Tomorrow, photographer and environmentalist David Liittschwager arrives in Rochester to begin his project One Cubic Foot in the Genesee River, in collaboration with the Seneca Park Zoo Society and about 35 community and regional partner organizations. In anticipation of this months-in-the-making initiative, we spoke with Zoo Society Executive Director Pamela Reed Sanchez about the origins of the Zoo’s partnership with Liittschwager, the health of the Genesee and all the ways you can learn about #OneCubicFoot in the next few weeks.
Q: How did the idea to bring One Cubic Foot to the Genesee River begin? Why is now the right time for the Zoo Society to partner on an effort like this?
A: I learned of David’s work last fall and fell in love with the concept and his photographs. We started thinking about using One Cubic Foot as a way to have visitors explore the biodiversity of the ecosystems we represent here at the Zoo, including Borneo, Madagascar, Africa, and the Genesee River. We’re in the process of creating a new interactive space at the Zoo called the Center of Biodiversity Exploration, and we wanted to use “One Cubic Foot” as an organizing theme. So I contacted David to ask for permission, told him of our plans and of the work the Zoo has been doing for decades to reintroduce native species such as North American river otters and lake sturgeon to the Genesee River.
David was thrilled to hear of our interest in his project and of our efforts in the Genesee, and he offered to come to Rochester this summer to replicate the project in the Genesee. As David has partnered with the Smithsonian Institute numerous times, it was natural for us to also bring in research zoologists from the Smithsonian to assist in DNA bar-coding. From there, we began enlisting the support of like-minded organizations in the region and suddenly we had a Community Advisory Committee of more than 35 people representing as many organizations committed to river health.
Q: What does the Zoo Society hope to accomplish by not only executing One Cubic Foot while David Liittschwager is here, but also continuing the impact of the event for months to come through photo exhibitions, lectures and other events? How exactly is the Zoo Society planning to do this?
A: We have many goals for this project. We hope to gain scientific knowledge of the biodiversity of species in the river that could provide information helpful to removing the Genesee River from the EPA’s Area of Concern list. We hope to foster a sense of regional pride in the Genesee — a river once rife with pollution that is now teeming with life again, thanks to the efforts of many individuals and organizations. We hope to inspire Rochesterians to reconnect with nature through actively monitoring the environment and participating in formal and informal citizen science programs. With the help of our partners, we will be creating curriculum for school children and nature programs for families and adults related to One Cubic Foot, and we will be replicating the project next summer in numerous spots along the Genesee River.
This fall, you’ll see the One Cubic Foot project represented at numerous community events, such as River Romance, on special cruises of the Sam Patch, at a public lecture hosted by the Audubon Society (November 16 at the Brighton Town Hall), and more. Our next big public event is David’s lecture on his past work, being held at George Eastman House on at 6 p.m. on August 20. Next February, his work in the Genesee River will be the subject of an exhibition at Rochester Contemporary Art Center (RoCo) at the same time the Zoo prototypes the Center for Biodiversity Exploration.
Q: Why is the Genesee worthy of being the next environment on the One Cubic Foot list, which has included exotic international and famous locations?
A: Some might consider the north-flowing Genesee the perfect location, given the path it provides for many migratory birds and animals. Add to that the work that has been done to clean up the river and reintroduce native species and you have the makings of a mystery novel: what will we find in One Cubic Foot of the Genesee River?
The concept behind One Cubic Foot has little to do with exotic animals and locales. It is aimed at educating people about the range of animals and plants that coexist in very small places, and then having them think about what that means on a global scale. But first, they have to care about the small stuff.
David’s goal is to have people replicate this project on their own, and we will be sharing his video tutorials and having workshops on how to create your own One Cubic Foot at the Zoo (including at Open Late Night Tuesday, August 25).
Q: Why was it important to you to partner with other community organizations on this effort? How has the Community Advisory Board shaped the evolution of One Cubic Foot since the idea was first presented?
A: When I first began talking about One Cubic Foot, I noticed that people were surprised to learn of the role the Zoo has played in regional conservation, and I began to learn how many people have a vested interest in the health of the river. Taking on the project without partners would have been foolish, as together we can accomplish more and bring the message about river health and sustainability to a much broader audience.
Our Advisory Committee members have helped identify resources of all kinds, from financial support to scientific expertise, to the use of boats while David is on the river. Their enthusiastic ideas about community programming have helped shape the ongoing life of the project. It was the Community Advisory Board that suggested replicating the project in six places along the river in 2016.
Q: What has it been like for you to go out into the community and talk with people about One Cubic Foot as part of the Street Team of volunteers that has been active all summer?
A: The word that comes to mind is validation. I could have never predicted last fall that my fascination with One Cubic Foot would catch fire. Using art to connect people with the environment is very gratifying for me. Art provides us with “Aha!” moments that allow us to see the world a little differently. David’s photography is exquisite, and people of all ages, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds instantly connect with it. And when they find out he’s coming to Rochester, they kind of stand a little taller. They want to know what he’s going to find in that river.
Environmental conservation is a pretty serious topic and for people who don’t know much about it, it can be intimidating as a subject. But when you introduce them to the concept of One Cubic Foot, they just smile and they get it. And then we can deliver the messages about how to keep that river clean so that animals and plants can thrive.