Interview with Meredith Drum and Rachel Stevens
Meredith Drum and Rachel Stevens are one of four commissioned artist groups in 2015 who, in collaboration with the project partners, advisory committee, volunteers and most importantly, local feedback and support, are transforming Pier 42 into a vibrant accessible waterfront park for the community.
Hester Street Collaborative (HSC) had the opportunity to ask Drum and Stevens about their experience working on Paths to Pier 42. Drum and Steven’s project, Fish Stories Community Cookbook, is a collection of seafood recipes, local histories, stories and drawings alongside ecological information contributed by people who live and work in the Lower East Side. The book is being compiled by the Oyster City Project (artists Meredith Drum and Rachel Stevens) for Paths to Pier 42 and will be distributed at the Fall Waterfront Celebration on October 25th. Inspired by spiral bound community cookbooks, the name Fish Stories is meant to elicit playful contributions and is also an homage to Allan Sekula, an artist and theorist whose work interrogates the politics of labor and the flow of global capital in the maritime industry. Through recipe exchanges and workshops the artists are seeking useful and imaginative contributions to the cookbook to highlight relationships to waters near and far.
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?
Rachel Stevens: Meredith and I have been collaborating on a few different projects related to marine ecology within the last 4 years. We started off by putting together a screening called Hurricane Season. It’s a screening of experimental video shorts by different artists around the theme of the Gulf Coast of the US touching on climate issues. We liked collaborating so we continued to work on projects together and we wanted to do something about oysters. We read Mark Kurlansky’s book about the history of oysters in NYC and researched how oysters are important to the ecosystem of New York. Every coastline of the area used to be lined with oyster beds. Our friend Phoenix Toews had developed some very interesting augmented reality software. Since we were interested in place-based work, we found it a great fit for our ideas. We developed an augmented reality walking tour and game called Oyster City which was about taking people to specific sites in Lower Manhattan to learn about the deep history of oysters in New York City. We were interested in researching and trying to get people engaged with the idea of New York City as an incredible naturally occurring estuary.
Meredith Drum: When we were invited to propose something, we came up with an idea of a cookbook because we are both interested in everyday practices and how everyday practices can tie you to larger issues. What’s more everyday than having to eat? It’s pragmatic and pleasurable. Everyone loves to eat and a lot of people really enjoy cooking. The Lower East Side is an incredibly rich area full of a huge range of cultures. Food is a great way to explore the variety of cultures. So we came up with the idea of the cookbook as a community: a collective cookbook, a sampling of recipes submitted by residents that can be a wonderful kind of snapshot, a portrait of the Lower East Side at this moment, as a changing entity. We all know it’s changing very quickly and so hopefully this can become a piece of folk history.
Can you talk a little more about the Oyster City project? And how the Fish Stories Community Cookbook informs that larger work?
RS: The Augmented Reality (AR) project is engaged with moving people and bodies through space to different sites, to uncover different histories and to remind people, hopefully in a physical way, of the different ecological, social and economic systems that are all interconnected. The AR app is about people and bringing them to places, but through a technology. For that project in particular, we had a residency on Governor’s Island through Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and so we spent a lot of time going to the different sites on the island and figuring out the way we wanted to work with the technology. We realized the project would work better if we limited it to the space of Governors Island. Taking people through the city while they are looking through a device might be dangerous, and also we thought it was interesting to have the piece structured as a game, one that people could play over a shorter period of time. As we focused on sites around the island – Castle Williams, the abandoned swimming pool, the rest rooms at the Building 110 arts center, etc. – we developed ways to talk about the larger issues, like shoreline resiliency and water quality issues caused by Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) and sewage, that we had sited in Lower Manhattan.
There’s already a lot of activity around oyster restoration on Governor’s Island because of the Harbor School there—the high school is organized around marine stewardship and one of the tracks is aquaculture. Students are planting and tending oyster reefs as part of the Billion Oyster Project and working toward the health of the city estuary. But after working on our Oyster City app, we wanted to work with people in a different way, and the two projects complement each other well. Fish Stories is about interacting with people more directly, talking with them about something immediate—eating and food and the environment. And instead of focusing on all of Lower Manhattan and Governor’s Island, we’re focused on the East River Waterfront and the Lower East Side, which as Meredith mentioned, has a rich mix of cultures and has changed dramatically in recent decades–as the local ecosystem has also changed. How people eat and their attitude toward seafood reflects both who they are culturally, as well as how they are connected to the local environment and far away environments as well.
MD: As artists, we have been looking at ecological issues and ecological challenges facing our city. Specifically climate change and how that’s impacting the ecosystem as well as the built environment. Hurricane Sandy had such a huge impact on the communities of the Lower East Side. One of the approaches we’ve had as a team is looking at collectively created solutions. Oysters reefs are a creative and unusual form of soft infrastructure to help prevent flooding and also to improve the ecosystem. With Fish Stories, one of the threads of the Cookbook is the idea of citizens asking the government to pay more attention to cleaning the waterways and holding the industries and the systems responsible for making it polluted culpable. The Clean Water Act of 1972 says that all water should be fishable and swimmable and the East River is still far from that. Why is it not healthy to fish? Lots of people do, but we demand that it’s healthy enough to eat—children, pregnant women to eat—the fish that comes from that river.
