Interview with Marie Lorenz

Marie Lorenz (and myself) in her studio in Bushwick in Brooklyn, NY.

Marie Lorenz is an artist living in New York. I talked with her about her Tide and Current Taxi project, where she ferries people around the New York area in a boat she built by hand. If you are in the area next Spring when it starts to get warmer, send her an e-mail and you can explore New York’s waterways! Her web-site can be seen here.


Have you ever fished during any of your explorations, and caught something that was safe to eat?

Once I took a passenger who wanted to try and get enough food from the Gowanus Bay to make dinner. We took a fishing pole and floated around without catching anything. I have always wanted to try that again, but really catch and eat something. So this could be a call to anyone who wants to try and take an Edible New York trip in the Tide and Current Taxi next summer – it would sort of help if you knew more than me about fishing or crabbing…

In the Tide and Current Taxi, where you take people around the New York area in the boat you’ve made, you make accessible a public place and places (the waterways, and places accessible only by the waterways) to a public (the people who participate in your projects). Do you think of your projects in terms of the public? Or is there a different terminology that you prefer?

I think about the public in two ways: the people who come out with me in the boat and the people who read about it online. Very often there is a fluid interchange between the two roles, and between the two types of observation. But let me start with the differences: The people who come out with me in the boat are a pretty small group so it would be hard to call them a public. The experience for us in the boat can be profoundly transformative; floating through the dense grid of New York truly changes the way you see the city. When I write about our experiences in the photoblog I am trying to describe in one way or another a change that has occurred. Now, the people who read about it online; this I would more comfortably refer to as the public. The fact that the project itself is an invitation engages them in a direct way; they see themselves on the boat, they see the city through our eyes.  It’s like the difference between reading a novel and reading a travel brochure. “This could be you,” says the travel brochure, “any minute, as soon as you decide to do it!”

And the public space of the water – making inaccessible places accessible. Sometimes I think this is the question of the whole project – what the whole thing is really about.

Tide and Current Taxi on Sept 12, 2009.

This reminds me of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates, where he purchased inaccessible plots of land. Are these inaccessible places usually public property? Or, are you technically trespassing when you enter it?

Sometimes I trespass to get in and out of the water. But it is important to me that the project is completely legal. I pay attention to the shipping channels and security zones and we always wear life jackets. It is important to the project that this is something anyone can do. I like thinking of it in terms of the Fake Estates; when you find a network of forgotten public space, it opens the entire city.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Fake Estates.

Who usually comes with you on these excursions? People you know, or anyone who stumbles across your work?

It is about 1/3 people I know, 1/3 people who I have never met but am connected to in some way, and 1/3 complete strangers who found the project online. Usually in the case of a complete stranger I try and take someone that I know out on the trip as well. It is not always obvious from the website who is familiar to me and who is not, but when a friend shows up on the blog a couple times in one summer, they have usually agreed to come along to help with a trip I am taking with a stranger.

Is the participatory aspect  of your practice specific to this piece, or have you done other projects involving participation? And is this even “participation”? Maybe co-exploration is better.

My work has always had a component where you had to climb into something, over something, or navigate through it to get to the content. Then for years I thought that floating itself was the content (the specific way that floating on the water makes your body feel and what that does to observation). Then in 2005 I circumnavigated the Manhattan Island and sent pictures of the trip live to a website. The connection between the actual navigation and its online representation opened up so many possibilities. I realized that an observer who was sitting at his/her desk, privately reading about our trips and looking through the eye of my camera, was more directly participating than when I had made him/her float through my sculptures on a piece of foam.

I like this idea of floating as the content of your work. There is the weight of your body on the water, the displacement of water with that weight, the water as a support for your body. And the tides, forces that you are subjected to, that you navigate with, either going with or against. Thinking about navigation here, Is your navigation process more pre-determined, or is there an element of wandering?

