A quick jaunt to New York City this weekend brought me to the Brooklyn Bridge to check out the city's latest public art project, the "New York City Waterfalls" by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson. The piece features four waterfalls suspended only by steel scaffolding and a system of pumps, which suck up water from the East River and send it tumbling down from heights of 90 to 120 feet, almost as tall as the Statue of Liberty. The falls put a little piece of upstate in Manhattan and, according to Eliasson, are intended to get New Yorkers to slow down and notice things around them, natural or otherwise. "I am not trying to bring nature to the city," Eliasson told the New Yorker. "It's a kind of counter-numbness project."
The project, funded by the Public Art Fund and the City of New York, is quite green. Its electricity is 100 percent offset by renewable energy sources, it uses energy-saving LED lights, and it has special filters in place to ensure that fish and river life can't get caught in the pumps.
For expensive public art projects (the waterfalls cost $15.5 million), sustainability will become increasingly important and may determine what projects make it off the drawing board and into our cities. People on the committees of public art funds nationwide, whether they're choosing a mural in a small town or a project on the scale of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's "The Gates," are, in essence, selecting what the public can enjoy. With money and influence at their disposal, these funds will face more pressure to choose projects that are green and sustainable in addition to aesthetically pleasing (well, not in everyone's eyes—with public art, anyone can be a critic).
In a master's thesis, Elizabeth Bostwick points out the influence that artists have through public art projects. She finds that for public art projects, going green would not create excessive work. Public art projects often get a lot of attention (the waterfalls have gotten international press, and when "The Gates" went up, the New York Parks Department estimated that a million people came to see them). Why not package a message of sustainability with the art? At the same time, if only artists with sustainable messages got funding for large-scale projects, it would stifle a lot of artistic voices. Public art funds walk a fine line.
Blogger Chocolaterobot also brought up an interesting point—so many of our natural attractions do not come with free admission. There are entrance fees for Niagara Falls and many other natural wonders. These fees help maintain facilities and support park programs, but it's ironic that natural Niagara charges a fee, while the man-made, $15.5 million Eliasson falls can be seen free of charge—from afar, at least. Chocolaterobot points out that charter boats will charge you for a close-up waterfalls tour, and have capitalized on the green nature of the falls while not being very green themselves.
All of this is for naught, though, if the waterfalls don't make an impact on their viewers. Water, water everywhere—but will they stop to think?