All Aboard for Art in Eastie

Boston Foundation staff ship out to the ICA Watershed

June 13, 2019

By Julia Howard, Communications Associate

Just 15 minutes of travel by sea and by land and visitors to the ICA Watershed have arrived at their destination.

ICA boat

In 2018 the Institute of Contemporary Art opened its doors to its satellite museum, the ICA Watershed in the East Boston Shipyard, which is owned by the Massachusetts Port Authority. A driver behind the expansion was to give people the opportunity to see more art on an intimate scale and do so in their own front-yard.  Another goal, was to have this museum be an interactive space, a “catalyst for conversation and engagement” for artists and patrons, explained Eva Respini, the ICA’s Barbara Lee Chief Curator. 

The museum is in a resurrected copper pipe and sheet metal factory, and the history is not lost upon entering the vast space. As visitors walk through the open entryway, ghosts of the past remain fixtures in the architecture. Look down and see the rims of train tracks that create ridges in the floor. Look around and up to see the worn brick intersect with steel scaffolding and a cloud of illuminated jerrycans, which are a part of the season’s feature exhibit. 

This year the ICA Watershed invited world-renowned filmmaker and artist, John Akomfrah, make the U.S. premiere of Purple, a 62-minute film that weaves together archival and new footage from places across the planet, and focuses on the implications of climate change. Footage is shot from many perspectives including the front-yard that many visitors cross to access the Watershed. Respini explained that, “the film confronts the issue of climate change from a philosophical perspective, questioning what is morally and ethically at stake if human beings continue to exploit the planet. The Watershed’s coastal and industrial location provides a powerful backdrop for visitors to explore these subjects.”

ICA Watershed Jerrycans

When artists are invited to present a work of art, the ICA is looking for one that is “immersive, ambitious and commissions a new experience,” said Respini. Akomfrah does just that in his haunting and poetic film. As patrons settle into the large couches or giant pillows in the theater they are instantly immersed in footage across six wide screens that bring up ghosts of the past, as well as confront uncomfortable truths of the present. 

Though Purple acknowledges the ecological toll of humans on the environment, the curators hope that it also will inspire action on a local and global scale. The ICA Education team worked with the City of Boston and Climate Ready Boston to display maps of the city that illustrate the impacts of sea level rise over the next several decades. Driving the point home that no matter what lens we view this issue through artist, scientist, journalist—the implications are real.

To complement these calls for action, the exhibit concludes with two pieces that connect the themes on a different, hopeful, human level. The first was created by ICA Teens. Called, A Community in Focus: East Boston, it includes digital portraits of East Boston life. The student photographers, many of whom are from East Boston, spent a year venturing out into the community and photographing humans and spaces. By the end of the project many considered themselves “East Boston Ambassadors.” The second piece, Acqui y alla: juntos a la mesa (Here and there: together at the table) by artist Evelyn Rydz is a collaboration with Kannan Thiruvengada, Eastie Farm’s Director. Visitors are encouraged to take a seat at a live table, where edible plants are sprouting up, put on headphones and listen to women Rydz recorded at some of her communal meals—sharing the memories attached to the food they brought to the table. 

ICA Shuttle on Harbor
Photo: Julia Howard

All aboard!

A first-hand account by Julia Howard

As visitors hand the attendant their ticket, and step into the vibrant yellow, checkerboard lined water taxi, the motor starts to rev.

It’s now departure time and the captain pulls the lines and the boat is off.

Heads peer out the window (there really isn’t a bad seat to be had), and take in the 360 degree view of Boston Harbor.

Passengers get whiffs of the sea; the lucky ones get a spritz to the face, while being protected from the wet or hot elements above with the boat covering.

The arrival at the dock comes as a surprise to all: too soon! But fear not, the captain reminds all passengers that there is the return trip!

Pleased with that reminder, passengers disembark, and wind their way up the ramp to Piers Park.

An attendant at the top of the ramp directs folks. The road takes visitors to a shipyard, although one of the factory buildings stands out.

It is three-dimensional and an illuminated section that juts out from the warehouse has large block letters that spell out ICA Watershed.

ICA Watershed

Both of these interactive artworks are illustrations of just two of the many partnerships and collaborations the ICA Watershed has fostered with the East Boston community. In addition to exhibitors, the Watershed has been working with schools, the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center and the youth arts nonprofit ZUMIX to encourage use of the space and create special events to boost public engagement with other local business.   

The ICA Watershed opened Memorial Day weekend and will stay open through Labor Day. Admission is free. If you chose to go by sea to the Watershed, water taxi tickets can be purchased online, in-person at the Box Office at the ICA main building or at the Watershed on a first-come, first-serve basis; if you decide to make it a double feature museum day, water taxi tickets are free with your ICA admission. The Boston Foundation is a proud supporter of the ICA, and last year made a three-year, $300,000 grant to support the Watershed and the water taxi that connects the two museums.