2011 floating garden island—an alternative to the prison barge

floating garden island—an alternative to the prison barge




Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses, Greg Sholette: a collaborative project for the Panorama of the City of New York, Queens Museum, New York

Dear Greg,

In thinking about your invitation to imagine an island for New York two things immediately came to mind. The first was the surprise I experienced when by chance I encountered Smithson’s floating island being dragged down the East River as I bicycled over the Williamsburg Bridge several years ago. And the second was the prison barge that was parked not that far further down the river that I would take note of on my daily commute over that same bridge day after day around the same time—it, thankfully, no longer occupies that space. Both of these were similar in that they were islands and they were extraordinary, each on their own terms. But also they each reflected a particular passivity in that they were ‘unproductive’. The Smithson island was a self-contained displacement of natural fauna that simply floated by whereas it might have been an accessible garden; the prison barge remained a desperate holding pen rather than embodying a space with some inkling of hope. For the imaginary island project I would like to propose a combined hybrid of the two—a floating ‘food producing’ garden organized and maintained by inmates.

What does it say about a society when the prison industrial complex is one of the few growth industries, not to mention the fact that it was ever permitted to develop into an industrial scale. I propose an experiment based on a different form of growth, one that rejects a narrative of collective human misery, replacing this narrative with the model of the garden: a space where things are tended to, nurtured, where life affirming growth is sustained. Operating on the level of an actual food producing garden, but also as a metaphor for ‘the tending to and caring of’, it is antithetical to the standardized prison narrative. This is not a plantation island—rather an autonomous zone of cooperative self-sustaining production. All produce harvested beyond the needs of the island complex will be gifted to the estranged community from which members of the cooperative have come.

This is a roving untethered island complex that follows a predetermined community based path through the waterways of the city, secured and anchored only in the evenings. I propose a modular system of barge-like structures (cost-effective recycled barges a possibility) that can be added to or subtracted from depending on circumstance and need. When stationary the structure will take the form of a circling with a central organizational core (think wagon train). This circular arrangement can be opened to form an on the move linear formation as the garden moves from one place to another during the day. The containers are filled with earth and planted with a variety of produce. There will be space set aside which provides basic facilities for living while on the floating garden; this being allocated to a central container with small separate living quarters (like on a houseboat). Communal facilities are provided by another centrally located container, consisting of cooking facilities and a generous meeting space. The meeting place, an open air arena, serves as the cooperative center of the entire garden complex. Differently from the control hub of the prison panopticon this structure will model the town square at it’s center; a space of inclusion and participation rather than exclusion and control. The overall structure emanates out from this participatory core—circular by design, circular in intention—one might consider this a spiritual center rather than a design of authoritarian control.

The participants are chosen through lottery (that excludes only those charged with heinous violent criminal offense). As an alternative to incarceration, participation is based on the wellbeing of the community within which each individual is responsible for his or her input. It is a community based on the agency of the individual as opposed to the punishment model of passive submission. The community will flourish proportionally to the engagement of it’s members. The community functions on a basis of mutual cooperation and concern; at its core is the element of trust. If that trust is breached by an individual he or she will be by community consensus sent back from where they came and the next in line in the lottery will be welcomed into the cooperative space.

This is no ‘animal farm’, nor ‘lord of the flies’.

As operation continues to shift the focus from a punishment model to one addressing social difficulties as a public health problem, it provides a work/study model as an alternative to incarceration. The central square provides a meeting place fostering discussions on constructive models of engagement. The participants use their experience as a valuable basis, not to be discarded, but rather to be reevaluated. The cooperative process provides a space for the imagination that can accommodate both the dissident and controversial voice or the quiet restrained the voice that is rarely heard. This is a space within which one listens—the listening becoming an equal partner in this equation. There is no hierarchical structure, other than one based necessarily on individual skills—all voices are equal.


Funding for this floating participatory space is provided from the amount invested in the standard imprisonment model—each participator brings to the operating budget from the state what is customarily used for his or her imprisonment. Over time this will provide an excess in financing, it will become clear a cooperative model of mutual engagement is a much more cost effective model. The monies saved can be diverted into public education. One might imagine this as a win win proposition: the community gets fresh local produce, the inmates enjoy their work and feel they are re-participating in their community in a supportive way, public schools can begin to imagine enrichment programs as funds are re-diverted into the communities most effected by the standard model of incarceration and, finally, the general public will see the floating gardens as they pass by on the waterways. Over time as the gardens flourish and become spectacular to behold (as the best of the community gardens have become) the public may begin to welcome the people whose labor has made this possible.

As the success of this model becomes obvious public officials will be invited to open forums to participate in discussion directed towards alternative to the standard punishment model of the prison system. Eventually open public events can be held. The barges dock and the families and people from the neighborhood board. A homegrown feast is served with entertainment provided my members of the collective. There are no weapons. There is no need for guards.

Commutation of sentences and positively reinforced reintegration into the community is the eventual goal of the project.

thanks for the invite

Fifteen Islands for Robert Moses  link >