek. They will each be tasked to travel on their own boat to collect specimens of any non-native invasive plant species they find spontaneously growing along the waters of this industrial waste zone. The audience participates and follows the expedition on their own boats.

The distinguished cast members are selected for their different exploratory practices and methodologies. As I have been tracking my own movements through another project Seed Dispersal, I am curious to see the different paths my collaborators will take. What could be discovered about ourselves and other through our movements or how we navigate the physical world? In order to further examine this question, the cast will be tracked by GPS, drawing a new path of inquiry on the water. Using the waterway as a canvas and the GPS tracking as their paintbrush while they search for plant species. The GPS data collected from their journey will later be translated into a musical composition using a customized software application created through Max/MSP, based on an algorithm using longitude, latitude, speed, and altitude readings.  The musical composition will portray the sounds of their journey in a physical art installation called Sensing Site: Herbarium.

In the Sensing Site: Herbarium, only non-native invasive plant species are represented. Herbariums are where plant specimens are collected and persevered for scientific research.  However since there are bias on what is valued and collected, historically weeds or invasive species were often overlooked or underrepresented.  In this installation the plants from the Sensing Site: Performance expeditions are collected and stored in Wardian cases, a protective container for plants, invented by an amateur botanist Dr. Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward in 1830, better known today as terrariums.  Dr. Ward’s invention changed the global landscape – forever changing the volume and migration of plant species through human intervention – by facilitating the survival of foreign plants from their long oversea journeys. For the Sensing Site: Herbarium installation, each Wardian case has an ultrasonic sensor that detects the audience and activates the musical composition of the journey from where the plants where collected.  On the walls around the cases are the map drawings from the GPS data, graphic scores, and the voucher specimens, pressed plant samples used in herbariums. The remaining seeds and plants from the expedition will be deployed in future components of the ProfileUS: Invasive Species project.

Below are some diagrams from the GPS data and initial research for the project:

In collaboration with Newtown Creek Alliance, the North Brooklyn Boat Club and Thomas John Martinez, Composer & Sound Engineer.

More information about Newtown Creek history:
Newtown Creek Alliance , a coalition of elected officials, local residents, business owners and other non-profit organizations working to improve the Creek and adjoining neighborhoods. Read more on the history of Newtown Creek.

Riverkeeper has been the driving force in bringing litigation forward, raising public awareness about the oil spill and compelling state officials to address this historic contamination. Riverkeeper discovered the oil spill during a boat patrol of Newtown Creek in 2002, finding oil sheens, floating garbage and abandoned cars littering the Creek. After investigating the source of the oil and the industrial history of the Creek, Riverkeeper filed a federal lawsuit against ExxonMobil in 2004 to hold it responsible for its role in the contamination. Riverkeeper was joined by six Greenpoint residents as co-plaintiffs in its lawsuit.

© Copyright Jan Mun