Permanence and Transience on Governors Island

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Project for the New American Century

They’re jokingly calling it ‘Staycation Island,’ or so says one of the PR people affiliated with Governors Island. And why not? In the summertime, it’s free to take the ferry there, and once you’re on the island, you can meander around the perimeter and gawk at the city skyline and the Statue of Liberty. Or you can leave the water behind (while still enjoying its breezes), immerse yourself in the island’s interior, and pretend you’re at any number of bucolic destinations much farther away than the 10-minute boat ride from Manhattan or Brooklyn.

Listen to our Morning Edition story on the island's new art installation and check out a slideshow, after the jump.

It’s part old -- there's still 18th century structures standing -- and part modern, with many 1960s and 70s buildings slated for toppling. It’s part city and part state, not to mention part federal. And it’s part future and part . . . well, actually, it’s been a little stuck in the present and past for a good few years. There have been countless exercises to envision a plan for the future, but no definitive plan yet. That’s slated to change this summer, when the influential urban design firm West 8 is supposed to release a master plan that will guide development for at least part of the island – 40 of its 172 acres. Financing all of it is a different challenge in these recessionary times, but one thing at a time.

In the meantime, there have been a number of ad hoc plans and projects on Governors Island, many of them focused on the arts. Cultural activities, and even institutions, are slowly and steadily finding a home there. From a “Burning Man”-like hootenanny to an artist-designed miniature golf course to musical concerts and dance performances and workshops for kids and long-term artists’ studios set to open in a renovated historic building – there’s more than a little momentum.

The latest is “Plot ’09: This World and Nearer Ones,” by the local arts collective Creative Time. The loosely connected series of 19 installations is set in the landscape and buildings of Governors Island, and also out on the water – and even in headphones, care of a musical score by Patti Smith and her pianist daughter, Kim, intended to accompany island-hoppers as they walk or bike around.

What’s the common denominator?

It’s tough to say. Many are studies in the tension between permanence and transience. In one, beams of light behave like Richard Serra’s torqued steel, and in another, found materials from soon-to-be-razed barracks spell out “Project for the New American Century” in large letters.

The installations mostly blend into the setting, and there will be those who wander by exhibits without noticing and those who set out to take them all in. It will be difficult to predict who enjoys what. I’m no connoisseur of horror films, but I fell for a short mockumentary about an all-consuming kids game that goes horribly awry, a la The Blair Witch Project. We only caught part of it on the press tour, but I’m looking forward to getting back there on a nice sunny day this summer, finding my way to the mostly anonymous brick building, making my way down into the basement, and watching the rest.