Artists

3-Hour Tour: Hunting the Elusive Oyster Island With Artist Marie Lorenz Aboard the Staten Island Ferry

Oyster Island, photographed through a pair of binoculars.

JEFF WILLIAMS

This past Monday, I found myself in the lobby of the Manhattan terminal of the Staten Island Ferry, just steps away from a rare outpost of the nearly extinct fast-food chain Arthur Treacher’s, which is British-themed. Elusiveness happened to be the theme of the day. I was with a group of around a dozen assembled for an unusual site visit, guided by the artist Marie Lorenz, that would involve the ferry being used to attempt to observe Oyster Island, a tiny sliver of land in the New York Harbor that is only visible when the tide is at its lowest. The afternoon was part of “It’s a Trap,” a multi-month program of events staged by the shipping container-cum-curatorial project Where, which is run by the curator Lucy Hunter and the artist Raphael Lyon.

“Everybody was freaking out about the moon two weeks ago,” Lorenz told me before we departed. She was referring to the most recent supermoon, which had appeared on January 20 and 21. She explained that, since the moon was now in its invisible new-moon phase, its effect on Earth was actually more pronounced than it had been two weeks earlier. “It’s influencing a huge amount of tidal force on the planet, it’s sort of drawing all the water on the globe toward the middle,” she said. One result of this is the lowest tide of the year in New York Harbor. “Today, at 2:23 or something is the best possibility to actually see it,” Lorenz said, referring to Oyster Island. Thus the ferry ride. 

“And if we don’t, we warned you!” Lyon cut in, an allusion to Where’s ongoing program of events, which are all in some way connected to the idea of tricks and traps. (Shortly after that remark, Lorenz admitted, “Tomorrow’s actually the lowest lowest tide, but I have to work tomorrow.”)

Lorenz has a long history working in the nautical arts. Her ongoing Tide and Current Taxi project, which she started in 2005, provides rowboat taxi service to places throughout New York, and her 2012 exhibition at the Lower East Side gallery Jack Hanley consisted of videos of solo trips around the city’s waterways in a homemade boat, next to objects found during her journeys.

At the ferry’s entrance, a security guard saw the group taking photos and, assuming there was a film shoot in progress, asked for a permit, only to be told that something very different was afoot. “Red Red Wine” by UB40 played out of an Aunt Annie’s pretzel stall as we waited in line.

After boarding the ferry, the group headed to the upper deck, which was crowded and full of Europeans looking at the Statue of Liberty, a landmark that was a lot easier to see than Oyster Island. I struggled to make out the island—which was marked on some maps many years ago, before being lost to time—until I borrowed some binoculars. Even then, and even with patient instruction, it was hard to figure out what I was looking at. Lyon compared the viewing process to that of a Magic Eye book, which makes sense because I was never very good at those, either.

“All the birds are hanging out on it. It’s going to be covered in shit,” Hunter said. 

“It just looks like a bunch of rocks, with some bird poop on it,” Lyon said.

A missed connection on the Staten Island end of the ride forced the group to post up in the terminal for around a half-hour. Some bought beers and drank them out of paper bags. Others delighted in watching birds drink out of a water fountain. The ride back provided another opportunity for viewing, plus a briefing from Hunter and Lyon on Where’s current program of events. 

The project started in 2014 in an anything-goes shipping container in Bushwick and has since morphed into a variety of other endeavors. After a hiatus, the shipping container is back, twice as big and located on Randolph Street, again in Bushwick. The “It’s a Trap” program is spread out around the city and includes, among other things, a piece in the bathroom of the Williamsburg bar Union Pool by the artist Jessie Stead (who was on hand for the ferry ride) and a screening by the artist Devin Kenny at the Bushwick space Wendy’s Subway. A publication spearheaded by Hunter and Lyon serves as a guide to the many events.

Back in Manhattan, spirits were high. “I kind of can’t believe that we saw it,” Lorenz said. Lyon agreed. “It was a shattering success,” he said of the day, though he tacitly acknowledged the island’s almost complete lack of visibility. “Disappointing people is one of the many perks of working at Where,” he said dryly.

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