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Buffalo artist’s two-week trip along Erie Canal highlights environmental abuse

On June 28, Buffalo artist Paul Lloyd Sargent loaded his 19-foot, open-hulled boat with a trunk full of toxic waste and set off from Silo City for a two-week adventure along the historic Erie Canal.

Most nights during the journey, he docked his boat – nicknamed the “Sarge Barge” – in some picturesque canal town and slept on board in a green sleeping bag, his only company the occasional curious fisherman or lock operator.

Aside from a hilarious episode in which Sargent ran out of gas halfway across Onondaga Lake on his way to meet his parents and an unplanned dip into the severely polluted Newtown Creek that put his cellphone out of commission at the end of the trip on July 18, the journey was a great success.

The trip was part of a larger artistic project designed to highlight the economic and environmental disparities between Western New York and New York City. Sargent’s trunk, now sitting in the basement of a friend’s house downstate, contained samples of environmental contamination collected from polluted sites throughout Western New York.

In putting the trunk together, Sargent gathered soil contaminated with lead and other toxins from vacant lots and brownfields in Buffalo, along with roadside litter and samples from toxic waterways like Scajaquada Creek, Love Canal and the area around Tonawanda Coke. He even explored sites related to Western New York’s role in the Manhattan project.

One major point of the trip, Sargent suggested, was to illustrate that economic development and consumerism in general comes with deep and often unpredictable environmental costs. His not-so-subtle title for that aspect of the project, for anyone who didn’t catch the symbolism, was “Hey NYC! Take Back Yr [Stuff].” The trip was part of his work as a Ph.D. candidate in the University at Buffalo’s media study department.

“New York City became a financial center because of the Erie Canal, as did Buffalo,” Sargent said. “But once capital’s done with one of the spaces – it happens in this case to be Buffalo as a sacrifice ground – it sort of just becomes a dumping ground for pollution, toxins, the petrochemical corridor that we more or less developed here in Western New York.”

The project comes at a time of increased interest in environmental abuse from Western New York artists, including a well-received Burchfield Penney Art Center exhibition about the contaminated Scajaquada Creek by Fredonia-based painter Alberto Rey.

It also comes ahead of the construction of an “art barge,” a prototype of which is now being built to Biblical proportions in the main gallery of the Burchfield Penney and which may float down the canal next summer if all goes to plan. Sargent’s trunk of toxic wonders, along with artwork from dozens of other Western New York artists, will likely be on board if and when that barge sets off from Buffalo for Brooklyn.

As opposed to Sargent’s past artistic stunts, such as a canoe trip into the forbidden Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn in which he suffered from heat stroke and had a run-in with security that didn’t yield much in the way of documentation, he said he was determined to gather as much data on this trip as possible.

“I often do these very insane things by myself and what comes out of it is maybe one or two photographs,” he said. This time, he collected more than 400 gigabytes of data, including hours of video diary entries, documentation of invasive species along the canal and other material that he’ll eventually turn into either a single-channel documentary or an exhibition of some sort.

Through his work, Sargent, like many others in the University at Buffalo’s media study department, is working to expand the rather narrow popular notion of what an artist is. His project is equal parts science, activism and art – a fusion that has more than just the figurative potential to alter the landscape.

And as far as stunts go, Sargent isn’t nearly finished. After he processes his recent journey, he’s got his eye on a new and potentially much more dangerous project for 2016 or the year after: A trip around the entire Great Lakes, from the upper shore of Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean.

And as he travels, he said, his toxic trunk will grow much heavier.

“It will be its own project for, I don’t know, the rest of my life?” Sargent said. “What I really want to do is create an ontology of toxins in and around the Great Lakes. This is just the beginning.”


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