Monday, October 27, 2008

Out of the Mouths of Young Observationists: Waterfalling

We would like to think that Noticing New York is doing a pretty good job in observing and commenting upon the way that the public environment in New York is being built and managed. We hope that we are living up to the standard we set, dedicating ourselves to the proposition that “developing New York and appreciating New York go hand in hand.” It has come to our attention, however, that if Noticing New York ever falls down on the job, there is a cadre of budding young journalists ready to step in to pick up the slack.

Public Process an Integral Part of Public Art, Says Christo (Waterfalls?)

Noticing New York has previously commented on the value of Olafur Eliasson’s “The New York City Waterfalls” as public art and as a concurrent disappointment in public process and Zeitgeist. (Wednesday, September 3, 2008, “Yeah, sure. Bad for the glass.” (Inartful Clues to New York City Government?). We might note that another artist of grand-scale public art, Christo, considers the public process to bring his art into existence an inextricable part of his art. For this reason he films public hearings and community meetings that prepare the way for his art. (If someone wants to dig through film archives from the 80's, you can probably find footage of lawyer/urban planner Michael D. D. White- me- at a New York City Bar Associations meeting that Christo considered a relevant lead-up to his Gates project.)

Noticing New York has also commented on the Bloomberg-led funding of the Waterfalls; an involved and artfully complicated performance in itself: Wednesday, October 15, 2008, Self-Congratulation “Befalls” a Man Who Would Know No Limits.

If Noticing New York Falls Down on the Journalistic Job. . .

It turns out that five essayists from Saint Ann’s, the Brooklyn Heights school, have also provided excellent commentary on the Waterfalls in the “Saint Ann’s Ram” (October 17, 2008, Vol. XII No. 1). If you are interested in urban planning issues and New York governance, the Ram gets into some pretty meaty stuff. In the same issue Susan Yassky reflects on the development of Brooklyn Bridge Park interviewing Marianna Koval, the president of the Brooklyn Bridge park Conservancy. (Eliot Spitzer’s scandalous downfall was dealt with in point/counterpoint fashion by Maggie Henry and Grace Dunham.) We are tempted to get into a discussion of the Koval/Yassky interview postulation that it might be “wishful thinking” to believe that parks don’t necessarily have to be “self-sustaining,” instead of, for instance, taking into consideration increased property tax receipts as community property values rise. We will we have to save that discussion for another time.

I’d like to think that younger journalists might bring a fresher, less jaundiced eye when reflecting upon the value of the Waterfalls, one that might be more spontaneous and less influenced by having learned what we are supposed to think about public art. In our view the five journalist-essayists reviewing the Waterfalls, (Michael Danziger, Julia Greenwald, Emma O'Connor, Ilana Harris-Babou, Mina Seckin), were sterner critics of the art installation than we ourselves were. Since the Saint Ann’s school is in Brooklyn Heights, these commentators were in a neighborhood that probably had the best possible vantage point to consider all four waterfalls.

Themes of “Waste” and Commercialism

The word associated with the predominate theme of the reviews, which came up in a number of ways, was “waste”: “waste of energy,” “waste of time,” “utter waste of energy and water,” “waste of time and money.” Only one of the reviews, Mr. Danziger’s, did not specifically invoke the “waste” word, but the theme was sufficiently present when he called the Waterfalls “moronic” and found himself asking "why do these exist?" He didn’t seem to find a satisfactory answer.

The reviewers also found themselves tending to regard the Waterfalls as something that was pitched to tourists, exuding an overly-commercial feel. Mr. Danzinger disparages the tourism revenues and associated gawking. Ms. O'Connor considers tourists’ expenditures on Waterfall packages a waste and is skeptical of the estimated $55 million in boosted city revenues that were supposed to result. Ms. Harris-Babou finds Waterfalls “too commercial,” mentioning “Greyhound bus tour guides” and says she experiences the “hype” surrounding the Waterfalls as a detracting element. She links in the officiously demanding signs in the state-run (Empire State Development Corporation) Brooklyn Bridge Park viewing area. The signs say: "TALK", "PLAY" and "WALK," she says to “remind park-goers that he or she is being entertained” and she reports on how it summons up for one viewer the feeling of “an ad for Ikea." Ms. Harris-Babou sees the commercialism as “a sorrowful glimpse into the future of Brooklyn waterfront development.” Ms. Seckin actually zeros in to interview tourists whom she found unreceptive to the Waterfalls unless she “gave them background information on Eliasson's perspective of his art.” In some cases she found them unappreciative even afterward.


