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A sunken gas station sculpture sends the wrong message about the Anacostia River

Update: The DC Department of the Environment has decided not to allow the sculpture in the Anacostia due to environmental concerns.

Would a sunken gas station in the Anacostia, a piece of public art, spark discussion around climate change or hinder other environmental restoration in DC? A coalition of Anacostia River advocates is opposing installation of this sculpture in the river.

Watercolor of the proposed Antediluvian. Image from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Antediluvian, by Canadian artist Mia Feuer, would be a replica of a gas station that appears to be partly submerged in the river. Feuer proposes placing the piece near Kingman Island, within view of commuters on the East Capitol Street bridge.

Feuer hopes to stir conversation and action about climate change, but the project has drawn a different kind of controversy. United for a Healthy Anacostia River, a coalition of environmental and recreation groups working on Anacostia River restoration, is asking the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to withdraw support for the project, saying it will undermine a push to change the public's perception of the river.

We "have been working for years to change the image and the reality of the Anacostia River from a badly polluted eyesore and public heath hazard dividing the District of Columbia to an invaluable 21st Century recreation and economic asset for the region," says the letter. In recent years advocates have been working to undo the notion of the "forgotten river," in hopes of tearing down the proverbial yellow tape and inviting more people to personally experience the river and its restoration.

Stephanie Sherman, the curator who chose Antediluvian to exhibit in DC, said, "We are in support of the ecology and landscape and in no way ever intended to disparage this part of nature."

But others disagree.

Charles Allen, the Democratic nominee for the Ward 6 seat on the DC Council, said, "My concern is about the location in the Anacostia River—not the art project itself. I think the artist is attempting to highlight a very real, and very important, issue regarding the damaging effects of climate change. My concern is that sinking a gas station in the Anacostia sends exactly the wrong message about all of the incredibly hard work over the last few years to begin rebuilding the health of the River."

"As someone who has been using art to try and shift perceptions of the river, this project sends all the wrong messages," said Krista Schlyer, a Mount Rainier photographer. "People already view the Anacostia as a polluted lost cause. It isn't—it's filled with wild creatures, unique plant communities and amazing places of respite and recreation for people.

"The river has challenges, significant ones. But I think part of the reason why we haven't made more progress toward honoring the mandate of the Clean Water Act is because people have given up on the Anacostia--and a half-sunken gas station in the middle of it is not going to help."

Photo of the Anacostia River used with permission from Krista Schlyer.

How about the Potomac?

While it might be logistically easier to place the sculpture in the Anacostia, it could have a much more effective message in the Potomac River.

More people cross that river every day, including more members of Congress and other policymakers. So do more tourists, members of the news media, and other people who should be a greater part of the conversation around climate change.

The Potomac does flow faster, and the federal government is more protective of viewsheds in the Potomac. But for many reasons, the Potomac is more of a national river while the Anacostia is more of a local one, and climate change is a national (and global) issue.

Could the project harm the environment?

Sherman says the project will have "no impact on the environment," but that is not clear. The District Department of the Environment just last week began a months-long project to sample the sediment and water, known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals like PCBs. Results from the sampling will inform a plan to clean up the sediment.

The area of the river proposed for the art installation has never been sampled, says Richard Jackson, Acting Associate Director of the DDOE Environmental Services Administration. While the artwork will be tethered to Kingman Island and will float, Jackson is concerned: "Any disturbance could skew the sampling results."

DDOE has not yet received a permit application from the artist.

In a statement, DCCAH Executive Director Lionell Thomas said the artwork is still under review. "As the DCCAH moved through the process of implementation, we learned from the community that there are environmental concerns," the statement reads. "As responsible stewards, the DCCAH is working to address those concerns to ensure that we do not disturb the Anacostia River's ecosystem."

"I've got nothing against the artist or her message," said Doug Siglin, Executive Director of UHAR. "A lot more people need to get a grip on climate change before it's too late. But people also need to get a grip on what belongs in the Anacostia River and what doesn't. Here are five things that don't belong there: Toxic chemicals. Trash. Excrement of any kind. Oil and gas. And mock gas stations."

I reached out to the artist for input but have not yet heard back.

Disclosure: I previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society and created the Rediscover Your Anacostia messaging campaign, which aims to get residents to celebrate and appreciate the Anacostia River.

Julie Lawson is director of Trash Free Maryland, a nonprofit creating lasting change to prevent trash pollution. She previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society, volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation, and was principal at Communication Visual, a design studio for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Takoma DC with her son Owen. 


