Indianapolis is considered the largest city in the United States not constructed on a navigable body of water, and so the White River quietly winds through mostly unnoticed, obscured by a thick screen of trees and shrubs. After all, residents have considered the White River a place to discard waste for nearly 200 years. With the exception of bridge crossings, most people give about as much thought to the White River as they do their household drains.
What goes around comes around — especially when considering the human hydrologic cycle: What flows down the drain can return as potable water via the river. With more than 60 percent of the city's drinking water drawn from the White River, where raw sewage still is regularly deposited by antiquated Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), what does it take to get people to notice this natural resource upon which life depends?
After two years and some two dozen visits to Indianapolis, New York-based artist Mary Miss has pondered the invisibility of the White River in the day-to-day lives of local residents.
"Could there be a project that tries to make people aware of the river?" asked Miss during a telephone interview, a question that guided the development of her installation, Flow: Can You See The River, which opens this week at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and along six miles of the river.
Miss, a world-renowned artist, is described on the IMA website as someone who is "reshaping the boundaries between sculpture, architecture, landscape design and installation..." She'll bring the issue of our relationship with the river into view with a series of installations involving mirrors and red "push-pin" markers. Residents will be able to see themselves in focal points within the context of the White River and use their mobile phones to learn more about what they see at each installation.
"Because the White River is a boundary of 100 Acres, and through Mary's environmental and ecological interests, this project progressed to what we will see and experience throughout Indianapolis," said Katie Zarich, IMA's Deputy Director for Public Affairs.
As a result of her extensive interviews and conversations with those affiliated with academics, arts, environment, humanities, municipalities and sciences, Miss, in collaboration with EcoArts Connections in Colorado, has made it easier for residents to make the connection between the clean water coming into their house and the not-so-clean water in the river.
As the project evolved, Miss was mindful of Butler University biology professor Travis Ryan's observation that all property is riverfront property.
"I'm not a scientist, I'm an artist," said Miss. "If it's something that I could understand or that would pique my curiosity, then I'm a good test person because now I know a lot more about rivers and how they work."
She hopes, in turn, that FLOW will help others think about all of the ways water travels to and from the White River. One installation that will help visitors understand their place in the White River's watershed is the giant walkable floor map installed in the Efroymson Family Entrance Pavilion at the IMA.
Where water flows in and out
For Miss, it's not enough to learn facts and figures about the river. She said everyone is inundated with information.
"How do you communicate about the river where things are happening, where water enters the wetland, where water flows in and out," asks Miss.
The challenge for her is how to create a real experience. She said art should be direct and visceral. What is the emotional connection? For instance, what would a 100-year flood event at the 100-Acres Park look like?
"At the IMA around the lake, I've put an 18" wide [red] cloth band around trees every 20 feet at the 100-year flood level," said Miss. "As you walk the perimeter, sometimes it's 20 feet high, sometimes it's waste high, but you see that line. You can measure those marks in terms of your own body."
Miss is also interested in creating "modest-scale interventions that are almost acupuncture-like rather than trying to do some major construction." These markers point out landscape features such as sewer outflows and pollution, flood plains and wetlands, and strive to make sustainability tangible.
"Through these modest interventions, [FLOW] would act as catalyst for people in the community to move forward with the issues that are being brought up," said Miss.
IMA staff credit Mary's leadership and vision that shaped FLOW into a citywide initiative.
"She has gone to great lengths to involve community groups from around the city through scheduled workshops, performances and the web site," said Zarich.
Through FLOW, Indianapolis is part of the City as Living Laboratory, Sustainability Made Tangible through the Arts projects, developed in collaboration with Marda Kirn at EcoArts Connections.
Miss credits Kirn with the development of relationships among the various community organizations and the 10-day festival of events coinciding with the opening of FLOW.
"We hope to start something in Indianapolis," said Miss.
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