Ms. Seckin reports that:

One tourist whom I asked said that the waterfalls not only made the Brooklyn Bridge look like it was taking a massive piss, but that they made her want to take a massive piss as well.
This is something I had never thought of looking at the flow coming from under the Brooklyn Bridge, but Ms. O'Connor likewise commented that New Yorkers had described the project "the river pissing," (Journalistic standards must have changed. When I was a high school journalist in the ‘70s I am sure that we would have rigorously adhered to the verb“urinate.”)


The reviews tend to see the see the Waterfalls as an unspectacular effort. Two of them unflatteringly compare them to waterparks.

Mr. Danzinger:

They are half-hearted attempts that belong in a waterpark, where they would not only blend in with the setting, but would also be put to better use.
Ms. O'Connor:

Unfortunately, Waterfalls are plant killing, nondescript excuses for art that creepily resemble a water park ride from the 1980s that was sued for killing too many children.
She introduced her essay with this line:

After talking to many people, I have come to the conclusion that nobody really cares about the Waterfalls.
Ms. O'Connor observes in follow-up:

. . . generally people are relatively indifferent. I guess you have to be---how much can you really say about a bunch of bars, pipes, and water that you cannot get closer to than 2000 feet without wasting $25 and an hour of your time?
She also says:

Some people have described them as "a construction malfunction," . . .
Making “Light” of an Appearance: This Is Just a Construction-“Sight”

The construction project feel of the project is also noted by Ms. Greenwald, who observes that the “scaffoldings” made her think of construction and the “city's constant need to renovate and build, and seemingly never be done.” Her “initially negative reaction” to how “tremendously wasteful” it is “to run these four large apparatuses all day long” shifts a bit after she takes her mother’s advice to go back to look at the Waterfalls illuminated at night, after which she tells us:

I now wish that they were only run at night. Not only would it require less energy, but more importantly, we would see only the impressive aspect of the Waterfalls, and not the scaffolding which adorns almost any block in New York City.
This reminds us what any clever real estate executive knows about promoting real estate projects. Lighting, presentation, and pretty pictures help. In real estate promotions, skies are always blue, trees (perhaps actually non-existent) are leafed out, and the ideal time of the day is often that evening hour around sunset when a building’s interior lighting is just beginning to interplay with the soft glow of the sky.

Whiff of Ego

The young critics sniff “ego” in the air. Mr. Danzinger writes: Why do we welcome these displays of the artists' egos? Ms. O’Conner asks, “would you ever admit your art is an ugly waste of time?” when she mistakenly ascribes projections ($55 million) of the high financial benefit of the project to the artist himself. It is Mr. Danzinger who associates it most closely with the “pseudo” and unnatural. Saying that they are not true waterfalls, Mr. Danzinger says that apparently, per the artist’s intention, the Waterfalls:

. . . . feel out of place. If juxtaposing them. with actual waterfalls, they are an affirmation of man's subordination to nature; compare the metal scaffold and conveyor belt to, say, Niagara Falls.- Man created one, the other formed naturally; water naturally flows over Niagara falls, pumps and conveyor belts are required to shoot water out of the Waterfalls.
(Mr. Danzinger hasn’t quite caught up with the arrogance of man. Niagra is no longer a natural waterfall. A fraction of its former flow now goes over the falls. Much of the flow has been diverted by Niagra Mohawk to provide power for upstate. The waterfall can be turned on and off at will and the falls have been dynamited to direct the more meager flow of water more evenly in a prettier way that helps disguise how little water is still falling in the cataract.)

Intervening in the Mundane?

I was interested that Harris-Babou opined, I think correctly, that the Waterfalls “are meant to be interventions into the mundane.” I am thinking that, as adults, we may appreciate this interruption more, but such interruptions seem objectionable to Mr. Danzinger, who has experienced fewer seasons. Talking about the much more appreciated Gates public art project, he is not inclined to see Olmsted and Vaux’s work in Central Park as mundane:

The Gates were truly an garish contrast to the Romantic beauty of Central Park created by Olmstead and Vaux. Now, the Waterfalls will join the ranks of pretentious attention-grabbing pseudo-art
Not Emphasized: Environmental Damage

What wasn’t covered in the student reviews is itself quite interesting. Only one of the reviews, the one by Ms. O’Conner, dealt with the Waterfalls’ unforecast environmental damage:

So, yes, the Waterfalls are unattractive and unexciting, but at least they are beneficial to our city, right? Wrong. They are actually killing the little plant life there is on the East Side. The Waterfalls are stirring up the salt and pollutants from the harbor into a mist and settling and crystallizing them onto the leaves of the surrounding plants and trees. This is hindering their photosynthesis and so the plants are dying. The city has acknowledged the problem and cut the operating time of the waterfalls in half, but, in my opinion, it is too late. Many innocent plants have already died, for this "Public Art.”
What Money Wasted?