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Of course, this will never happen. The NIMBY reaction -- gee, why not the Potomac instead? -- will grind this down.

But this is a particularly visually interesting concept with a very important message, as the artist intends.

The beauty of this art is that it's already succeeding in prompting debate.

That people will raise environmental issues (this floating work can be installed, I'll bet, with no environmental impact whatsoever), is a discussion worth having, since the environmental consequences of climate change are a zillion times order of magnitude.

by kob on Jul 18, 2014 12:09 pm • linkreport

Some ideas are just dumb, regardless if intent. This is one of them.

I'm not the artsy type, but in this case, I actually get it.

Keep it out of any river, unless it's a theme park imitation river.

How about immersed in a huge plexiglass container filled with solid blue-colored epoxy 8 feet deep (So the top would protrude like the rendering)? You could set that thing down anywhere. People could get up close and peer through the watery haze and maybe even see an attendant (mannequin) eternally filling up the tank of a gas guzzler sunk within its own self-induced watery grave.

Maybe I am artsy, after all.

Now that's art.

by The Truth™ on Jul 18, 2014 12:24 pm • linkreport

Why a sunken gas station, and not a makeshift statue, or replica monument?

A derelict gas station would not succeed at getting its point across b/c most passers by will think it's just Anacostia rubbish and that the river is still dirty.

Terrible idea.

by Brett on Jul 18, 2014 12:26 pm • linkreport

This is a very clever idea, but not every clever idea should be carried out, especially when doing so involves filling navigable waters if the United States, albeit slightly.

If some dry land were excavated to become part tidal wetland and partly navigable, this would be less objectionable. It would also be closer to the theme of rising sea level, which involves submerging dry land, not dumping stuff into our tidal waters.

But if it must go into a existing tidal waters if the District of Columbia, it should be placed in a part of DC about 50 feet from the Virginia shoreline because VA is a state that needs to get the message.

by JimT on Jul 18, 2014 12:26 pm • linkreport

Stick it in the Pentagon yacht basin lagoon. That's still DC waters there (Boundary Channel).

by iaom on Jul 18, 2014 12:45 pm • linkreport

A gas station sunk in the reflecting pool of the mall could make it live up to its name. People need to reflect on what these gas stations are doing to us all.

by The Truth™ on Jul 18, 2014 12:55 pm • linkreport

If you want the Anacostia to be less of a "forgotten river," this type of project can only help. It will bring more attention to the river.

by Steve on Jul 18, 2014 12:59 pm • linkreport

..or maybe make a smaller scale replica and stick it in the Tidal Basin which simulates sea level rise twice each day. I agree with Brett that iconic buildings make more sense than a generic gas station.

by JimT on Jul 18, 2014 1:00 pm • linkreport

I thought that the gas station was an integral part of the statement about climate change.

by The Truth™ on Jul 18, 2014 1:11 pm • linkreport

I would urge the Anacostia watershed groups to support this for these reasons:

1. As @Steve points out, it will draw more attention to the Anacostia. The installation attract kayakers and others. It may prompt more recreation use. It will create a destination.

2. This isn't a permanent installation. It's temporary, for sure.

3. Consider the consequences of climate change on the Anacostia within the context of where we live. This is Washington DC, the nexus of a massive campaign to keep Congress from taking action on climate change. The environment, and people, will suffer tremendously from congressional inaction.

4. Recognize that the opponents of this public art, especially if they are part of the watershed community, will succeed in killing this effort, if that's what they want. Public art almost always faces an uphill battle, often insurmountable, because of the complex set of issues it brings, not the least, the "what is art" question. Anacostia watershed groups should recognize that they are in the position of power, not a lone artists. This art isn't being imposed on them.

5. Instead of being a opponent of the art, become its patron, its supporter, its backer and consider how an effective climate change response might protect not only this watershed but everything else. The Anacostia watershed community has the opportunity to participate in something rare and important, and one that it should embrace.

This art may get national attention and with it so will a message that will certainly benefit the Anacostia.

by kob on Jul 18, 2014 1:36 pm • linkreport

It's integral to one wsy of presenting the message, and also integral to misconstruing the point as being "this river is a toxic waste site."

You could just as easily snd accurately attribute global warming to Liberty or a nice city. Laying it at the feet of the oil companies is a cop-out unless you happen to be in Texas or Louisiana. Nobody is blameless.

by JimT on Jul 18, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport

Well the ironic part about the piece is that its message is predicated upon viewership from commuters across the bridge -- the exact commuters who are contributing to the gas-borne pollutants the art is attempting to criticize.

