Aug 21, 2009

Wondering about the Waterpod™

One of the more auspicious yet mysterious projects going on the New York Harbor these days is the barge-turned-commune known as the Waterpod. The mastermind of artist Mary Mattingly, this solar-powered, water-collecting, food growing, waste composting, glittering and domed spectacle has been afloat since June 12 and generating a bunch of interest, press, and amplifying hype. Read the recent NYT article here.

The Waterpod is an extension of Mattingly's work that articulates visions of the future through designy photos and sustainability plans. Since 2000, she's been showing far and wide, primarily presenting photographs of wearable homes called “Nomadographies” that are "autonomous mobile systems of living that are low-tech, ad hoc, and adaptable." These photos are poetic and haunting in their connoted narrative, bringing to mind a more fashionable Robert Parke Harrison. Learn more at:

Three years in the making, the Waterpod is a major collaboration now sponsored by the likes of Columbia University, The Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the United Nations Inspired Futures and is managed by a 22-person staff. The waterpod hosts a jammed calendar of events and workshops, produced in part by their revolving group of artists in residence. This project is huge!

One guideline is that as a resident you don’t need to stay on board; but while on board and off, residents are encouraged to catalog their activities. Mattingly states, "Everyone will have to help out with repairs, gardening, cooking, and composting. Basically, everyone will learn how to take care of everything. I think this is really important––as the first industrial and technological age in the developed world is drawing to a close, people need to relearn how to do a lot of things."

And the Waterpod is certainly about learning to do things. It appears that Mary Mattingly has learned how to make massive things happen in the name of art and science. Part of what makes this project interesting is that it serves several public functions; it is a grounds for partnerships with schools, community groups, and is self-described as a "public access barge" with "aims to collaborate, to share knowledge, and resources to share problems." Sounds great! My question then arises when visiting the project website ( to note that the Waterpod is actually "the Waterpod™." At every instance, the title of this project is followed by a Trademark symbol. With all this discussion of open ideas, resource sharing, not to mention the undeniable communalist legacy of which this vernacular belongs, I'm confused; why the need for a Trademark symbol?

After a little wikipedia research, I learned that
"the essential function of a trademark is to exclusively identify the commercial source or origin of products or services, such that a trademark, properly called, indicates source or serves as a badge of origin. In other words, trademarks serve to identify a particular business as the source of goods or services. The use of a trademark in this way is known as trademark use. Certain exclusive rights attach to a registered mark, which can be enforced by way of an action for trademark infringement."
It would appear that The Waterpod™ is a trademarked product or good and any knock-off or replica of this product is defensible by law. But surely the Waterpod borrows technology, style, form, and concept from numerous other scientists and makers. What about Andrea Zittel's Pocket Property? Robert Smithson's Floating Island? Swimming Cities' fleet of floating sculptures? Not to mention the Biosphere and various NASA experiments.

Isn't the experiment of sustainability an open source endeavor? Is not the project of merging art and life something to be shared? I'm sure there's some part of this story that I'm missing, but I must admit that I'm rather disheartened to see that a project like The Waterpod -- with all its great ideas, intentions, and resources -- would feel the need to speak the language of profit, ownership, and otherwise greedy business. I guess you could say the Waterpod has sparked my curiosity about the what, why and how of major art-and-life projects. Perhaps trademarking art projects is part of what makes them sustainable; if this is the case, I really begin to wonder...

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