Date October 12, 2022
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Founder Barnaby Evans on WaterFire’s powerful economic, cultural impact in Providence

The Brown graduate and WaterFire founder shared insights on Brown’s Open Curriculum, and the enduring impact of the powerful work of art and moving symbol of Providence’s renaissance.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Launched in the mid-1990s by Brown Class of 1975 graduate Barnaby Evans, the award-winning WaterFire has been acclaimed by Rhode Island residents and international visitors alike as a powerful work of art and a moving symbol of Providence’s renaissance. During each lighting, more than 80 sparkling bonfires, the fragrant scent of wood smoke, flickering firelight on the city’s arched bridges, silhouettes of the fire-tenders passing by the flames, torch-lit vessels traveling down the river, and enchanting music from around the world engage the senses and emotions of those who stroll Providence’s streets and sidewalks.

On Saturday, Oct. 22, Brown University will sponsor a full WaterFire lighting to celebrate the University's commitment to the Providence community it calls home. In advance of the lighting, News from Brown is revisiting a Q&A with Evans first published in October 2021. The WaterFire founder shared his insights on his experience with Brown’s innovative Open Curriculum, WaterFire’s role in transforming Providence over two and a half decades, and how the organization continues to thrive, including in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Q: WaterFire is a household name in Rhode Island, but you must run into people in your travels who have never experienced it — how do you describe WaterFire to someone who has not yet attended?

Art always best speaks for itself, so I try to avoid describing it. People deserve the opportunity to encounter WaterFire on their own, without imposed expectations. To enter into a discussion is to force a set of presumptions related to how one looks at art, so I usually turn the question around: "You've heard a little bit about it. What do you imagine it is?"

It's fascinating to hear what they say. We wanted something that would respond to people of all ages and backgrounds, and I've heard so many stories from people about what it means to them, including from children. We've been doing WaterFire for 25 years now, so we have kids who just assume it's part of the “ancient” history of the city — that it’s something Roger Williams started. At its core, WaterFire is designed to work simultaneously on multiple levels: It’s an installation sculpture work, a civic intervention, a public ritual and a piece of social engineering. We also make cultural references that people can find if they're interested in pursuing those, but a lot of people simply want to enjoy it.

Q: Can you give us a quick history lesson about the origins of WaterFire, how it began and how it connected to your Brown experience?

Brown had launched the Open Curriculum by the time I arrived, which allowed students to set up cross-department majors of their own creation. I studied environmental and ecological systems; how they intersected with urbanism; and how they intersected with the psychological, symbolic and social aspects of art. I came from the West Coast and slowly discovered Providence to be a quirky, fascinating city with an interesting history and a wealth of historical architecture. It had a very negative self-assessment of itself, yet it was a remarkable place. In order for a city to thrive, it has to have a constructive and positive sense of itself, and a place where people feel that they belong to the city. I wondered whether an artwork could address both those problems.

Over the years, as the water quality in the rivers downtown improved through environmental legislation, Providence had the opportunity to uncover the three rivers downtown. It was a massive reinvention project. They moved the rivers, railroad tracks and roads. It was a vast civic project and we talked about it as part of a renaissance, but it also didn't have a soul to it —there was no reason for people to come to see the new river park that resulted. It deservedly won many design awards, but it was usually deserted. Parks need people. After watching what I thought was a fascinatingly successful civic design process, I realized that the programmatic aspects of how one embraces a new space into a city's life and rituals was a really important step that was still needed. So the idea was to create an artwork that could populate and animate this new park space.  The framing of new beginning for the capital suggested some of the symbolic elements.

The question was: Could you turn Providence from what the Wall Street Journal called “a dark smudge by the side of the fast lane on the way to Cape Cod” into a destination city? Could you attract people to support a vibrant restaurant economy? WaterFire was an opportunity to rebrand Providence as a city of bold ideas, as an experience. But it was also addressing a host of urban problem present in many cities where the walking life of the street had been eclipsed by the automobile, particularly at night. People felt fearful simply because they weren't used to being out walking in the dark. We actually turn the streetlights off as part of WaterFire to have people discover that there can be a sort of comfort and mystery in that space.

The architect Friedrich St. Florian called WaterFire “the crown jewel of the Providence renaissance.” There was a vast reinvention with so many different projects that happened — from preservation to the new downtown to new construction to the revitalization of the universities. But we  needed something to pull that together in a symbolic way. WaterFire was not responsible for all of that, but it became a symbol of the success of all these efforts.

Q: What can you share about the significant economic and cultural impact it has had in Providence?

WaterFire has been an important part of rebranding the city as a destination, as an activity. WaterFire is designed to be something done in synchrony with the other things you're doing before or after the event. We try to avoid the phenomena you see with theater or a baseball game, for example, where everyone rushes into the city to then be seated someplace isolated at a particular point, where they are then locked up for up to three hours, and then they all rush out to their cars and cause a traffic jam. That stresses a city in many different ways. The restaurants have to staff up for this pre-theater or pre-game rush. Then there's a huge gap. Then later people might or might not come back. WaterFire is designed to have a porous sense of temporal and spatial boundaries. If you want to come to the theater, you can come watch WaterFire first and then go to theater. Or if you want to come see the fires lit first, you can go to the restaurants after the theater crowd. It helps to build the economy with more diverse pathways as people find their way through it.  We want there to be as much freedom of action as possible.