I'm personally a bit unsure that it will spark conversation among people powerful enough to make a difference, and people who can't make a difference might not even know it's art.

Now, on the other hand, you have the people who are using art to "shift perceptions of the river" -- who, interestingly, are doing the exact thing that they criticize Feuer for doing, that is, using clever artistic techniques to sway viewers into thinking the river is something that it isn't. The Anacostia certainly is not a floating gas station, nor is it the idyllic, pristine river of our collective nostalgia.

by Scoot on Jul 18, 2014 1:44 pm • linkreport


Let's put in a floating pile of money, along with a model of the U.S. Capitol sitting at the apex. On second thought, a more subtle and thought provoking message -- gas station/fossil fuels/co2 -- works for me.

by kob on Jul 18, 2014 1:55 pm • linkreport

That's something you'll have to take up with the artist, JimT. I wasn't endorsing it, just reiterating why the gas station was chosen. 1. It's under water due to climate change. 2. It's a carbon spewing gas station, too! Get it?

The "get it" is not directed toward you personally, but toward the viewers of the piece. It's an "in your face" kind of deal.

Personally, for the Anacostia river, it should be a replica of the giant rocking chair that is submerged. Look what we're doing to the climate!

by The Truth™ on Jul 18, 2014 1:57 pm • linkreport

There's a little bit more information in Kriston Capps' City Lab story. Notably, Anacostia Riverkeeper is concerned that disturbing the river bottom in that particular location might imperil future lawsuits based around the results of sediment sampling.

Also, looks as if DCCAH has spiked the proposal, after a decision by DDOE.

by David R. on Jul 18, 2014 2:05 pm • linkreport

The Boundary channel location has added symbolism, since much of our defense spending has been to protect our supply of oil.

by JimT on Jul 18, 2014 3:30 pm • linkreport

The Boundary channel is a great idea for an appropriate site for this sculpture. It might even be visible to airplane traffic going in and out of National.

Cleaning up the toxic sediments in the Anacostia River should be the priority of the DC government and US EPA.

by Mike Smith on Jul 18, 2014 4:20 pm • linkreport

wait! wait!

Here are five things that don't belong there: Toxic chemicals. Trash. Excrement of any kind. Oil and gas. And mock gas stations

Where are the fish suppose to take care of business. I'm being totally serious here

by anon_1 on Jul 18, 2014 4:28 pm • linkreport

I particularly dislike this installation and do not find the location appropriate? Art should provoke, however, I really have no idea what it's supposed to say until I read about it.

by BTA on Jul 18, 2014 4:36 pm • linkreport

I think the message will largely be lost on people unless the structure imitates a famous building (Jefferson Memorial, Capital Bldg, etc), i.e. something iconic/important we know is not supposed to be submerged.

The vast majority of drivers crossing the Anacostia bridges will be too preoccupied navigating the constantly-congested traffic. A different venue needs to be found for this temporary exhibit(perhaps the National Arboretum? The reflecting pool?)

by Adam on Jul 18, 2014 5:57 pm • linkreport

This area (metro DC) can always find somebody to oppose something.

I've lived all over the US - and in some foreign countries - and I've never seen anything like it anywhere else.

by august4 on Jul 18, 2014 6:42 pm • linkreport

Throw it into the Klingle Road valley!

by Turnip on Jul 18, 2014 7:41 pm • linkreport

The artist is jumping the gun. After another 50 years of sea-level rise, this will be a common sight on the Eastern Seaboard.

by aces on Jul 18, 2014 10:10 pm • linkreport

everyone, I am excited about the dialogue that is unfolding as a result of my public art proposal. also, Julie Lawson- I did not receive a call or email from you or your office today.- thanks! Mia

by mia feuer- artist on Jul 18, 2014 11:17 pm • linkreport

Bad science deserves dumb art

by J Duroche on Jul 19, 2014 1:55 am • linkreport

Will it light up at night? That would look cool. It could be powered with solar and make an additional statement about big oil and their long history of keeping clean energy marginalized.

by Bob See on Jul 19, 2014 11:02 am • linkreport

@ Bill See
We received sponsorship from Kenergy Solar, The Stella Group and WindKinetic. There was supposed to be solar panels and a wind turbine installed on the canopy of the structure to allow the LEDs (sponsored by LEDtronics) The piece would have been illuminated from dusk til after midnight. We were also developing an app, so people could track the levels of energy being generated by the sun and the wind on the sculpture at any given time. I thought the juxtaposition of the solar and wind equipment with the image of the iconic piece of gas station architecture would provoke an interesting dialogue about renewable, and non renewable resources.

