of an Exhibition

by Justine Roberts

Published on February 20, 2010, Modified on May 18, 2015

  • Description:

    I return to Riveropolis again and again as a point of reference and inspiration. Strictly speaking, Riveropolis is a temporary water feature by artist Gregory Gavin. What makes it charming and special is that the sculpture is actually co-created by groups of children working with everyday materials, flat planters of grass, and a garden hose.

    Gavin’s original idea was to provide an armature for running water and then invite families to create chunks of the riverbank, which steps down in a series of plateaus and waterfalls. Each finished plot, containing a section of forest or a house as determined by its creator, is connected using urban design strategies including roads, bridges, and fences. Each time the piece is installed, Gavin incorporates new ideas he has had. So, for instance, when I saw it at the Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland, CA he had introduced removable “landscape trays” that visitors could work in before integrating them into the evolving miniature world.

    Gavin writes on his website that Riveropolis is meant to engage the kids and adults who collaborate in its creation in “art, architecture, and ecology.” In addition, there is an important opportunity for those working on the River to learn from the experience of contributing a piece to a group work, and in negotiating how to connect each plot of riverfront with its neighbors.

    For people approaching the finished work – and for those who did not contribute to it directly – Riveropolis serves a public art function by bringing running water to an urban setting while enlivening public space with a fun, interactive, unexpected and beautiful experience.

    Riveropolis has another important take-away for me about the ways design can support engagement and deepen learning. Riveropolis is an intentionally incomplete physical environment that relies on visitors to actively collaborate. It is, in large part, made BY its audience rather than FOR them. This sharing of authorship opens up dialogue with the audience and supports many levels of participation and ensures that each installation of Riveropolis reflects its unique community. By basing the experience of Riveropolis on the creative process it also ties visitors’ learning to their generative activity – visitors have to consider what their contribution to Riveropolis will be, and why, and how to express that vision.

    Riveropolis is also experimental, risk taking, and quirky. In particular, it models a self-reflective process, changing with each new installation as the design team continues to refine their ideas. It can change at many timescales – in the moment of creation, in the space of the visit, and over longer periods of time. And this is one of the key reasons I find it so compelling. It raises the question of whether being temporary is crucial to its success, or whether a similar alchemy can be achieved in a permanent exhibit.

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