Yes! And for years I thought that the specific displacement of floating changed our perception. I thought that is what all those old Disneyland rides were about; where you ride a boat through a series of grottoes (Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World, Submarine Voyage). Then on a visit to Austria in 2004, a friend took me to Schloss Hellbrunn. There is a garden of waterworks crafted in the 17th century by an Italian architect. There are a series of grottoes situated along a river. The current in the river powers all these pneumatically automated sculptures inside the grottoes. My friend said that these gardens used to exist all over Italy but this is the last remaining one that still operates on river current alone. I was amazed. “It’s just like Disneyland.” I said. She laughed at me. “You American’s always take the simulacra for the real thing.” Before Hellbrunn, I thought the river changed our perception of these hokily crafted vignettes. I actually thought that floating aided in our suspension of disbelief, but I had it backwards; the rides are based on a form where the river is supplying the power. At the time it was considered a divine art, or a triumph over nature. So after seeing Hellbrunn, I abandoned the floating-through-sculptures that I was doing and started the Tide and Current Taxi.

As for navigation and wandering, there is a little of both. I generally plan the trips so that we use the tidal current in the harbor to take us to a particular place. My passenger has an idea of a destination (the first year I tried to take people to work) and I plan it out so that we travel with the tide. In the New York Harbor the tide can travel up to 6 knots, which is an incredible amount of power for a small boat. In some places, at some times of day, traveling with the tidal current is equivalent to having a small outboard motor. There are always unexpected factors though, like the wind. And in some of the trips we do way more wandering and exploring. In some ways I think about it like a Situationist Dérive (I mean it really truly is a drift!). Using a map of the tides to navigate a city is a little like using a map of London to walk through the mountains of Germany. But after traveling with the tides I have found that it is not that at all. Because the original axis of the city seems to have been laid out in consideration of the currents in the Harbor. It’s like if Debord’s friend found out through his wandering that the mountain range where he wandered had an underlying and secret structure that corresponded perfectly to the map of London.

Marie Lorenz, River Ride Sculptures 2002-2005.

Haha, the real dérive drift! That is interesting about the city – the tide’s relationship to the city’s axis. I grew up in the South Bay, the beach cities south of Los Angeles. In Palos Verdes one of the main roads has a very large median that people like to jog on. Palos Verdes is a wealthy neighborhood and I’ve always thought the median was so wide and lined with trees because city planners wanted to make the place feel and look affluent. Later I learned it was so wide because it was originally planned for a trolley car, when Los Angeles was a city built on public transportation, before it turned into a car city. Possibly, when you navigate New York by water, you are navigating how the city was built to be navigated.

There is so much like that in New York – I mean there is the famous one about Canal Street which used to be an actual canal, and the Dutch fortifications on the Battery were all about its naval defensibility, but then even before the Dutch settlement, the Lanape were using the island as a trading site – you could get to Manhattan by riding the tide from all over the bay and 100 miles up the Hudson. You could ride the tide to Manhattan, and then 6 hours later – ride it right back home. So yes, riding the tide in a small boat, you realize how valuable a site it must have been for the original inhabitants of New York, traveling in boats about the same size as mine.

A Pacific Electric car from Los Angele’s forgotten public transportation days.

And Coney Island, which used to be an actual island that you would have to travel over water to get to. Is there ever an unexpected exchange between you and one of your co-explorers? Maybe in the end, you actually learn things from them?

I always learn something from people I take in the boat. That is one of the best things about the project for me. Sometimes people ask me, “So, do you give tours of the Harbor?” and I say, “No, I am like a reverse tour guide; my passengers are usually giving me a tour.” Many of the people I take out know much more about the area than I do; from actual physical data about buildings, boats, and waterways to personal histories with an area. One of my favorite trips was with the writer Samantha Hunt, who had just published a  book about Nicola Tesla (semi fictional). The last scene was set on Barren Island, so we paddled around the island and she told me about the different things she had imagined took place there. It was perfect, floating along in this imaginary space. A friend recently pointed out that one of the great things that continues to happen out in the boat is this rambling speculative conversation about what things are. Usually on land these days, that kind of speculation is truncated by the ease of fact checking (the iPhone is ruining conversation!) but out in the boat for some reason, speculation reigns. We have hours of time to come up with our own definitions, propositions, fake hypotheses. If they ever make a waterproof iPhone this will all be ruined.

Dead Horse Bay on Barren Island. Bottles emerging from old landfill.