by mia feuer- artist on Jul 19, 2014 11:11 am • linkreport

@ mia feuer

This sounds really amazing!

by kob on Jul 19, 2014 12:31 pm • linkreport


well. in any case, its been squashed. but thank you for your comments.

by mia feuer- artist on Jul 19, 2014 1:11 pm • linkreport

I think this "gas station in the water" is a great idea and should be pursued as a temporary art installation wherever possible. And/or perhaps a permanent spot in a body of water can be found somewhere.

by Dave G on Jul 20, 2014 11:38 am • linkreport

I think this is would be an outstanding piece of art. It brings a visual, visceral reaction to an issue that's quietly ignored because it's so abstract.

It's quite distressing to see this get the pushback it did. It would have brought a great deal of attention to the river and to climate change. Anxiety over misreadings or bad associations is what keeps DC a little too polite and too risk averse. We have a word for art that can't be misread: kitsch.

I understand that people are trying to shake off the Anacostia's bad reputation, but it does have serious problems, even in its most beautiful areas. If it was in a beautiful area, like in the photo with the kayaker, then it would show the threat of climate change to natural beauty. If it were in an ugly area, like by JBAB, it would have gotten people riled up over the pollution.

Since DDOE says no, I hope that these groups that are concerned about the Anacostia help Feuer get the work set up somewhere else.

by Neil Flanagan on Jul 20, 2014 6:46 pm • linkreport

"Is it too hard to go to the moon, eradicate smallpox or end apartheid? Is it too hard to build a computer that fits in your pocket? No? Then it's not too hard to build a clean energy future, either."

by alchemist from bristol on Jul 20, 2014 6:56 pm • linkreport

The number one universal rule about being in nature is "leave no trace". It doesn't matter whether you're leaving something only temporarily or leaving something biodegradable (like a banana peel), you should simply leave no trace. The reason for making it a simple, blanket rule with no exceptions is that if people think there are exceptions, they're more likely to think the trace they're leaving is okay. I've known tour leaders who have drank the water they boiled their pasta in rather than dump it on the ground.

If this art installation was in a landscaped park like Central Park, that would be different (and Central Park has had art installations that worked out nicely) but the Anacostia or Potomac are not those sorts of places.

by Falls Church on Jul 20, 2014 7:42 pm • linkreport

"the federal government is more protective of viewsheds in the Potomac" in large part because of who lives within the two different viewsheds. for that reason alone it doesn't belong in the Anacostia.

by ar on Jul 20, 2014 11:11 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church --Yes! I absolutely agree!
I am a member of the Anacostia Watershed Society and I enjoy the Anacostia with some frequency by canoe. I go there to see turtles and herons, and make sketches of waterscapes. I am also an artist with a BFA.

I absolutely do NOT want to see this sculpture in the river I love and landscape I treasure. This would be more man-made trash in the river, imo. Yeah, I get the concept. How much energy would be used in the production, transportation and installation of this piece? Is that irony part of the art? Make a photoshop image and hang it in one of the many many galleries in this town.

by Tina on Jul 21, 2014 10:01 am • linkreport

A better place for it would be that fake lake in the middle of Reston.

by Tina on Jul 21, 2014 10:09 am • linkreport

Look, I've backpacked my own poop out of the woods, and I'm not sure what LNT has to do with a temporary project in an urban river.

by Neil Flanagan on Jul 21, 2014 10:18 am • linkreport

@Neil Flanagan - do you enjoy the Anacostia by water? Say, by canoeing?

by Tina on Jul 21, 2014 10:19 am • linkreport

I can tell you that LNT was an absolute mandate from day 1 of designing this project

by constantine on Jul 21, 2014 10:58 am • linkreport

My understanding is that LNT means exactly that -- no trace. How is a temporary art project "no trace"? Yes, maybe there's no trace left after the art project is removed but LNT doesn't mean that you can leave a trace as long as you come back a few months later to pick it up. You can't leave a plastic bottle in the woods and then come back and pick it up next week. It's not just about environmental impact. It's also about leaving things looking exactly like when you got there.

by Falls Church on Jul 21, 2014 11:46 am • linkreport

I'm not sure what LNT has to do with a temporary project in an urban river.

The wonderful thing about the Potomac and Anacostia is that they are a natural oasis in the middle of an urban environment. When one is hiking the Potomac Heritage Trail, it's amazing that you can feel like you're almost totally removed from civilization even though tall buildings and highways are so close by. So, yes, it's a natural preserve embedded in an urban environment (making it an "urban river") but why would you want to change that?

