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Proteus Gowanus Art Gallery Prepares For Hurricane Sandy, Braces For Potentially Toxic Flooding (INTERVIEW)

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Proteus Gowanus, an interdisciplinary art space located just off Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal, is not having a good start to their week. The small gallery is gearing up against the "freak storm" known as Hurricane Sandy, which is taking its toll on the area.

While many New York art spaces have taken precautions against the possible aftermath of Frankenstorm, Proteus Gowanus faces especially dire consequences due to possible flooding from a nearby Superfund site. The gallery space, located in a former turn of the century box factory, is in close proximity to one of the most infamously contaminated bodies of water in the United States.

gowanus canal
The Gowanus Canal, on a better day. Image via Alamy.

The Canal, once a cross-Brooklyn industrial route, served as a dumping ground for oil refineries and chemical plants. For the past 150 years the toxic waterway has been brewing a foul concoction of human excrement, heavy metals and oil. According to the New York Times this potent brew also contains a plethora of suspected carcinogens: "polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; metals like mercury, lead and copper; and debris, including sunken vessels." As those who inhabit the steadily gentrifying artist-laden neighborhood surrounding the unloved canal know all too well, it is known to bubble unceremoniously, stink wildly in the rain and turn a mean seafoam green that prompts many a passerby to ask: "Why is the water that color?"

Even before Sandy reaches full force, the Canal has already begun to overflow, prompting headlines like "Hurricane Sandy could be a toxic shitstorm in the Gowanus Canal" by New York Magazine (hilarious for those whose belongings aren't set to be drenched in mysterious toxic gunk, we suppose). This is the plight of Gowanus' neighborhood gem of an art gallery, known for its unusual art-meets-science hybrid shows.

We spoke with gallery executive director Tamara Pittman on the phone regarding the precautions taken and what to expect when Sandy reaches its peak. Scroll down to see video footage of the Canal on the brink of flooding and photos of Frankenstorm in action.

proteus gowanus
The Morbid Anatomy Library, part of Proteus Gowanus.

HP: How did you prepare for the hurricane?

TP: Yesterday a lot of people came down to try to help take things out of the gallery. We had a lot of artworks relating to our theme of the year, which happens to be Battles, which now seems appropriate. We moved all the books upstairs. We took down most of what was on our walls and we also emptied the big shelf when you walk in and moved everything up to the very top. We took all the computers and things upstairs. We put out calls, e-mails and Facebook posts to get help. We were so happy to know that we had people out there who cared to help us move out of there.

HP: What are you expecting to happen in the next couple of days?

TP: We did all we could and we have no idea what to expect. It's like, the more you do the more you realize what there is to do. Our building has a big basement, about ten feet high, so hopefully a lot of the water will be trapped down there. We are just standing by at this point. I think the last I heard was about mid-day and nothing had happened yet. But tonight is the big worry. I do not know what will happen if the place floods because it is so polluted. It is just going to be foul. It is one thing to deal with water damage, it's another thing to deal with 150 years of pollution. People aren't really talking about that. It's just going to be really nasty. You just are sort of at the mercy of nature at this point.

HP: Is there anyone in the gallery space today?

TP: No, there were mandatory evacuations. I doubt there is anybody in our building right now. We are pretty certain we won't have any electricity at all. [Gasps] Sorry, there was a big gust of wind.

HP: Did you expect it would be so bad this time around?

TP: We began to worry pretty early on, because we knew we were in Zone A. We did this for Hurricane Irene, too. We did what we could to prepare. After Irene we got no flooding at all. I don't think we'll be so lucky this time around, but I'm hoping it won't be too terrible because of the big basement. It is kind of made for flooding; it has channels into it like mini canals so the water can flow through.

We just hope to survive. I think that's what we're all hoping at this point.

See videos and photos of Hurricane Sandy below and click here to see how you can help.

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