Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

the channel grounds (opal) by Simone Johnson

This work was created during the WoW/UNY Governors Island Residency. Simone Johnson was in residence on Governors Island from August 6-September 2, 2018.


In connection with my project the channel ground(s) opal, which focuses on experimental, participatory and collaborative explorations of water and communication, I created an eco-demographic survey draft that includes elements of water. I wondered what a demographic survey would be like if it was framed within place-based ecological perspectives. For me, my social identity is reinforced in myriad ways, and filling out demographic surveys where my identity as a human being is separated from the rest of nature makes me go down a rabbit hole of inquiry. It makes me wonder about demographic surveys, which feel like an attempt to capture or standardize our identities or fit us all neatly in a box. Somehow this approach to information gathering and dissemination doesn't provide a full picture of who we are, especially our relationship to ecology.

I see demographic surveys as tools that aid in and reinforce the construction of identity. Ultimately, I am asking: How can we develop an eco-demographic survey that specifically focuses on water, and in this case, New York City and the Northeast region? Would asking about the bodies of water that respondents live near or depend on have an impact on our relationship with water and the Earth? Could we shift perception, behavior, and mainstream cultural protocols with eco-demographic surveys? How can demographic surveys be re-imagined to include our identities as a part of the Earth?

The idea and language around this survey still needs to be unpacked, but I want to share this because I would like feedback from people from different disciplines. What works here and what needs more critical reflection?

I would love to hear your thoughts, questions, suggestions, feedback, and ideas! I am also interested in continuing to develop this survey through cross disciplinary collaboration. Please write to me at

Simone Johnson is an interdisciplinary artist. She is currently dreaming up a water library.