Imagine the following:
“Where am I?” you wonder while descending into an otherworldly space bustling with activity. Sunlight slants through tall narrow windows, illuminating whimsical boat prototypes and the tools of their construction, hanging planters of herbs, and a group of chattering school kids off to one side. A bubbly young woman in a grey jumpsuit with wildly mussed hair greets you with a bag of tea made from herbs grown just feet away. You realize you should choose one of three areas to investigate next, each marked by its own unseaworthy-looking craft and young bohemian wearing a janitor costume. Unsure where to step, you look down at your tea and read a strange word; “Bibotorium.”
Hundreds of Philadelphians found themselves in this very situation over the course of six weeks this summer during the Hidden City Philadelphia Festival. Artist Mary Rothlisberger, along with Isabella Martin, Elliott Montgomery, Aislinn Pentecost-Farren, and Walker Tufts formed a research collective called Camp Little Hope. In Philadelphia they worked to facilitate conversations about the insecure future of the city’s drinking water by creating a space they called the Bibotorium inside an abandoned swimming pool. Silly name aside, their accomplishments were profound and fascinating. Mary and her collaborators are called social practice artists, and their craft is as difficult to define as it is interesting to learn about. The New York Times took a stab at a definition back in 2012:
“Known primarily as social practice, its practitioners freely blur the lines among object making, performance, political activism, community organizing, environmentalism and investigative journalism, creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system. And in so doing, they push an old question “Why is it art?” as close to the breaking point as contemporary art ever has.”
Mary lived and breathed social practice long before she herself could define it. She grew up in a military family, moving to a new state every few years and cultivating new social connections on each base. During grad school she fell in love with her current hometown of Palouse, Washington. Her decision to live in a small town of 900 allows her to practice what she preaches about investing in one’s community. She relishes the chance to know her neighbors and has spent the last six years becoming most civically engaged twenty-something you are ever likely to meet. Despite her busy travel schedule she makes time to attend the town’s annual yard sale, music festival, and haunted house, and even gets to spend some Saturdays hanging out at the local print museum.
When asked how her passion for small towns began, Mary recalled that as she grew older and sought ways to foster community on her own, she “…found [her] way into being an artist and being a cultural producer.”i The goal of embodying and inspiring “cultural production” comes up often in conversation with Mary as it sums up what she believes all artists and members of communities should strive to be. She describes it as similar to civic engagement but with a broader scope; people intentionally engaging with their neighbors, “whether thats something as small as a conversation or something as big as a movement.”ii That’s a nice intention, but is it art? In response Mary asks, “What is the difference between being a social practice artist and being a good citizen? I don’t think there is one.”ii
At the Bibotorium, Mary and Camp Little Hope did their best to make cultural producers out of ordinary citizens of Philadelphia. They chose to do so by considering a highly controversial issue in the city; the future of drinking water. In light of the festival organizer’s challenge to reactivate forgotten spaces, the artists chose the Kelly Natatorium on the banks of the Schuylkill river. The Natatorium is both steeped in the history of Philadelphia’s water use, and deserted since 1972, making it the perfect backdrop for their interactive installation.
The project is multifaceted and complex, so stay with me as I try to explain just what went on. They first identified three looming threats to availability of clean water: rising sea levels due to climate change, privatization of aging infrastructure, and pollution from extractive technologies. Next they had to build up the space to make it accessible both physically and intellectually. They constructed stairs to help viewers get down into the empty pool, and then divided the pool into three sections. In each section boat prototypes symbolizing possible solutions to the trifecta of problems were built. They planted herbs to make tea and gathered empty sketchbooks for people to contribute their knowledge about water and draw their own innovative boat designs. Once the space was complete, the crowds descended upon it for six full weeks. School groups of from around the city visited weekly, along with local water experts, artists, and members of the general public. Mary and Camp Little Hope appreciated this variety as it is central to their goal of reaching out to a whole community, including people who wouldn’t normally seek an art experience.
In order to encourage their viewers to keep an open mind, Mary and her colleagues carefully engineered the experience of the Bibotorium. Visitors were welcomed by Mary and other friendly young artists, given a straw and baggie of cool iced tea, and directed toward sketchbooks full of wacky drawings of boat prototypes by schoolkids. Each of these elements facilitated a casual invitation to explore the space. Next they chose which area to see first, giving them some autonomy over their experience and time to absorb what they saw. Finally they were asked to give something back to the Bibotorium by contributing to the “collaborative research”. Rather than asking a visitor a straightforward question such as, “Is privatization a workable solution to the aging water infrastructure in the city?” they asked them to imagine what kind of boat PepsiCo might design to deliver water to citizens. This question lead to others like, Will the water be expensive? Will it be available to everyone? How will it be distributed? Suddenly the issue of crumbling infrastructure was framed in a much more personal light. While thinking through these questions, visitors could write their thoughts in the sketchbooks provided and read what others had left behind.
By adding their two cents to the growing body of knowledge and opinions, a visitor made a tiny investment of time and effort into solving the problems facing Philadelphia’s water. Whether they formed new opinions or reinforced old ones, by contributing to this “research” they participated in the conversation in a new way. The artists believe that this small change in perspective will translate into people with more open minds bringing those conversations to other arenas, and eventually making a positive change.
But documenting change brought by a social practice piece can get tricky; its practitioners have big goals that are impossible to quantify or prove successful. The conversations the artists hoped to start were casual and even playful at times; the trade-off being they weren’t concrete enough to prove anything. They built a social space for discussion, rather than a scientific or political one. Traditional outlets for these conversations, like a town hall meeting, opinion page of newspaper, or comment section of a blog frequently inspire conflict and also grow increasingly ineffective as our population becomes more politically polarized. Citizens come to these traditional outlets ready to fight for their entrenched beliefs.
However most visitors to the Bibotorium probably had no idea what to expect upon entering the space, and stepped into a relaxed setting with an open and curious mind. It is here we find the true value of Mary’s vision of cultural production; the lighthearted tone and novelty of the Bibotorium primed viewers for a different type of conversation about an issue normally regarded as highly divisive. I find this to be an inspiring example of a way to avoid beating a dead horse and start thinking of creative solutions to the problems that lie ahead. Artists like Mary hold the power start conversations in ways that no other profession can.
So go forth and be a cultural producer! Meet your neighbors, get informed about a controversial issue, or check out some of the interesting work Mary and others have done in the field of social practice art:
iRothlisberger, Mary. Personal interview. 29 July 13
iiRothlisberger, Mary. Personal interview. 29 July 13
iiiRothlisberger, Mary. Personal interview. 29 July 13