Sure, the Anacostia isn't quite as well-preserved as the Potomac but if this installation is inappropriate for the Potomac, then it's also inappropriate for the Anacostia.

by Falls Church on Jul 21, 2014 11:53 am • linkreport

I just checked and the Potomac Heritage Trail is a National Scenic Trail defined as:

"a designation for protected areas in the United States that consist of trails of particular natural beauty. National Scenic Trails were authorized under the National Trails System Act of 1968 (Public Law 90-543) along with National Historic Trails and National Recreation Trails. National Scenic Trails and National Historic Trails may only be designated by an act of Congress."

LNT definitely applies there. While the Anacostia doesn't have that sort of protection yet, we should be moving toward that direction, not away from it. Let's bring the Anacostia up to the same standard of protection as the Potomac.

by Falls Church on Jul 21, 2014 11:59 am • linkreport

Just to confirm...the trail website says "practice leave no trace principles". See the third bullet:

by Falls Church on Jul 21, 2014 12:12 pm • linkreport

@Falls Church - +1.

I do not want to see someone else's man made stuff when i'm on a paddle on the Anacostia. I have volunteered hours and hours pulling man made crap from the river and it's tributaries.

Also -I repeat -if the point of this conceptual piece is to make people think about the consequences of our fossil fuel lifestyle - how does the artist justify the fossil fuels needed to produce, transport and install the piece?

It's an activist/social statement piece; not an art-for-art's sake piece. It's not appropriate to use a natural setting that a lot of people enjoy precisely because it is a rare natural setting in the city to make a statement like this. If you care about the Anacostia River and burning fossil fuel, then come volunteer to pull man made junk out of the river, and arrive by bicycle.

by Tina on Jul 21, 2014 12:28 pm • linkreport

Anacostia Watershed Society volunteer opportunities:

by Tina on Jul 21, 2014 12:34 pm • linkreport

Sure, the Anacostia isn't quite as well-preserved as the Potomac...

Maybe if you ignore the part of the Potomac dredged or filled to create Washington Channel, East Potomac Park, and the Tidal Basin, and the near elimination of all Potomac Beaches in DC south of Key Bridge. John Q Adams used to go swimming most summer mornings in the Potomac, back when the White House still had a tidal shoreline.

by JimT on Jul 21, 2014 1:51 pm • linkreport


I totally agree. And to suggest putting it near Kingman Island, one of the least disturbed and most natural areas along the Anacostia is an insult.

We have worked very hard to clean up the river and are finally getting rid of the eye sore that is the Pepco plant, so we don't need this "sculpture" blighting it up again.

Mia Feuer should see how many Canadian cities she can con into installing this in their waterways.

by Brett on Jul 21, 2014 2:56 pm • linkreport

@Jim T - about 15 years ago I met a man who told me when he was a kid there was a natural beach at the Georgetown waterfront that lots of people enjoyed before the availability of air conditioning, (and before the waterfront was developed). He would be in his 80's now I think.

by Tina on Jul 21, 2014 9:30 pm • linkreport

@JimT -thanks for sharing the pics. Very interesting.

I notice the swimmers are all White. The man I talked to was Black. Of course DC was segregated by law until the mid century, so that would mean beaches too. My memory is not infallible but I'm pretty sure he described swimming from the waterfront in Georgetown, which was a Black neighborhood back then...

by Tina on Jul 22, 2014 9:00 am • linkreport

I agree with others that: 1) Pentagon Lagoon/boundary channel is the ideal location and 2) adding renewables on top with interactive apps is completely awesome.

Another option might be Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary,which would be visible from the parkway, but I'm sure it would never be allowed there either.

Third: I think we don't want to reinforce the idea of the Anacostia the focus of our collective shame.

by Self-Righteous Person on Jul 22, 2014 5:17 pm • linkreport

@Tina: Hopefully you or someone will find some pictures from Georgetown. Until we bring these beaches back, I don't think we can really say that the Potomac has been preserved or restored. The "living shoreline" and "nonstructural shore protection" approaches to beach erosion are more in style these days than vertical walls, but that thinking has not yet come to Washington.

by JimT on Jul 23, 2014 9:53 am • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] Other important thoughts I have regarding this "work" are exactly how does it make a statement about climate change? Why is a gas station boat important in the dialog? Rising sea levels? The irony of climate change flooding a gas station? Not much irony there. [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]

by Tom on Jul 24, 2014 2:38 pm • linkreport

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