BAR Magazine

Issue 02

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Inside The Watershed: ICA Boston Sails Across the Harbor

Review

by Olivia Kiers

3 September 2018

Entrance to the ICA Watershed, 2018. Image by John Kennard Courtesy of ICA/Boston.

It’s no secret that Boston Harbor, like the rest of the city, has experienced drastic change during the later part of the last century, and beyond into this one. The Standells loved “that dirty water” in their 1960s hit “Dirty Water,” but thanks to federally mandated cleanup projects, the rock band might not recognize Boston Harbor today. In a pamphlet produced by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA) titled How Clean Is Boston Harbor? the waters are extolled as the “the sparkling centerpiece of the city.” As Ria Convery of the MWRA elaborated, “For over 100 years, barely treated sewage was dumped into the harbor essentially making it a dead zone. Once the new Deer Island Treatment plant came on-line and the harbor started to recover, aquatic life and birds have come back—as have people, who are now drawn to the waterfront and the beaches. The development has not only brought economic benefits, but a new generation of stakeholders who care about the health and cleanliness of the harbor.”

The Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA) has been an active participant in the changing waterfront ever since it won a bid to build a new museum on Seaport’s Fan Pier in 1999 (the completed museum opened to the public in 2006). With the opening of ICA Watershed, a seasonal satellite space in a former copper pipe factory across the water in East Boston’s Boston Harbor Shipyard and Marina, the ICA confirms its stake in the waterfront’s new identity as “sparkling centerpiece.”

“We embarked on this initiative several years ago, as the museum began to grapple with the rapid growth and privatization of our Seaport neighborhood,” the ICA’s Public Relations Manager Margaux Leonard elaborated in an email. “With our iconic Diller Scofidio + Renfro building increasingly obscured, we were reminded of our original vision: to face forward into the future and across Boston Harbor.”

“We selected East Boston for our new location because the Boston Harbor is our front yard and we are in a unique position to activate the waterfront. With the opening of the Watershed, the ICA expands its artistic and educational programming on both sides of Boston Harbor—the Seaport and East Boston—connecting two historically isolated neighborhoods.”

Ribbon Cutting at the ICA Watershed, 2018. Image by Liza Voll Photography courtesy of ICA/Boston.

At the ICA Watershed’s ribbon-cutting ceremony on a bright afternoon in late June, Mayor Marty Walsh was joined by a stage of city and state representatives who heaped praise on the ICA and Director Jill Medvedow for investing in the future of East Boston. “When my mom was growing up in this community, this was a very active shipyard,” said Adrian Madaro, the East Boston neighborhood’s state representative. “There were longshoremen, tons of maritime industrial uses—that all dwindled. When I was growing up, this was a pretty barren and desolate place… This is truly an incredible transformation.”

And yet, this is not the first effort in the history of East Boston to integrate an art experience into the harbor landscape. Nearly ten years ago, the volunteer-run organization HarborArts began installing outdoor art around the marina. “The shipyard to me was just a big gallery, with cranes and boats, all the equipment and riggings,” said HarborArts founder Steve Israel. “It was just a wonderful aesthetic to work in.” Though appreciative of the marina’s industrial atmosphere, Israel explained that HarborArts’ inaugural exhibition was dedicated to ocean awareness. “I believe that people get involved through art,” Israel continued. “The dialogue around art creates solutions… we try to create a model of displaying art to get people’s attention.” He and fellow artist Roger Baker created The Cod, a giant, rust-brown sculpture of the iconic local fish that swims through the sky atop a building adjacent to the Watershed’s main entrance.

The ICA has the resources and institutional clout to do what HarborArts cannot, like providing free water taxi service connecting its East Boston and Seaport locations, or embarking on numerous community partnerships to benefit its new neighbors. Israel sees the ICA’s presence in his corner of East Boston as the realization of a longed-for cross-harbor arts experience—he had approached the institution years ago with the intention of collaborating. “These kinds of places are an opportunity to bring people together, and discuss solutions to many of today’s topics that we need to work on, globally… I think it’s very exciting that a major institution has decided to come over, and I’m hoping that these relationships only continue to grow.”

Installation View, Diana Thater, the ICA Watershed, 2018. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong. Photo by Liza Voll Photography © Diana Thater

Where HarborArts has “The Cod,” an unapologetically scrappy selection, the ICA Watershed has debuted with Diana Thater’s immersive “Delphine.”

Thater “stood out as an artist who could take on the particulars of the ICA Watershed’s raw, industrial space,” said Leonard. “For the Watershed, Thater has created an immersive, site-responsive installation that reflects on the fragility of the natural world, transforming the space through light and moving image projections.”