Although the reviews repeatedly harped on the “waste,” including the “waste of money” they saw in the Waterfalls, the reviews did not hone in to identify where the wasted money was coming from. This is not surprising because the information is under-reported elsewhere. As we have noted, although we know that Bloomberg directed millions into the project from a number of sources, how much he put into the project in total is still being kept secret. We focused on the subject only as a follow-up article to our original essay. One review, Ms. Seckin’s, mentions funding reporting:

Funded by private donations raised by the Public Art Fund, this approximately $15 million display is being hailed as the biggest outdoor art project in New York since The Gates in Central Park. However, a thick cloud of controversy hangs over this bold statement of public art.
In asserting that the project is “funded by private donations raised by the Public Art Fund,” Ms. Seckin doesn’t report the lead role Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took in channeling money into the project in multiple ways and the fact that $2 million in federal funds, certainly not private money, was steered into the project by the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Mr. Bloomberg controls half the LMDC board, and the LMDC was set up to help with the short-funded ground zero redevelopment effort and lower Manhattan recovery. It received federal block grant funds (like the block grant funds used for the Waterfalls) for “disaster recovery” purposes. In addition, what was counted as “private money” included money from a City Hall-based charity that Mr. Bloomberg controls as Mayor.

Back to That “Ego” Thing

Although the young writers picked up on the whiff of ego hanging in the air over the Waterfalls, they did not seem aware of Mr. Bloomberg’s presence, despite the many hats Mr. Bloomberg has been wearing to bring the Waterfalls to fruition, including privately lead-sponsoring the project with Bloomberg, LP media company funds. When Ms. O'Connor unwittingly said that the artist himself had (in a perhaps self-inflating fashion) predicted a $55 million tourism benefit from the project, she was therefore actually half-right. It was really the sponsoring Mr. Bloomberg who, doubly involved, made this projection through a city-controlled agency. The same Mr. Bloomberg then similarly gave his sponsored project a city award for its contributions to the public environment.

Limits Not Reached: Waterfall Falsity

The Saint Ann’s reviews appeared and were written before the term limits battle was joined in a publicly recognized way, with the Mayor engaging various billionaire tactics to extend term limits to specially gain a third term for himself. Susan Freedman, president of the above-mentioned Public Art Fund, had not yet appeared before the City Council to aver that Mr. Bloomberg specially deserves a third term. We had not written about the disconcerting ways Mr. Bloomberg pumped money from various sources into the Waterfalls. Neither we nor the New York Times had written about the problematic ways that Mr. Bloomberg uses the convoluting cover of his “charities” to secure political power. (See: Bloomberg Enlists His Charities in Bid to Stay, yy Michael Barbaro and David W. Chen, October 17, 2008, Criticism of Bloomberg Over Nonprofits’ Support, by Michael Barbaro, October 19, 2008 and Monday, October 20, 2008 “Charity?” We Begin to Groan)

When the Saint Ann’s reviews were written we had not yet pointed out how the financial convolutions regarding the Waterfalls, if you think about it, are being used with a certain “Waterfalls falsity” as an interloping mechanism for some unpleasant things. For instance, we asked: Is the Atlantic Yards land grab paying for Mayor Bloomberg’s effort to specially exempt himself from term limits and achieve a third term? For that matter, is the Mayor’s bid for billionaire exceptionalism fueled by city officials' fraud? (See: Wednesday, October 22, 2008, Are the Atlantic Yards Land Grab and City Official Fraud Being Used to Finance Bloomberg’s Bid for Billionaire Term Limit Exceptionalism?)

Overall, the assessment of the young Saint Ann’s journalists were extremely valuable and on the right track. Their skepticism about the “art” was even stronger than mine. Paying attention to this skepticism expressed by these young citizens is important and encouraging as we look to the future.

No comments: