Entering the storied New York institution known as the Explorers Club on a grey weekday afternoon, I was first greeted by not just the Upper East Side townhouse’s signature dark wood interior but also the droning noise of what almost sounded like some sort of computerized whale crying for help. The sonics—care of the old-school electronic musician Peter Zinovieff, who manipulated hydrophone recordings of blue whales recorded by oceanographer Susie Buchan—were part of “A Contemporary Exploration,” a two-day transdisciplinary ocean-focused symposium presented by TBA-21 Academy and the Explorers Club. TBA21-Academy is an enterprise led by arts patron Francesca Von Habsburg and her Vienna, Austria-based foundation Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary, and the symposium last week was presented as part of the first-ever United Nations Ocean Conference. For its part, the Explorers Club, founded in 1904, “promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air” around the world from its headquarters on East 70th Street.
The event’s first day presented a sprawling program that connected poets, scientists, artists, and politicians in an attempt to find new avenues of discourse around increasingly complex and fraught issues related to the seas. “We have very little time, and we have a very dense program,” Marcus Reymann, TBA21-Academy’s director, said in his opening remarks. He wasn’t kidding—the event took an expansive and kaleidoscopic approach very much in line with TBA21-Academy’s mission, which looks for new modes of collaboration across disparate platforms. Reymann also joked, to an audience assembled on a Monday afternoon: “I’m very happy to see that so few people work.”
Since its founding, the Explorers Club has served as a professional society with a focus on boosting research in various fields. Its taxidermy-intensive decor was captured in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Walking past a giant stuffed polar bear on the second floor, the heavily stylized club felt like an unusually exciting place for a conference. If nothing else, it sure beats the Marriott.
The afternoon flitted between panel discussions and lectures as well as more expressive poetry and sound-art. I’m no expert, but I would say that it’s probably rare for the lauded 99-year-old oceanographer Walter Monk to share a bill with Rosanna Raymond, a performance-artist and poet who dotted the afternoon with three high-energy interludes.
A conversation between the artist Mark Dion and the multi-hyphenate academic D. Graham Burnett titled “The Artist Through the History of Oceanography” was organized around a non-linear series of slideshow images volleyed rapidly back-and-forth between the two speakers. A few of the images selected: a photo of the Great Depression-era team of artists, writers, and scientists known as the Department of Tropical Research; a Victor Hugo sketch of the sea; and an illustrated diagram of an isolation tank that Burnett referred to as “one of the creepiest technoscientific apparatuses of the Cold War.” Burnett had a man bun and spoke of “forms of knowledge that emerge from a sort of Dionysian self-loss and self-recovery.” Dion was more conservatively cropped and shared his vision to cut an ocean trawler in half and create a sort of performance space inside a “bulldozer of the bottom of the ocean.” It was a sprawling chat that that embodied the spirit of the conference as a whole.
During one of the day’s three intermissions, I was gazing blankly out the second-floor window when I noticed a police-escorted SUV come to a stop at the front of the club. After a beat, a man with a short-sleeve shirt walked out of the black car. It was Tommy Esang Remengesau Jr., the president of the Republic of Palau, a small island country located in the western Pacific Ocean that has passed legislation to protect 80 percent of its waters, making it a world leader in regard to such practices. In a speech that followed legendary artist Joan Jonas discussing a piece she made for the 2015 Venice Biennale, Remengesau Jr. addressed, among other concerns, America’s current political reality. “I’ll be as polite as I can,” he said. “Despite recent developments, the world must go on. We must go on.”
After that, I briefly made a stop in the club’s lounge, where some were drinking cocktails in leather chairs and one person was fiddling with an LED party-light in the corner. There was also a large display centered on a “virtual reality experience” called Valen’s Reef, which, by way of Oculus technology, takes the viewer diving with West Papuan coral-reef scientist Ronald Mambrasar. As I watched a participant interface with the device, a colleague filled me in on a recent New York Times article about Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, a Trump supporter whose most recent project—a virtual border wall that he is considering selling to the current administration—is reportedly garnering interest from Founders Fund, an investment firm run by the noted libertarian and climate change skeptic Peter Thiel. Not sure what to make of that, I left the Explorers Club and walked all the way down to Midtown to get a milkshake.