In a time of uncertainty…

In a time of uncertainty can we revisit comprehensive systems that can offer educational support to each other and help us meet our daily needs?

Based on environmental and economic sustainability, WetLand is a proposal and a sculpture that resembles a partially submerged building. It is a cross-collaborative ecosystem and working living system with space for food production, water collection and purification, solar energy collection, and compost renewal systems. It also houses artists, writers, and teachers for up to two weeks while serving as an event and studio space. WetLand is currently floating on the Delaware River.

I’m writing this on Labor Day. There are union-organized events and parades all over Penn’s Landing. Reflecting upon the last month of building and opening WetLand requires some distance that it’s been hard to find. The space has become more active than I ever imagined.


Building in Public:

The Independence Seaport Museum was gracious enough to let us build WetLand on their pier here. Soon thereafter we began discussing building in public as a type of theater of labor, a description that I’ve began bringing with me into a broader examination of labor in all of its current forms. Even though we were working towards an end, the process involving many minds made WetLand what it is now. From artists to students, builders, ecologists, permaculture specialists, and the nautical engineer Rik Van Hemmen, we built a vessel that describes precarity but also happens to be seaworthy. We will continue to see it change.


WetLand Opens:

On August 15th WetLand opened to the public. Aside from a few days, WetLand is open all week, from 10am – 5pm, or 10am – 7pm, depending on the day. We have housed a variety of artists and writers from the East Coast, Sweden, Mexico, the Midwest, and Philadelphia. We have seen days with as few as fifty visitors and others with as many as 5000 visitors. The space has become very active, and is truly a place for mutual learning. We’ve taught and learned from each visitor who has come on board.

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An observation hive built into WetLand’s window borrowed from the Philadelphia Beekeepers Guild. Photo: Brian House


One thing I’ve realized is that the better our living systems can run themselves, the more growing our own food is a form of income, and the more collecting rainwater has a larger effect on our shared habitat. The better we compost, the more we can grow, and the more we can share.

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WetLand at Penn’s Landing. Photos: Brian House


– Mary Mattingly


Artist-in-residence, Brian House, writes: This week I am an artist in residence at Mary Mattingly’s WetLand project — a sculpture / habitat / provocation floating in the Delaware at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia. We’ve got chickens, bees, solar panels, a wetland habitat drawing from the river, ripening jalapeños, a rainwater bathtub … each day Mary, the FringeArts staff supporting the project, and the fellow residents and I talk to the public about the future, ecology, technology, and DIY. Kids, coast guard, native Philadelphians, and international visitors have all been drawn to what is a bit of a spectacle here among the historical ships, hotels, and beach bars — today the hive was kind enough to let me share fresh honey with passersby.

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Brian House with Bees

What I appreciate about this situation and Mary’s work in general is that it doesn’t shy away from existing in an indeterminate zone that invokes architectural, design, sculpture, conceptual art, and performance discourses without fitting very well into any of them. It is an exercise in interpretation, ultimately, and interpretation that exceeds the spatiotemporal bounds of the piece and slips into how we talk about ‘habitat’, or maybe ‘inhabiting’ in general. Bees, reclaimed materials, collective living, here they are conversation starters about what is novel, tolerable, exciting, or uncomfortable, and what it is that makes a habitat permanent or transient relative to the diverse everyday conditions of our visitors. In that sense, I don’t really read WetLand as a critique of our consumerism, nor a utopic vision of some bourgeohippy future, though it might easily be understood as such. I think it’s somewhat darker than that, where Mary’s living and (tireless, unceasing) labor are laid bare in an attempt to exist in conscious relation to a society that may be failing, or which we can imagine as failing. Her precarity stands in for our collective precarity. The form of WetLand is then simply her perspective rather than a polemic about how anyone should live. But that perspective includes the collaborations that she has cultivated to realize the work, from volunteers to artists to institutional support — and it’s openness to that participation and interpretation undergirds the richness of the piece.

For myself, I’ve chosen to take inspiration from that and make this residency less about producing a work as reflecting on the state of my practice and looking into future directions. I am reading theory texts, learning new software, and sketching out several small research works I’ll hopefully be able to complete in the next weeks. One of those is mechanism for rhythmanalysis, with no code or electricity involved, but through which I make temporal notations of my surroundings with the help of a stethoscope. That a boat is in constant motion makes it easy to bring rhythm into the foreground, and it has lent my time here a special kind of pulse.

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Photo: Brian House