Art History

Dealing with the uncertain ecological future of a watershed | Pro Club Bd

“Tune into the intelligence of water,” instructed Feresteh Toosi, a Miami-based artist, as they prepared to lead a group in paddle boats down the Delaware River. As participants got life jacket sized, signed waivers and claimed boats with animal shapes — flamingos, swans, kites — Toosi encouraged them to “stop and think about the connection of water to the body and the body to water,” adding : “Go ahead and embrace the stupidity of boats.”

In this public workshop at the Independence Seaport Museum (ISM), Toosi, an assistant professor of art and art history at Florida International University, introduced his Water Radio: Delaware River “soundscape,” an audio experience designed to listen to the water itself—and that eventually made available to all museum visitors.

The project was one of five supported this year by the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) Ecotopian Toolkit Project. The overall goal of the project, says PPEH Founding Director Bethany Wiggin, is to create a “confluence of communities” that brings together artists, scholars, doers, ecologists, young and old to reflect on what it means to be in one living in our changing and often unpredictable environment – and what tools we need to envision a just future.

An audio soundscape created by artist Fereshteh Toosi was meant to be heard while boating on the Delaware River. Her project, Water Radio: Delaware River, gave listeners information about the history of the river and inspired them to think about its future.

The initiative, which has been running since 2017 except for one hiatus during the pandemic, was conducted this year in partnership with ISM, itself based on the Delaware shores.

The partners collectively decided to solicit tools to promote equity in the Delaware watershed, which the proposal suggests “could be used by watershed residents to support their diverse, bio-rich community as we learn to adapt to our changing local environment adapt and respond to it.”

A bevy of applicants took part in the challenge, and an eight-person jury selected this year’s five toolmakers, each of whom presented remarkably different visions.

During May and June, the artists, PPEH and ISM joined forces to engage the public and test out the projects in a series of workshops, each hosted by a different Ecotopian toolmaker. Museum visitors were invited to be part of the artistic questioning process.

Immersed in the sound of the Delaware River

For her on-the-water workshop, Toosi encouraged workshop participants to take time before putting on earplugs to simply be on the water and process its sounds, smells and sights. These impressions set the stage for Water Radio: Delaware River’s broadcasts.

Toosi’s audio recordings, provided via the Echoes app, take listeners through different decades of river history, from the late 19th century when the Delaware was full of shadows, through industrialization and the pollution that came with it, to the Clean Water Act of the 1970s and through to the present when ongoing sources of environmental stress and pollution, including climate change, threaten the river.

Toosi has created other such soundscapes under the Water Radio umbrella, but they say this latest has taken an informative rather than contemplative approach, due in part to their status as ecosystem outsiders. This approach to learning runs like a red thread through Toosi’s work.

“This is a big motivation for my creative practice: I want to learn in public with other people,” says Toosi. “I know something, you know something, and we can share and also be vulnerable with each other, what we know, and where does that knowledge take us?”

In a concluding audio clip, Toosi challenges listeners to consider what new environmental legislation might look like and what new political will should shape Delaware’s future.

“The future isn’t the focus of the play, but I put that prompt there,” says Toosi. “I want to balance that with people also being in sensory contact with the present moment.”

Structures that serve people and ecosystems

Sensory engagement was also a centerpiece of a workshop led by another Ecotopian toolmaker, Juan Hurtado Salazar. With a background in architecture, arts and crafts, Salazar’s response to the Ecotopian Toolkit call was to design a floating laboratory and fish nursery to occupy Petty Island, just a few miles from the Independence Seaport Museum. New Jersey, formerly owned by Citgo, has proposed buying the island, now owned by Philadelphia, and turning it into a nature reserve.

Salazar’s vision focuses on scientific research and conservation while also considering the rise in sea levels that could one day inundate Petty Island and its current residents.

“There are marshland species that are being submerged, so there’s a very specific ecosystem that they inhabit that’s going to be underwater soon,” he says.