In my sci-fi apocalyptic fantasy, iPhones aren’t ruining human conversations, but iphones are using humans to facilitate conversations between them. So the people become the tools/apparatuses of the machines.

That’s true! And it makes spoken conversation more like the book you made that is in the Free show at the New Museum! Now I think maybe iphones were the real author of that piece…

What I like here is that your project serves as a kind of motor for conversations and thoughts to emerge. It doesn’t matter that someone may be more of an expert than you – what you do is open up this space. Back to the iPhone, and being out of access because you are in the water, this takes me to your Hakim Bey (Peter Lambourn Wilson) quote from the Temporary Autonomous Zone on your site. Is there a search for a kind of autonomy? And if yes, an autonomy from what?

I guess using that quote – about how our age is the first without terra incognita, next to the Thor Heyerdahl quote about ocean currents being a free ride into terra incognita (he too was exploring an extensively mapped ocean in an unexpected way) is meant to propose that the tidal currents in a city might transport us into an unknown realm, outside the grid of the city. It sets the stage for being an explorer in a known land.

But I couldn’t really call the waterways of New York an Autonomous Zone in Bey’s sense of the term (I always fear he is really talking about something like Bunring Man anyway). There is something exhilarating about being physically connected to the ocean when you are sitting in the Newtown Creek in Brooklyn, but most of the time I am out in the boat, I am conscious of being under the vigilant eye of the Coast Guard, Police, and Fire Department boats.

Newton Creek bordering Brooklyn and Queens in New York.

You may not be outside of surveillance. But, going back to the iPhone, where you are  connected to a larger invisible global digital infrastructure – you can be outside of that. Whether it is because of the water, or because of a choice, you can be in a place where you are not able to look something up, where you are not available for someone to be able to connect to you. To always be connected, when anyone can call you at any moment, is to always be able to be distracted from where you are, and to be taken out of that immediate moment. I hope he is not talking about Burning Man, though, I am not one to judge because I have never been there (and have never wanted to be there). Maybe the idea of terra ingonita is impossible or almost impossible today, but I do think there are possibilities in autonomy in one’s cognitive activities, and the way one chooses to live. Like, in a refusal to be connected, and then realizing you are connected to something else (the natural existing forces, the tides, to the ocean, as you put it). I recently have been taking my bike out at night with out any cash or my atm card, to see what would happen, knowing that everything that happened came outside of a monetary transaction.

Being out in the boat is a lot like biking around in the middle of the night – the roads are open to you, sometimes unrecognizable. It’s like the world has undergone a profound change and you are sort of passing through it without a sound.

Have you ever been bothered by the Coast Guard or anyone while taking a boat out?

I have had a lot of contact with the Coast Guard, the Police and the Fire Department. I would estimate that I talk to someone in a uniform 1 out of every 5 times I am out in the boat, and I make visual contact with them 1 out of 3 times (a simple wave to a police boat or coast guard boat who has their eye on us). I have always found them to be helpful and unobtrusive. I think they see us out there with life preservers on, taking pictures and floating along and immediately understand what we are up to. I have even received emails from people in the Coast Guard who came across my blog and like the project.

I should also say though, that sometimes I get emails from people who ask about going to illegal places, and ask information about people who I know that explore abandoned places. They don’t give much information about themselves and ask me to call them back. I think a few years ago the term ‘urban exploration’ was flagged as some kind of terrorist threat and there was a minor (FBI?) campaign to come up with a list of this perceived network of ‘urban explorers’. I have told people about these emails and for the most part they think I am overreacting. Once I called back one of the people who emailed me and I can’t explain it, but I just absolutely knew I was talking to someone who was misrepresenting themselves as an interested participant.

Tide and Current Taxi on June 27, 2010.

Yesterday I finally watched Strange Culture, the documentary about Steve Kurtz and the Critical Art Ensemble, and there were some hilarious stories about undercover FBI agents. I think this will be a good place to close. Do you have anything you’d like to say to people who read this interview who may potentially want to be a co-explorer on a boat trip when it gets warmer?

Sure! If you want to go on a trip in the Tide and Current Taxi, it helps to have a place you want to explore for a very specific reason. And I hate to give away the real key to the project so easily – but it also helps to keep bugging me about it.


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