By Guest Writer Dan Gentile
Waller Creek has held many different significations over the years, from the natural border of the city to a turbulent source of flooding, but for the third year, the creek has been transformed into something entirely new: a canvas. For Creek Show 2016, five teams of local architects and artists reimagine the urban waterway as a gallery for sculptures of long-extinct reptiles and LED cloud formations. Adapting a natural space into an art showcase presents a unique set of challenges that not only stretch the creativity of the artists, but illuminate elements of the creek that might otherwise remain overlooked.
Although it’s long been a forgotten element of the downtown landscape, several of the artists’ professional paths have already intersected with the creek. Alisa West spent an entire semester at the UT School of Architecture envisioning a design solution for the stretch from Waterloo Park to Lady Bird Lake. Jules Buck Jones is a member of the Animal Facts Club, a theater production group focused on Texas wildlife that performed at Palm Park. Architect Dharmesh Patel has a more conceptual relationship with the creek, as Austin’s waterways often serve as guiding or limiting factors for his work. “As an architect, our number one consideration is always how water is moving. It’s a vital component of the city, especially in this location,” says Patel.
Part of Waller Creek’s potential as a public space comes from the diverse viewpoints and trails that reveal themselves as the waterway snakes through downtown. Each artist chose a site along the creek for their installation that complemented their visions, from the tunnel that Dharmesh Patel and Autumn Ewalt will install their hovering Nimbus Cloud light installation, to the soupy waters alongside Easy Tiger, which East Side Collective + Drophouse Design reimagine as a mysterious void at the base of a three story arch. Kory Bieg’s aluminum strand installation The Creek Zipper between is designed specifically to take advantage of one of the most open stretches of the creek between 6th and 7th Streets. “As one moves around the project, it moves in and out of having a two dimensional and three dimensional presence,” say Bieg.
Each site guides the artists not only spatially, but thematically. Jules Buck Jones’ Invisible and Absolute installation is a sculpture of a prehistoric sea lizard called a mosasaur, a skeleton of which was found in nearby Onion Creek and could have theoretically waded these waters too. The Creek Zipper will sit just above the average water level, so that as the water height fluctuates it stresses the dynamic qualities of the creek. Nimbus Cloud takes the most literal inspiration by creating an LED representation of the rainclouds that feed the creek, as well as including a video projection of the surroundings to further emphasize the creek’s expansive environmental footprint.
One of the most engaging elements of the Creek Show is how casually a viewer can interact with the works, simply taking in the visuals on an evening stroll, but a closer look reveals that each of these projects are massive undertakings. Phantom Diversion is over 400 feet long. The Creek Zipper features 1,400 lights, each powered by its own small battery. The geometry of Nimbus Cloud mimics cellular structures, with 498 cells and a total of 14,000 parts to assemble. The aluminum plates that form the three story arch of Deep Curiosity weigh in the neighborhood of 1,500 pounds and were shaped using cutting edge water jet technology. As a contrast, the mosasaur in Invisible and Absolute was a hand-crafted effort, with the skeletal bones formed manually using hot wire.
Another challenge of working in such an unconventional space is actually installing the art. The Creek Zipper will take a full week to assemble. The site for Invisible and Absolute was chosen partially because it’s the only area with the proper anchoring capabilities. Since Phantom Diversion literally extends from a drainage pipe, the artists had to keep in mind that a rainstorm could have severe effects on the work, consulting with several city agencies about the installation process. The heaviest lifting award goes to Deep Curiosity, who’ll build a temporary site crane and pulley system to lower the aluminum pieces into the creek bed, which itself is only accessible via rope ladder.
All that effort begs the question, what would drive this group of busy professionals to devote so much time and energy when most of their projects will only have a lifespan of 10 days? It’s not just art for art’s sake, but the opportunity to make people reconsider a historically overlooked area. “Unfortunately it’s been so blighted for years, the lack of public interaction is largely due to the lack of development opportunity. But the WCC is doing everything they can to change that, and when they’re done the creek will be very special to many people,” says Tim Derrington of East Side Collective. That sentiment is echoed by all the artists involved. “The Creek isn’t treated the same as Town Lake or the Springs, but it’s such a big part of the greater environment. To not think about the it, to not be aware of it, is a disservice to our landscape and where we live,” says Dharmesh Patel.
The completed vision of Waller Creek won’t necessarily include extinct reptiles or LED cloud formations, but the same elements of the landscape that inspire these artists have guided the revitalization of a creek and chain of parks that will leave a lasting impression on Austinites for generations to come.
Come check out Creek Show 2016 on November 10-19 from 6pm to 10pm along Waller Creek, between 5th and 8th Streets.