Awash in a magenta glow, “Delphine,” first produced in 1999, depicts wild dolphins in their natural habitat across four separate and off-kilter projections that take over an entire corner, including a wide stretch of the floor. The dolphins glide without effort, unlike the occasional humans swimming past, who are burdened with video cameras and scuba gear. Positioned nearby—and not immediately apparent as part of the same piece—is a stack of nine monitors depicting the slow burn of a purple sun, further removing the viewer from a sense of human time and importance. And yet, there is no attempt to de-emphasize the projectors, electrical cables, and monitors in this piece, forcing the viewer to recognize the work’s technological origins and its imprisonment in architectural space. Delphine is a mesmerizing and destabilizing viewing experience.

Part of Thater’s activism against animal captivity includes working with The Dolphin Project, which claims to be the longest-running, anti-captivity dolphin welfare program in the world. Between 2000 and 2006, Thater was an artist-in-residence with The Dolphin Project, and has supported Save Japan Dolphins’ campaign as an official videographer since 2006. Politically, Thater’s convictions are clear (the artist’s website dedicates a full section to this category). Yet, as a work of activism, “Delphine” is surprisingly subtle. It’s like watching a soothing nature documentary through rose-tinted glasses. “I don’t put the politics—the activism and the politics—of my work together,” Thater once said on an episode of PBS’s Art21. “I think it makes a muddle.”

Elsewhere in the exhibition, Thater does take on the dark consequences of human actions more directly. Take “As Radical as Reality” (2017) and “A Runaway World” (2017), both video installations that display majestic creatures going extinct, both filmed in the “golden hour” before twilight. There is something nervous about the camera’s attachment to these animals: a herd of endangered bull elephants roam one screen, while Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros (now dead), commands the other. Sudan is shown both at close range and in the distance, flanked by his armed guards. The elephants are juxtaposed with racing clouds and Mount Kilimanjaro, two extremes of being—the ethereal and the geological—converging in time toward the demise of a species.

“As Radical as Reality” and “A Runaway World” mourn a disappearing world. “Delphine,” in contrast, becomes an ode to the future, to the world that can be. It’s telling that the ICA has chosen “Delphine,” rather than the other works, as the Watershed’s emblem this summer. The Watershed still boasts a raw architecture that doesn’t deny its factory past, similar to how the projectors and tangled cords in “Delphine” keep the work attached to an imperfect Anthropocene. One can’t forget that waterfront factories were major contributors to the harbor’s horrific state mere decades ago. Yet optimism and the potential for radical transformation are the main messages within both the space and “Delphine.”

Installation View, Diana Thater, the ICA Watershed, 2018. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong. Photo by Liza Voll Photography © Diana Thater

At its core, the ICA Watershed is a forward-thinking endeavor made possible by many pioneers whose vision bridges the gap between past and present. Celebrating East Boston’s new chapter means recognizing its industrial history, while acknowledging the challenges ahead. How exactly the rising sea levels and real estate development will negatively impact culture tied to the waterfront—or even undo the harbor’s hard-won ecological recovery—remains to be seen.

While the ICA’s expansion into East Boston demonstrates the successful transformation of an abandoned industrial space into a harborside architectural gem, the sudden development of the area exemplifies the murky waters of private versus public space under the auspices of cultural economic development plans. The Boston-based Barr Foundation has funneled grant money towards a variety of initiatives meant to curtail rapid, uncoordinated development and to take into account a long-term vision for the Harbor that factors in climate change. “Imagine Boston 2030,” the City’s “Plan for the Future of Boston,” has listed creating “a waterfront for all Bostonians that is climate resilient and has the stewardship needed to thrive for coming generations” as one of its cornerstones. The plan acknowledges that this task will “require Boston to confront significant technical, financial, and organizational challenges.” Yet, in the midst of development and sustainability plans, the nuances of neighborhood culture can be easily overlooked — a dynamic that is often hard to reverse.

A similar collision of forces is at play in Thater’s work. As Boston continues to expand and develop, this institutional space and multi-media exhibition hint at the adaptation and resolve needed to ensure incremental, scalable growth. In Thater’s art, dolphins, humans, and a purple sun float together in harmony—the future bright with possibility. But one shouldn’t ignore the cautionary tales. Just one room away, Thater shows a species going extinct. Where humanity touches nature, there are always consequences.

Installation View, Diana Thater, the ICA Watershed, 2018. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, New York/London/Hong Kong. Photo by Liza Voll Photography © Diana Thater

The Watershed is open Tuesday–Sunday, 10 AM–5 PM, July 4 through October 8.
It’s closed Mondays. It will be open for special community days on Labor Day + Columbus Day. Admission to The Watershed is free.