The Making of Paths to Pier 42: An interview with Tattfoo Tan

Interview with Tattfoo Tan

Tattfoo Tan is one of five commissioned artists in 2014 who, in collaboration with the project partners, advisory committee, volunteers and most importantly, local feedback and support, is transforming Pier 42 into a vibrant and accessible waterfront park for the community.

Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) had the opportunity to ask Tan about his experience working on Paths to Pier 42. Tan’s project New Earth Apocalypse Knowledge Advancement (NEAKA) is a metal key frame catamaran installed on Pier 42 and ceremonially christened with salt. Tan sees the vessel as a spiritual reminder of an uncertain future due to societal collapse (population, climate, water, agriculture and energy) and a call to action in preparation to face such challenges. NEAKA also serves as a vitrine for New Earth Meal Ready-to-Eat (NEMRE), a part of Tan’s ongoing social practice project, through which he inspires others to practice the ancient food preservation technique of dehydration, not only to help prepare for future disaster, but to provide nutritious meals in the present, knowing every ingredient and wasting none.

The NEAKA unit was originally presented by Smack Mellon as part of FOODshed: Art and Agriculture in Action, June-July 2014.

Tattfoo Tan and NEAKA at Pier 42, photo courtesy of Mike Liu.

Tattfoo Tan and NEAKA at Pier 42, photo courtesy of Mike Liu.

HSC: What was your initial approach to the Paths to Pier 42 project? How is the project connected to past projects and the values that motivate your work?

TT: I’m doing this project called New Earth, and like my last two projects, Nature Matching System and S.O.S. (Sustainable. Organic. Stewardship.), all are multifaceted, and small scale individually, but hopefully over the years the projects will accumulate and become a family of small projects under the umbrella name of New Earth. It started with the dehydrated meal, New Earth Meal Ready-to-Eat (NEMRE). During Hurricane Sandy, where I live on Staten Island was shut down. The ferry was not running, the gas station was not functioning and the food at the supermarket was all spoiled by the raising seawater. It was a wake-up call to be more prepared with my own food supplies. NEMRE started when I found that fresh food items were being thrown away because of blemishes and irregular shape. I rescued these, cooked them, and dehydrated them into shelf stable packages. Then the meals are vacuum sealed so that they can be kept in boxes for future emergencies, in which case I could easily reconstitute them with water and consume them.

I wanted to highlight how fragile our food supply in New York City is. We depend on the tunnels and bridges to be open and trucks running to continuously replenish the items in our local supermarket. If disaster strikes, we will be left in a dire situation. We are not food secure. So stock up.

How did the various components of your project (workshops, installation) develop?

As with most of my projects, they grow organically and I do not usually know where the project is going. The first step is just to start, do tests, and go through the trial and error of what works and what doesn’t work. Do not strive for a masterpiece or perfection. Let it reveal itself to you.

NEAKA is the sculptural form that can showcase the NEMRE project, situated here at Pier 42. It started because I wanted to do a workshop in a public space, but I didn’t want to do it just with a table and tent. Furthermore, distribution of food is not allowed in Parks Department properties. So I created a sculptural form with a deck that acts as an information board, so that when people walk by they can read about the project. When it was situated in a gallery setting, the catamaran also became a vitrine where boxes of NEMRE are placed on top of the deck instead.

I hosted dehydrated kale chips workshops in the neighborhood (at a summer camp, senior housing, and an ELS class) to get the public to eat a healthy snack. Hopefully they will continue to develop this cooking method and explore more complex dishes. In a lot of the cultures here, especially the local residents that are predominantly Asian, we eat a lot of dehydrated food already – dried shrimp, dried vegetables, dried sausages. But we don’t do it ourselves, we just buy it from the store. This is the opportunity to show that you can also do it yourself and know every ingredient that goes in it.

NEAKA at Smack Mellon, June 2014.

NEAKA at Smack Mellon, June 2014.

What is social practice?

To me social practice is about sharing.  Sharing of knowledge, resources, ideas, time and etc. Personally my practice is always three-fold: I learn, I practice and I teach. Through projects like S.O.S. I learned how to compost, how to save seeds and what is permaculture. All the green knowledge that I’ve acquired, I have practiced in my studio. I plant, raise chickens, test things out, and then I reteach these processes in workshops and classes. A workshop is a great presentation format to showcase how easy these small actions can be, and how they are easily replicable. So for me that’s social practice. It’s an approach that I find very productive for myself and the people I work with. Because if you learn something; don’t practice it, and just understand it from reading a textbook, you can say “yeah I know how this works,” but you don’t really know because you have to trouble shoot it. When I was trying to raise chickens I thought; I know how this works, it’s kind of easy, I saw some YouTube videos, I read some books, I think I got it. But once you raise them, you find there are so many things that are unforeseen – you get panicked, but then you trouble shoot and eventually become more confident.

