WaterFire's Creative Placemaking Learning Lab and Public Art Incubator

WaterFire Providence

Funding Received: 2012
Providence, RI
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
July 23, 2012

Building on its experience of successfully activating and rebranding downtown Providence, WaterFire’ Learning Lab will allow the organization to collaborate with artists and arts organizations to develop and execute experiments in creative placemaking with a range of projects, genres and techniques at different frequencies and scales.

ArtPlace spoke with Barnaby Evans, Executive Artistic Director of WaterFire Providence, about their approach to creative place making.

ARTPLACE: What is your elevator pitch when you describe your project to people?

EVANS:  I rarely encounter someone who does not at least think they know all about WaterFire.  It is remarkable how broadly its reputation has travelled, whether I am in New Orleans, Spain, South Korea, Singapore, or Rome, I encounter many people who tell me about WaterFire.

So as not to dodge the question:  WaterFire is an artwork that uses the city and the urban experience itself as its canvas—the city, the skyline, the sunset, the river and the people themselves.  The entire downtown is curated and lit as a massive sculpture, only one you can walk through.  In this setting the artwork places up to 100 bonfires suspended just above the water surface of the three rivers of downtown Providence.  This powerful vision is married with music, performance, ritual and numerous always changing surprises and interventions.  The soaring flames and the music are beautiful and mysterious, the mood is romantic and thrilling, and the metaphor relates to the city of Providence being reborn phoenix and seen in a new light.

When people tell me about WaterFire they are full of stories, their own stories, media stories, friend’s stories.  The extent to which the artwork is woven into so many people’s personal stories is a wonderful testament to its quiet power to reach people.

At the same time, these many stories, interpretations and impressions, and the occasional distortions, can be a challenge as well. They are often all true, and yet incomplete.  WaterFire is quite deliberately many things to many people.  WaterFire is an artwork that is intended to be a fluid, ever-changing, riff on the urban experience, so the stories people tell are both revealing and limiting; articulate and mute.  Human understanding and engagement comes through many channels and resides simultaneously at many levels.  Narrative is one of the fundamentally human ways of knowing the world.  WaterFire seems to stimulate stories, but equally important ways of knowing are through metaphor, symbolism, ritual, communitas, and perceptual knowing.

My elevator pitch usually starts with listening, and thus learning, where my fellow passenger has placed WaterFire in their mind — perhaps as a work of art, as a personal memory, within a compelling narrative, as an economic engine for the city, as an inspiration, as a romantic moment, as something where they saw their community represented, as a city-wide civic ritual of engagement, as an event they have participated in as a volunteer, or as an evening seen through their children’s eyes.  People are not sure how to categorize WaterFire — is it a sculpture, a festival, a performance, an installation, a work of architecture, a calling, a volunteer civic project?

WaterFire’s mission is to inspire the city of Providence—and we are all these things and more.  WaterFire is structured with a conscious symbolic statement of dynamic and balanced duality.  The opposition of Fire and Water, hot and cool, active and passive, light and dark, sharp and smooth, night and day.  This truth runs throughout WaterFire.  People are always looking for new ideas and new things and new creations, this is natural and welcome and positive and essentially human.  At the same time people also desire and value continuity and ritual and the familiar, and this too is essentially human.  Here again, we find this core dualism at the center or our hearts.  The foundation of WaterFire is a symbolic and metaphorical ritual that focuses on the opposition of fire and water—up to one hundred bonfires suspended just above the water’s surface upon the three rivers that run through the heart of downtown.  They are set alight at sunset and are ritually recharged and tended all night long by members of the community, bringing light and energy and vibrancy into downtown.

This matrix that remains the same, WaterFire then creates and weaves and interjects every conceivable variation and interpretation.  We wish to be open to many ideas, to the entire rich community of cultures living in our city, to offer both organized performances and more difficult to categorize ephemera, from installed works to performative surprises, from high art such as opera to civic recognitions such as ethnic celebrations, to private moments of joy and sorrow from engagements to funerals, to just plain weirdness to keep people engaged.

All of these things go into the WaterFire mix!  I guess the honest answer is that we don’t have an elevator pitch.  We sit people down by the fire and invite them to join us in sharing stories from all over the world while spending the evening together.

ARTPLACE: How do you expect to increase vibrancy in the place you are working?

EVANS:  People and community create vibrancy when they constructively interact with one another, when we are surprised, when we are learning, when we are excited, and when we are inspired.  Art can often be at the forefront of stimulating and enriching these interactions.  At WaterFire we are constantly seeking ways to encourage and seed these dialogues.  People are naturally curious, but one of the effects of a city’s rich profusion of activities is that too often we build psychological and physical barriers.  These barriers shield us from things we don’t understand or fear, or fear because we don’t understand.  Just as frequently we create barriers to protect us from too much input, from noise or congestion, or the unknown.

There is another challenge to the civic vitality of our streets and cities—there is so much competition for our time and our attention and our presence indoors and on-line, shopping, talking, playing games, catching up with the world, that this virtual world is beginning to impoverish our real lives out on the city square.  More and more of us are listening to recorded music instead of attending live concerts, watching film and dance and theatre in our home going without the essential audience interaction, shopping in virtual stores, leaving the street front bookstores empty.

WaterFire works to restore vibrancy by embracing the cityscape and wrapping it in an ever-changing arts and urban environment that is designed to engage all of our senses.  We work with surprise and spectacle and present it for free in an ever-changing dynamic site outdoors on the street, where everyone has equal access and ownership.  This builds vibrancy and engagement and participation and makes the city truly alive.  Come join us!