Underneath the usual sound of honking cars and seagull calls in downtown New Bedford, Massachusetts, a soft rumbling can be heard from Swain Gallery at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Visual and Performing Arts.
The source of the noise is one of three exhibits in “WATER 2021,” the latest show by the Massachusetts Design and Technology Institute (DATMA).
DATMA, a non-collecting contemporary art institute in New Bedford is known for bringing public art displays to the city. With “WATER 2021,” DATMA shows three exhibits that explore the role of water in the histories, cultures and economies of several countries and the South Coast of Massachusetts.
“WATER 2021” consists of “280 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 13″ x 13″ x 13″, 2011/2021,” by Swiss artist, Zimoun; Hyung S. Kim’s, Phil Mello’s, and Craig Easton’s photo series in “Harvesters of the Deep: Portraits of Fisherwomen from South Korea, America, and the United Kingdom”; and “Sea Scallops: Sentinels of the Deep,” a collaborative project between DATMA and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth’s School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST).
“Harvesters of the Deep,” has six outdoor kiosks, three on Union Street and three along the waterfront, each with photos and text that tell the story of fisherwomen in Scotland, New Bedford, and on Jeju Island in South Korea.
The fisherwomen from Jeju Island, known as Haenyeo, stand out. Their government issued wetsuits are decorated with colorful vests, button down shirts and stitching to set them apart from other similarly dressed women who swim the waters of the Korea Strait looking for pearls, octopi and other sea life.
For Lindsay Miś, DATMA’s executive director, a “herring lassie” from Aberdeen, Scotland, named Daiva stands out.
“She’s posed like a ballerina,” said Miś is a phone interview. “But at the same time, she’s wearing a giant rubber apron … and then she’s holding fish that probably, are like, 30 pounds each in each hand. But she’s posed like she’s ready to perform on stage … She makes that dense, cold, wet, slippery, heavy fish look really light.”
In Daiva, Miś sees a woman who is proud of the hard work she does. The pride in hard work and in the strength that comes from working and living alongside the sea ties together these three distinct cultures of working women.
As one moves up Union Street, away from the fisherwomen, the second exhibit of “WATER 2021” comes into view. “Sea Scallops: Sentinels of the Deep.” On banners, photos depict the Atlantic sea floor and the scientists from SMAST who’s research helped revitalize the scalloping industry in New Bedford.
Finally, at the top of Union Street are the ticking cotton balls of Zimoun’s installation.
Made from parts shipped from Switzerland and cardboard boxes shipped from Connecticut is “280 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 13″ x 13″ x 13″, 2011/2021.”
A room-spanning wall of 280 cardboard boxes, each being drummed by a cotton ball fills the small space with a sound not unlike the rumbling of a base-heavy concert.
The taps of the cotton balls fade into a comforting white noise and the gallery starts to feel smaller and cozier than before. With this comfort comes an ability to focus on the movements of the piece.
“In my installation, what you hear is what you see, and what you see is what you hear,” said Zimoun in a DATMA press release. “The sound isn’t more important than the visual elements, nor the other way around, as both are the same.”
The swinging cotton balls are as mesmerizing as the sound they create. Like a highway with cars travelling at different speeds, the balls bounce quickly, slowly, or some not at all.
The spectacle of Zimoun’s installation ties together the artistic and technological aspects of DATMA’s mission.
“I consider downtown New Bedford to be my gallery,” said Miś. “If you take your own personal exhibition tour, whether you start at the top or the bottom of the hill, it tells a really great narrative, and you can transition well from one show to the other.”
By using the city streets as her gallery, Miś hopes that WATER 2021 activates spaces that have sat dormant over the past year.
“You’ll notice that the exhibitions are not really gathering devices,” said Miś. “Instead, they’re place making and place-keeping devices. And they’re put in the heart of downtown because we want people to come back to the city and get away from their computer screens.”
From the fisherwomen of the world to the SMAST researchers, to the drone of Zimoun’s installation, “WATER 2021” invites visitors to engage with both artwork and downtown New Bedford in a way that takes them off the beaten path.
(DATMA’s “WATER 2021” is on display from June 17 – Oct. 17 throughout downtown New Bedford. “280 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes 13″ x 13″ x 13″, 2011/2021” is on display outdoors through Sept. 13 at the UMass Dartmouth CVPA Star Store Swain Gallery at 715 Purchase Street in New Bedford. From Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., visitors can reserve a timed ticket for indoor gallery access by registering at DATMA.org.)