Another step that I take is creating manuals for all the projects that I consider complete. There are two manuals on my website that people can download to activate the project themselves: S.O.S. Action Guide and Nature Matching System Curriculum.

Personal Survival Kit workshop with Tattfoo Tan at the Summer Launch Celebration

New Earth Personal Survival Kit (NEPSK) workshop with Tattfoo Tan at the Summer Launch Celebration, photo courtesy of Lee Elson.

What issues on Pier 42 and in the surrounding neighborhood most interested you? How do you feel that your project responds to or addresses these issues?

NEAKA is basically a visual cue. It’s both a signal and a reminder of a location that is flood prone, and something that gets people walking into the park to approach the sculpture and read the text that I’ve provided regarding the project. New Earth Personal Survival Kit (NEPSK) is a small survival kit that everyone should have whether you are in a rural setting or in a city. It keeps all the essential things in a small package, and you can place it in a to-go bag or bug-out bag near the exit of your home. Make sure you drop by September 27 at Pier 42 to build one yourself. The next step is to design your own New Earth Multi-functional Exoskeleton Carrier (NEMEC) where participants will be in a design charette to tinker and design their own bug-out bag.

The Midsummer Arts Celebration at which you were going hold the NEAKA christening ceremony was cancelled due to the weather. Can you tell me a little about the christening?

The christening will be done on September 27th, at the forth coming Fall Festival. It is basically a ceremonial sprinkling of salt over the sculpture, instead of breaking a champagne bottle or something like that. Salt is an agent of purification in a lot of cultures. In biblical times, covenants were often sealed with salt, which is the origin of the word salvation. Salt was also a form of tax a long time ago, hence the word salary. Salt is essential to life. It is also a duality, both good and bad.

Has participating in the Paths to Pier 42 project changed the way you think about or approach your work?

Paths to Pier 42 is a unique project where artists are invited to activate the site while also informing the public that there is a future plan for making it better. But we are not really designing the pier ourselves, and the permanent park will probably be completed in the next 20 years. It is about now, and also about thinking about the future. It has an invisible thread that aligns with my New Earth projects.

My message is preparedness; by preparing, we acknowledge that climate change is happening and affecting us now. We become aware and conscious. This consciousness will affect our being and action. We have entered a period of great change; a synchronized, related crash of the economy and the ecosystem with food shortages, climate catastrophes, massive economic change and global geopolitical instability. This disruption will ultimately take human society to a higher evolutionary state. One that is not biological, but of consciousness.

This disruption is inevitable and imminent, and despair is a stage we have to go through. In fact, it is a positive sign that denial is coming to an end. A stage we all need to arrive at, individually and collectively, and one that we must move through. Hope is waiting above the periscope when we see with a different level of personal spiritual alignment.

Deck of NEAKA on Pier 42, August 2014.

Deck of NEAKA on Pier 42, August 2014.

Is there anything you’ve learned through this project that you think should inform the long term plans for the Pier 42 and the surrounding neighborhood?

Always the hindrance to the park is the highway. I don’t know how that will be addressed in the design, how to get people over the FDR. Maybe through some sort of way-finding? The way to get here is never inviting – it might be too far, or too noisy, it needs a path that can cross between the residential area and the pier area. That’s just my personal observation from coming over here, and also from trying to tell people where the park is. No one knows where it is, there isn’t much material that says it, and you have to give people Google maps.

What’s next for NEAKA?

I am trying to find a new location to showcase it, because it is a sculpture that’s meant to be outdoors. Hopefully I don’t need to just put it back into my studio, I’d like it to travel to another place and maybe do a similar thing – more workshops with new organizations.

Is there anything else you wish I had asked about?

My next project will be New Earth Trees Of Life (NETOL), and hopefully will be done next year. It’s basically an orchard planted on top of a pyramid that will be in Charlotte, North Carolina. So as time progresses I’ll add onto the New Earth projects and right now I don’t know what’s immediately next, but one of the next projects will be an orchard.

Is there a favorite moment or anecdote from the project that you’d like to share?

The interaction with workshop participants is always my favorite. Going to different neighborhoods, different organizations and interacting with people is always my highlight of the day. And seeing how different people have organized their workshops and the generosity of the people that volunteer in those spaces, that leads me to have hope for humanity.

NEAKA at Pier 42

NEAKA at Pier 42

“Making of Paths to Pier 42″ is a series of interviews with the artists and designers behind the creation of the Pier 42 park.