Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
A proposal by Canadian artist Mia Feuer to build a replica of a submerged gas station in the Anacostia has finally found what any good public art project needs: a vocal opposition.
UPDATE 7/18 1:35 PM: The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities has informed artist Mia Feuer that she can't proceed with a plan to build a replica gas station in the Anacostia River, per a decision informed by the District Department of the Environment. "I'm heartbroken, but I absolutely get it," says Feuer, who may work with the city to select a different site in the future. The original story about the community battle over her sculpture proposal follows.
A coalition of a dozen environmental and athletic groups in Washington, D.C., issued a letter today opposing an artist's plan to build a replica of a sunken gas station in the Anacostia River—on the grounds that it doesn't strike a positive image.
United for a Healthy Anacostia River, an association formed early this year, objects to a proposal by Canadian artist Mia Feuer to build a sculpture in D.C.'s Anacostia River. That sculpture would resemble a sunken gas station: a wry depiction of the threat to cities that climate change represents.
"While we understand and many of us appreciate the global climate change message that the artist is trying to deliver, we are unified in our view that sinking a gas station in the Anacostia is simply the wrong thing to do in 2014," the letter reads.
The coalition appears to fear that the public will take the installation literally. Building a replica of a gas station in the Anacostia could lead to residents putting oil in the river, the letter warns.
"If the public misunderstands the art’s intended message as permission to put gas or oil in the river, the project could single-handedly set back the river restoration and undo years of effort on the part of the D.C., Montgomery County, and Prince George's County governments to convince people to keep oil out of the water," the letter reads.
The statement—which is addressed to Lionell Thomas, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities (DCCAH)—was signed by several dozen individuals, many of them members of the Capital Rowing Club and the Anacostia Watershed Society. The coalition represents both of those groups, as well as D.C. Sail, the Anacostia Community Boathouse Association, Federal City Council, and others.
"It’s an image that people are really struggling with," says Feuer, who says she has been flooded with messages both opposing and supporting the project. Earlier this month, she says, she got a call from Mike Bolinder, the head of Anacostia Riverkeeper, which bills itself as a "neighborhood watch for the watershed." A meeting arranged by DCCAH between the two never materialized.
Bolinder says that the Anacostia riverbed is off limits.
"We’ve been working for 10 years in the Anacostia to get a study of the toxins in the river sediment. After fighting tooth and nail for 10 years, we’ve convinced the District to do a remedial study," Bolinder says, discussing an effort to bring a suit against companies, including the U.S. Navy, responsible for pollution that accumulated in the Anacostia River between 50 and 100 years ago. "If I were a lawyer representing a polluter, and I heard that someone stuck a gas station in the middle of the site sample, I would move to strike the sampling work."
Bolinder is aware that Antediluvian would not be an actual gas station submerged in the river. It doesn't matter, he says: Anything that would disturb even part of the riverbed might be used by a defense team to strike his suit. The project might interfere with the D.C. Department of the Environment's sample study, he says. "An artist from Canada can’t swoop in and interrupt 10 years of work," he says.
"We are in support of the ecology and landscape and in no way ever intended to disparage this part of nature," says Stephanie Sherman, the curator who picked Feuer's Antediluvian sculpture for D.C.'s 5x5 exhibition. Sherman stresses that the project would have "zero impact on the natural environment."
Indeed, the coalition does not claim that the sculpture—a temporary public artwork that would run from September to December—would harm the Anacostia River. The letter only tangentially mentions the river's historic pollution issues; the concerns it raises are chiefly aesthetic. "Several of us have been working for years to change the image and the reality of the Anacostia River from a badly polluted eyesore and public health hazard dividing the District of Columbia to an invaluable 21st Century [sic] recreational and economic asset for the region," it reads.
Colleen Garibaldi, a resident of the Hill East neighborhood, doesn't see a problem. An active kayaker who keeps her ride in the Anacostia Community Boathouse, she says she contacted the artist after she read about the proposal. She lives a stone's throw from Heritage Island, and she is an enthusiastic booster of Feuer's proposal.
"We usually feel like we get overlooked. We kind of get the short end of the stick," says Garibaldi, who's lived in the Anacostia-adjacent neighborhood since 2000. "I was excited that we’re not only getting something that's citywide [the 5x5 exhibition], it’s also a fabulous project, and it’s here in our backyard."
Garibaldi is one of some three-dozen supporters who have together contributed more than $9,000 toward Feuer's Indigogo campaign for Antediluvian. Whether the project proceeds depends in part on if she can raise the $30,000 she'll need to build the sculptural canopy. (Don't put it past her: She found thirty large last year to build a skating rink made out of black synthetic ice for her solo show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.)
Feuer says that she has the support of Living Classrooms and other groups that work in Kingman Lake. Bolinder notes that activists have "literally chained themselves to the fence" to prevent Heritage Island from being used for purposes they didn't support (specifically, an amusement park.) Garibaldi says she is behind Feuer's project "150,000 percent."
The high passions in this case should come as no surprise. The artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude made their careers by proposing notoriously preposterous public projects, challenging cities, residents, and authorities alike to assent to absurdity. The artists started lobbying the city of New York for permission for The Gates in 1979; it took them 25 years to get it. For several weeks in February 2005, more than 7,500 fabric curtains lined the paths of Central Park.
"The process for doing temporary public art project is very different from doing a permanent public art project," Sherman says.
It's not clear yet whether the city will get involved. Charles Allen, the presumptive favorite to win the Ward 6 seat on the D.C. Council, signed the statement opposing the project. As of now, the letter only asks that DCCAH withdraw its support for the piece.
"I support Ms. Feuer's project," Allen says, via email. "But I question the decision of its location in the Anacostia River and what message that sends our city and community while we are in the midst of reclaiming the health of the river."