Update: The DC Department of the Environment has decided not to allow the sculpture in the Anacostia due to environmental concerns.
Would a sunken gas station in the Anacostia, a piece of public art, spark discussion around climate change or hinder other environmental restoration in DC? A coalition of Anacostia River advocates is opposing installation of this sculpture in the river.
Watercolor of the proposed Antediluvian. Image from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
Antediluvian, by Canadian artist Mia Feuer, would be a replica of a gas station that appears to be partly submerged in the river. Feuer proposes placing the piece near Kingman Island, within view of commuters on the East Capitol Street bridge.
Feuer hopes to stir conversation and action about climate change, but the project has drawn a different kind of controversy. United for a Healthy Anacostia River, a coalition of environmental and recreation groups working on Anacostia River restoration, is asking the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to withdraw support for the project, saying it will undermine a push to change the public’s perception of the river.
We “have been working for years to change the image and the reality of the Anacostia River from a badly polluted eyesore and public heath hazard dividing the District of Columbia to an invaluable 21st Century recreation and economic asset for the region,” says the letter. In recent years advocates have been working to undo the notion of the “forgotten river,” in hopes of tearing down the proverbial yellow tape and inviting more people to personally experience the river and its restoration.
Stephanie Sherman, the curator who chose Antediluvian to exhibit in DC, said, “We are in support of the ecology and landscape and in no way ever intended to disparage this part of nature.”
But others disagree.
Charles Allen, the Democratic nominee for the Ward 6 seat on the DC Council, said, “My concern is about the location in the Anacostia River — not the art project itself. I think the artist is attempting to highlight a very real, and very important, issue regarding the damaging effects of climate change. My concern is that sinking a gas station in the Anacostia sends exactly the wrong message about all of the incredibly hard work over the last few years to begin rebuilding the health of the River.”
"As someone who has been using art to try and shift perceptions of the river, this project sends all the wrong messages,” said Krista Schlyer, a Mount Rainier photographer. “People already view the Anacostia as a polluted lost cause. It isn’t — it’s filled with wild creatures, unique plant communities and amazing places of respite and recreation for people.
"The river has challenges, significant ones. But I think part of the reason why we haven’t made more progress toward honoring the mandate of the Clean Water Act is because people have given up on the Anacostia—and a half-sunken gas station in the middle of it is not going to help.”
How about the Potomac?
While it might be logistically easier to place the sculpture in the Anacostia, it could have a much more effective message in the Potomac River.
More people cross that river every day, including more members of Congress and other policymakers. So do more tourists, members of the news media, and other people who should be a greater part of the conversation around climate change.
The Potomac does flow faster, and the federal government is more protective of viewsheds in the Potomac. But for many reasons, the Potomac is more of a national river while the Anacostia is more of a local one, and climate change is a national (and global) issue.
Could the project harm the environment?
Sherman says the project will have “no impact on the environment,” but that is not clear. The District Department of the Environment just last week began a months-long project to sample the sediment and water, known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals like PCBs. Results from the sampling will inform a plan to clean up the sediment.
The area of the river proposed for the art installation has never been sampled, says Richard Jackson, Acting Associate Director of the DDOE Environmental Services Administration. While the artwork will be tethered to Kingman Island and will float, Jackson is concerned: “Any disturbance could skew the sampling results.”
DDOE has not yet received a permit application from the artist.
In a statement, DCCAH Executive Director Lionell Thomas said the artwork is still under review. “As the DCCAH moved through the process of implementation, we learned from the community that there are environmental concerns,” the statement reads. “As responsible stewards, the DCCAH is working to address those concerns to ensure that we do not disturb the Anacostia River’s ecosystem.”
"I’ve got nothing against the artist or her message,” said Doug Siglin, Executive Director of UHAR. “A lot more people need to get a grip on climate change before it’s too late. But people also need to get a grip on what belongs in the Anacostia River and what doesn’t. Here are five things that don’t belong there: Toxic chemicals. Trash. Excrement of any kind. Oil and gas. And mock gas stations.”
I reached out to the artist for input but have not yet heard back.
Disclosure: I previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society and created the Rediscover Your Anacostia messaging campaign, which aims to get residents to celebrate and appreciate the Anacostia River.