Milwaukee, Wisconsin

43° 2′ 20.05” N, 87° 54′ 23.3” W

Ten years ago, acclaimed New York City-based artist Mary Miss was invited by the City of Milwaukee to develop an “urban-scale vision for art and water,” focusing on the history, presence, and future of water in the city and Lake Michigan. Miss was also instrumental in the design of the Milwaukee RiverWalk a couple of decades earlier, and her work has recently been the focus of a controversial plan to dismantle a seminal installation in the collection of the Des Moines Art Center.

Miss has long been drawn to projects that involve urban infrastructure and public spaces like parks and waterfronts. In 2009, she began work on City as Living Laboratory (CALL), an artist-facilitated initiative with the goal to “raise environmental awareness and promote the sustainable development of urban communities through the arts.”

In 2014, CALL initiated a project for Milwaukee called WaterMarks, which serves as a conceptual “atlas of water” for the community through a collaborative series of educational walks and art installations. The city’s location on the shore of one of the Great Lakes places it within a unique yet fragile and often-manipulated ecosystem, and a series of WaterMarkers are installed in a number of neighborhoods with an illuminated letter, chosen by local input, which pulses to inform residents when heavy rain is expected.

“The water used by the City of Milwaukee during normal weather flows into a water reclamation facility where it is treated and cleaned before being returned to Lake Michigan and re-entering the natural water cycle,” says an introductory video. “However, if the city maintains normal water usage during rainy weather, the treatment facility and surrounding water storage infrastructure can quickly fill to capacity, forcing water and sewage to flow directly into the lake. But what if the residents of the city were alerted to prepare for the rain and reduce water usage ahead of time?”

The very first letter selected was A, representing a beginning not only of the alphabet but of its connection to “agua,” “arts,” and “acosta”—its location is CC Acosta Middle School. The letter Ñ was selected for the Kinnickinnic River corridor at 16th and Harrison, for example, to reflect, celebrate, and recognize the Latinx community. The word Kinnickinnic comes from the Ojibwe for “what is mixed,” and reflects an acknowledgment that WaterMarkers sites are on the homeland of the Menominee, Potawatomi, and Ho-Chunk nations.

A statement says, “At CALL, one of the main things we aspire to do is reveal the layers that have gone into making places what they are today. Who has lived here, what was their relationship to the land, what are the natural systems that continue to shape the land, and what impacts have settlement and colonization had on the land.”

Find more on the WaterMarks website.

All images courtesy of WaterMarks and CALL

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