Art + science
Haggerty Museum of Art partners on a massive project that will one day light up the city’s water landmarks.
By Jay Sanders
Let’s say a few years from now you’re driving across the Hoan Bridge and happen to look down toward Milwaukee’s inner harbor. This is what you’d see: An alphabet of illuminated red letters atop a colonnade of blue columns 25- to 40-feet high. And this: The Jones Island stack, illuminated along its entire length in lights that glow blue when the weather is clear, red when it’s about to rain.
What you’re viewing is the initial phase of a public art project that aims to (a) tell the history and future of water in Milwaukee, (b) prompt the question How much do we really notice the water all around us? and (c) create art at the scale of an entire city.
The project is “Watermarks: An Atlas of Water and the City of Milwaukee,” conceived by New York-based environmental and site-specific art pioneer Mary Miss and co-led by the Haggerty Museum of Art. The project’s grand goal is to transform Milwaukee into a “city as living laboratory,” in which residents better understand their relationship with water and become smarter stewards of it. “The clothes we wear, the foods we eat, the cars we drive all have an impact on our water sources,” Miss says.
To call the “Watermarks” project ambitious is an understatement. Bringing it to life — an effort now getting underway — will require the resources not just of Miss and her team, but also of a broad Marquette campus and community consortium that includes the Haggerty Museum as the project’s institutional home. “I see us giving it both roots and wings,” says Susan Longhenry, director and chief curator of the Haggerty Museum. “There’s a remarkable brain trust in faculty and students working on it already.”
The Haggerty will serve as the “pivot point” connecting Marquette with a broad community consortium. Marquette has provided work space for Miss and her team in Milwaukee’s Global Water Center, conveniently adjacent to the inner harbor.
It’s here that Milwaukee’s three rivers — the Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic — come together and flow into Lake Michigan. Here that water resource issues are front and center, sometimes controversially so, day in and day out at the Jones Island Water Reclamation Facility. And here that the combination of visibility and proximity to Milwaukee city life could help launch “Watermarks” with a real, let’s say, splash.
The visual signature of “Watermarks” is its letter-topped columns. The letters call out specific aspects of water — “L” for lake, “R” for rain garden, “D” for deep tunnel. Content at each pin location will invite deeper engagement via video, a “Watermarks” app, opportunities for people to share their own stories and more.
Towering over the stacks visually and conceptually is the Jones Island Water Treatment Plant stack. Lights along its length will transform it into a city-scaled barometer that turns from blue to red when rain is in the forecast, cueing Milwaukeeans to shepherd their use of water to limit wastewater overflows. “The idea is not about just getting a weather report, but bringing people together around smart use,” Miss says. “You become part of the cistern system, the green infrastructure of the city.”
Why take on something that seems more like a public policy issue than an artistic one? Because wrangling with big, important questions is a proper role for artists, who have a way of engaging people physically, viscerally and psychologically, Miss believes. Longhenry agrees: “We need artists. There’s a human element to art and a creative element that reaches people in ways laboratories don’t. Art makes you think and feel at the same time.” •
“We need artists. There’s a human element to art and a creative element that reaches people in ways laboratories don’t.”