Samir Patterson (centre) at a table with adults at an Ecotopian Toolkit workshop.

This was the first year that the Ecotopian Toolkit initiative was conducted in partnership with the Independence Seaport Museum, itself located on the banks of the Delaware River. All five workshops were open to the public to engage, experience and create, whether it be making maps of the Delaware watershed (above right) or crafting floating laboratories like the one envisioned by seven-year-old Samir Patterson of Philadelphia ( above) presented ).

In the workshop he hosted at the museum, he brought components from various kits—cardboard of various shapes and sizes, and paint and hot glue guns—and participants were free to imagine and create models for other structures that could be incorporated into the Delaware.

“These small models can be projected into the future and become important interventions and spaces that can impact the lives of many people,” he says. “I think it’s powerful to invite people to envision things that have the opportunity to manifest. It is an antidote to resignation to the future.”

Meanwhile, the participants implemented their inspirations and built intricate models of floating laboratories, shelters and boats. Museum-goers discussed their inventions with one another while carefully applying the finishing touches of brightly colored paint.

“This is the kind of project we need now to stave off a future we hope doesn’t happen,” Wiggin says.

Wandering, cataloging and flooding

The other three workshops each offered different perspectives on these needs.

Eli Brown started the workshop series in May with her tool “Trans Natures Database”. Brown, a Boston-based interdisciplinary artist, led participants in a public field research examining how gender fluidity is manifested in the creatures — animals, fungi, plants — that call the Delaware River home.

As the changing climate causes increasingly intense storms, Philadelphia-based artist Nancy Agati (pictured left, center) wanted to get workshop participants to think about adaptation, specifically by using permeable surfaces that allow rainwater to penetrate the soil to seep rather than flood the sewers and carry pollutants into streams and rivers. Eli Brown (pictured right, left), meanwhile, led participants in a field research looking for creatures in nature that don’t conform to a binary lineage in terms of sex and gender.

Nancy Agati, a Philadelphia-based artist, brought concrete blocks, gravel, wood chips, and other materials to ISM’s Fisharium learning space. Her “Basins and Boundaries” workshop enabled hands-on exploration of how permeable building and paving surfaces can absorb water. Such approaches can minimize the environmental impact of heavy rainstorms, where stormwater floods sewer systems and dumps toxins and pollutants directly into waterways like the Delaware. Her project underscores why certain areas of Philadelphia are at greater risk of flooding due to the changing climate.

And toolmaker JJ Tiziou, also from Philadelphia, introduced museumgoers to his “Walk Around Philadelphia,” which teaches the city’s relationship with the river and the many connections between tributaries, industrial sites, waterfronts, and natural spaces. Tiziou brought a printing press and gave workshop participants the opportunity to create their own maps and take them home to explore these connections.

Three people stand on an outdoor walkway with the Ben Franklin Bridge in the background.

JJ Tiziou (left), another of this year’s Ecotopian Toolmakers, created a tour of the Delaware River watershed in Philadelphia and also gave workshop participants a chance to consider the relationship between natural waterways and man-made boundaries by exploring their print your own cards. (Image: Gates Rhodes)

With the workshops now complete, a third phase of the toolkit project will begin in the fall, when the tools—further adapted and evolved—will again be shared in print at a workshop on Penn’s campus Catalog for Ecotopian Tools, and in an accompanying digital exhibition. An exhibition at ISM will continue to feature the Ecotopian Toolkit Projects in a gallery next to the entrance.

“These workshops provide the toolmakers and the museum with an opportunity to translate the conceptual language of science into a community outside of science,” says Wiggin. With prototypes in hand, she hopes the ISM and Ecotopian artists will continue to develop the projects and work with PPEH to develop versions of their tools to engage museum visitors well into the future.

“This is a necessity” when it comes to responding to climate change and other environmental challenges, she adds. “Everyone knows there’s a need for more community engagement.”

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