Where does your water come from? For the past year, artist Mary Mattingly has partnered with the nonprofit organization More Art on an expansive project called “Public Water” to help New York City residents learn more about the systems that provide the five boroughs with clean drinking water — collectively referred to as the New York City watershed. This summer, the project has culminated in an outdoor sculpture installation and audio tour at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.
Matttingly’s project is rooted in a question: what exactly is public water? In economics, a public good is one that benefits all members of society. Conceptually, it never dwindles in supply as more people consume it and remains available to all. Given the necessity of water for life, some activists frame water access as a human right. However, in practice, water systems deviate from this conceptual ideal, as users must pay into the system for access, and at times are denied access for failing to make payment. Recently, many local and state governments have opted to privatize their water systems, leaving water management in the hands of private actors who may be motivated by profit over public interest.
Early in life, Mattingly experienced the fragility of water systems and the potential negative consequences of privatization. She grew up in a small, agricultural town right outside the New York watershed, in Connecticut near the border with Springfield, Massachusetts, where the drinking water was polluted by agricultural practices. Following the later privatization of the local water system, prices increased, making it difficult for some to afford drinking water. These experiences informed Mattingly’s focus on how to create more equitable and sustainable public water systems.
Positioned just inside one of the park’s entrances at Grand Army Plaza, Mattingly’s sculpture “Public Water: Watershed Core” (2021) acts as a microcosm of the Prospect Park watershed. The sculpture consists of a towering geodesic dome sitting atop an unadorned wooden platform. Within its metal armature, the structure is covered in native plantings which are sustained by a gravity-fed water system, mimicking the watershed in the way it captures and distributes rainfall. However, much like the Prospect Park watershed, the sculpture is not self-sustaining. In our age of record heat waves and droughts, it is no surprise that the plants need “to be constantly looked at and cared for,” as Mattingly explained to Hyperallergic. Tellingly, this better approximates the human intervention in contemporary watersheds, like how Prospect Park, an artificial landscape itself, draws on both the city’s water system (which can be turned on like a tap) and its own man-made reservoirs and ponds which naturally catch and redistribute rainfall and snowmelt. Through its fragility and need for care, the sculpture also illustrates our interdependency with our environment. According to Mattingly, “we’re not separate from the ecosystem.”
The workings of “Public Water: Watershed Core” are similarly inextricable from the larger New York watershed — a massive system drawing from the Croton, Catskill, and Delaware watersheds, which provides approximately 1.2 billion gallons of drinking water per year. If you turn on a tap in Brooklyn, this massive ecological system and those who work to support it are not visible to you as you fill up your glass. “I keep wanting to think about those relationships as life partnerships where, as New Yorkers, we don’t really know who our life partners […] all are,” Mattingly notes, “but they are all caring for our well being.” “Public Water” aims to create conversations and build connections between stewards and users of the watershed, particularly between urban residents and those who live at the watershed’s sources.
Across multiple formats, Mattingly’s project provides crucial historical context and critical resources about New York City’s water system and reminds visitors to the park of the complexity and fragility of that system. By giving people these tools, Mattingly hopes to spark conversation about how to protect and improve water access for all.
Mary Mattingly’s “Public Water” continues online and in person at the Grand Army Plaza entrance of Prospect Park (Brooklyn) through September 7. The project is presented by More Art, in partnership with Prospect Park Alliance, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, and Brooklyn Public Library.