FLOW taps into the beauty, bounty, surprises of the Schuylkill [video]

Artist Lee Tusman and his splash organ. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Artist Lee Tusman and his splash organ. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

This weekend, the Fairmount Waterworks is hosting FLOW — For the Love Of Water — the first of what is intended to be an annual celebration of the Schuylkill River.

A carnival-like festival of activities, performances, and kinetic interpretive art projects is meant to highlight the aesthetics and technologies associated with water.

The Waterworks, a series of buildings at the river’s edge below the Philadelphia Museum of Art, started pumping water through America’s first major municipal water system in 1815. The steam-powered pumphouse was a marvel of both industry and architecture, becoming one of Philadelphia’s major 19th-century tourist attractions.

It’s now invisible to most city residents.

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“I’m a Philadelphia native, and I didn’t know Fairmount Waterworks was here,” said Dionne Watts Williams, the Waterworks own spokeswoman.

Since the Waterworks shut down in 1909, it has been used for various public purposes, including an aquarium and public pools. Now it’s mostly closed to the public, aside from an underground interpretive center, a fishing pier, and a covered plaza often used for wedding photos.

The Waterworks has recently been reinventing itself as a conduit to reintroduce residents to the Schuylkill River. It was a stop on the recent Hidden City festival, and it commissioned a site-specific chamber opera performed in its empty, underground concrete pools.

“People connect with nature in different ways — sight, sound, touch,” said Watts Williams. “We wanted to make sure we touched on all those senses.”

Leading the audience to water

Arts The FLOW festival tapped local artists, tinkerers, and engineers to devise a dozen projects and performances connecting users to the river. They include a floating, kinetic sculpture powered by the river current (by Ben Neiditz and Zach Webber), a series of steel drums played by drips falling from blocks of frozen Schuylkill River water (by Will Owen), and a mockup fishway allowing people to experience swimming upstream from the fish’s perspective (Kathryn Sclavi).

The festival culminates in an evening light show and dance performance by choreographer Alie Vidich.

“I wanted to find people that combine this intersection of art, music, technology — and to some degree are makers,” said curator Lee Tusman. “People that are interested in participation, and understanding how technology can extend what we do. People who have a democratic mindset.”

Tusman, himself, is one of the participating artists. He created a “splash organ,” five plastic storage tubs filled with a couple inches of water. In each is dangling a live wire. Users hold onto another wire and splash a bare foot into the water, making their body complete an electrical circuit. The connection triggers one of five watery sounds Tusman recorded and sampled into a computer program.

Inspired by the toy store floor piano in the Tom Hanks movie, “Big,” the splash organ asks users to take off their shoes and socks and make musique concrète by two-stepping in puddles of water.

“It’s a little bit like a dance, isn’t it?” said Tusman to a reporter ankle-deep in water.

Next year, the Fairmount Waterworks will celebrate its 200th anniversary. The staff is currently brainstorming what that anniversary will be, in October 2015, to acknowledge that Philadelphia is a city with an historically and ecologically significant river running through it.

“It’s something we all own and need to take care of, but it’s also something that can be fun, that we can play with,” said Tusman. “We’re in a citizen science era. So there are many ways to do your own research, and people are making art and instruments that are responsive to water.”

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