RD: Spending time in the area along the waterfront, we observed many people fishing in the East River. Of course, people are eating the fish, feeding their families and selling it to local markets. Many people don’t think of fishing as an urban activity but it does happen here. We wanted to acknowledge it as a way that people feed themselves and survive.
MS: Yeah, and we would like for the common good of the waterway, as a way of sustenance, to be improved. We’d like to demand that the government pay attention to that as a common good—a resource that we should all share.
What was your process and methodology in collecting stories for the cookbook? How long did it take and what are some of the challenges you faced?
RS: We have been doing it in a lot of different ways. We set up workshops through different partners, reached out to other organizations, showed up at local festivals and events, and reached out to specific individuals that we identified through the community and different connections. We have forms on our website, in English, Chinese and Spanish, and we made up postcards people can send to our P.O. Box, but as you can imagine, you get the best results when you’re reaching out to people individually and spending time one on one. On the spot, people don’t necessarily remember what their recipes are and you want to build at least a minimal relationship with them so they want to give you a full recipe, not just the basic details. Of course, people are much more responsive if you’re an individual reaching out to them rather than “Here, fill out my website!” so I think the main challenge has been to make the time, to put in the time to do the process justice and to be able to capture a wide range of interactions with different people. We aren’t intending to make a sociological portrait, but we want to be sure to represent a wide range of residents living and working in the Lower East Side.
MD: I think we’ve had to become sort of oral historians, even though we’re not trained in that field and we’re not trained as sociologists. But probably the best recipes have come through sitting down with individuals and having them tell us the recipe and us transcribing it.
RS: It’s been amazing. I love talking to people so it has been amazing and definitely a time commitment.
Has participating in the Paths to Pier 42 project changed the way you think about or approach your work?
MD: I think it will. I’ve been really honored to be a part of Pier 42. I love being part of a project that’s so interdisciplinary. I appreciate the dialogue that this project has allowed, the dialogue with the other artists, the architect teams, and with the partners. We’ve both learned quite a lot from those dialogues. I’ve been approaching my work thinking about communities for a long time, and I think this is the most embedded experience I’ve had within a community. People place a lot of trust with the Paths to Pier 42 partners, so it’s not just Rachel and me coming to these organizations or these meetings. We come with the name Paths to Pier 42, and the great work that the organizations involved have done helps people to trust who we are and that’s very valuable. Because the kind of things that are happening in the Lower East Side – with people being pushed out due to high rents and gentrification – are very scary for a lot of people. So, as I’m interested in working with communities facing challenges, I think I will try to find groups such as Paths to Pier 42 to work with in the future.
RS: Like Meredith, I’ve also been interested in working with communities and with people as members of a collective body I think a lot about how people may (or may not) respond to forms of art practice, and learned a lot from the process of showing up and sharing our ideas with people to see if they are interested in participating. For me, the most abiding experience of working with Paths to Pier 42, is that it’s been an incredible honor to be welcomed to the community of the partners and then by extension, invited into other communities that we don’t interact with every day. It gives me a sense of inspiration to see that these organizations such as HSC, LMCC, LESEC and TBNC, are doing the type of work that they do, supporting local communities and supporting artists. It has been a gift to be invited by them and their willingness to collaborate with us – to let us know about local events or invite us to meet with people. That has been inspiring.
What is your favorite moment or anecdote from this project?
RS: It’s not a specific anecdote, it’s a having this specific framework to come into contact with people and hearing their stories. Just showing up at the Vladic Houses family day was a really amazing experience, invited to a space I normally won’t spend time in where the people I spent time with are so interesting. One woman gave me a really great Jerk Red Snapper recipe that comes from the Carribean and just generosity of people to share their recipe, their culture and their time is really inspiring. This other time at the Mulberry Street Library, a lady talked to me for a long time about Jewish fish recipes and starting her knish business and different fish mongers that she’s liked. And hearing the story of someone whose father works at the Essex Street market and had been one of the original residents. Just being able to spend time one on one and hear their experience is really amazing.
MD: Those are great, Rachel. I just have one more and that’s when early on we did a workshop with Hamilton Madison House and Phillip Li was our coordinator at the senior center and he was our translator. And there was a large room with Rachel, Phillip and me with 15-20 seniors of Hamilton Madison House and none of the seniors spoke English so Phillip was our translator. And it was really incredible, and he was so amazing, such a vibrant human being and everyone was so excited to talk about seafood in relation to their life. Their lives in China and their lives here and cooking and how that relates to their family. And it was a very exciting translation, we were videotaping it because the translation was happening so quickly. And just looking back at that footage and the excitement I felt there to have the ability to talk across generations and cultures and language barrier was just amazing.
Please contribute your recipes and stories!
ONLINE RECIPE FORM: www.fishstories.nyc/submit/
SNAIL MAIL: Fish Stories Community Cookbook, PO Box 117, New York, NY 10272
“Making of Paths to Pier 42″ is a series of interviews with the artists and designers behind the creation of the Pier 42 park.