WaterFire also gets people out of their cars and walking through an urban pedestrian space. They're more exploratory and more intrigued with the city when they are on foot, and it generates all these spontaneous interactions with each other. That's how one builds the civic commons. WaterFire is deliberately set up as a democratic space with total freedom. You get to arrive anytime you want, you can walk wherever you want, you can speak quietly during the event, or you can listen quietly to the music, you can move where you want. Everyone is physically part of the performance. There are no reserved seats that are fancier than other seats. It's all open and, ideally, people don't sit in one place. They engage in what's called the passeggiata or the paseo — walking urban experiences where you're interacting with new people, surprises, events and places throughout the evening. That's a very comfortable type of urbanism.

Q: What enables WaterFire to thrive, nearly three decades after its start?

First of all, we've had strong partnerships with organizations such as Brown, a long-time sponsor. Brown sees the importance of its relationship with the City of Providence, and of course the image and reputation of Providence is an element when students consider applying to the University. We present the event entirely for free, so we're dependent on a complicated model of sponsorships with some public support and a lot of private donations.

We also have a large social program of engagement, where we actively look at ways to bring attention to the wider community of rich diversity that Providence has always had. Roger Williams established Providence as the first sanctuary city — he actually used that language in his founding document — so we’ve always had remarkable diversity, but people often settled in different neighborhoods where they have their own neighborhood festivals. We wanted to see whether we could be a constructive partner in working with these different traditions to create a place for those art forms to be also performed on the public square downtown. You'll see that at the upcoming WaterFire — the Gendo Taiko drumming group from Brown and the capoeira group are going to be there. Our main theme is celebrating the cultures of Black, Indigenous and people of color around the world with Trinidadian steel drum, salsa on Steeple Street, the Narragansett Harris Dance Troupe on the main stage at WaterPlace Basin at 5 p.m., and many other performers.WaterFire

When we conceptualized how WaterFire might work, the group we least anticipated was the remarkable corps of volunteers who have made WaterFire part of their philanthropic view of what a community member participates in. We've had thousands of volunteers, some of whom have volunteered for nearly 25 years and continue to volunteer. I think many people have an innate desire to do something constructive in their community, in the arts or arts-related. We couldn't do WaterFire without them. We also have a staff that works very hard to set up the WaterFire experiences — setting up the stages and getting all the boats ready and on the water — but refueling the fires and captaining the boats, those are all done with volunteers, and that takes a lot to organize.

Throughout the night, you see the fires slowly getting dimmer as they run out of fuel and project less warmth and less light. And then out of the dark comes this boat, full of fellow community members who are volunteering their time to contribute to making the city bright and successful. They're each putting their log in the fire, adding their own energy, spark and spirit. That's what a successful community does — everyone contributes. So all night long, we're reenacting this very simple ritual that by participatory engagement of everyone in the community, one can bring light, vitality, action and beauty back to the heart of the city.

Q: The pandemic has undoubtedly presented challenges for WaterFire with so many limitations on public gatherings. Have there been any new opportunities offered by the pause?

Art is often defined as creative problem solving, and we actually did quite a few interesting things during COVID. The first thing we did was the Beacon of Hope — a virtual event where every day for the first three months of the pandemic’s impact in Providence, we would light a candle for every death in the state. A few families came in-person and lit candles for their family members.

We also worked with Wilbury Theatre on a project called “Decameron, Providence” based on Boccaccio's novel, “Decameron,” which is about the response of Florence to the bubonic plague. What's fascinating about that novel is the heroines — a group of women who decide to follow the best public health practices of the day — led in doing what we recognize now as helpful, which were to do things outside, wear a mask, keep socially distanced, eat healthy food, get fresh air, get some exercise, refrain from social interactions with strangers. They retired to an abandoned villa, and they told stories each night for two weeks, which was the prescribed period of time you need to stay isolated. We used that structure to create a series of outdoor theatrical experiences with many new Providence voices who had stories to tell. With the Black Lives Matter movement unfolding along with the pandemic, a lot of things happened at the same time. People would come to this garden setting outdoors in small groups and hear all these new stories.

Also, because the pandemic ended some of the programming at the WaterFire Arts Center, we were able to do four really large art exhibitions in the space — another demonstration of what a contemporary arts center can do for Providence.

Q: You graduated from Brown in 1975. Were there particular people, experiences or lessons learned that have been particularly influential?

One of my initial attractions, which Brown reinforced, was the respectful cross-fertilization between disciplines. With the opportunity for the sciences and the humanities to illuminate different aspects of their respective processes, I split my time at Brown between history, architecture, art and humanities, but also biological sciences from ecology to microbiology. Brown really helped reinforce that combination of a passionate engagement of cultural understanding with the analytical approach that comes from the sciences. Clearly that's up to the choices people make in what they study, but I found Brown to be wonderful institution in which to learn and grow.

And of course the challenge we're all looking at now is climate change, which is going to require a very broad perspective for us to come up with enough motivation to make progress. We know what we need to do — the question is how we figure out how to make probably the largest transformation we've ever had to accomplish. It's such a complicated challenge and it will take everything from the theological perspective, to the engineering perspective, all informed by the arts and humanities and history, and political science.

Q: Given the urgent discussion in Providence about climate change, sea level rise and resiliency, is there a role for WaterFire — an installation literally on the city’s waters — to play?

We spend a lot of time thinking about that. The revitalization of cities and our learning to live in a rich, dense walking environment with adaptive reuse of existing buildings and sustainable responses is part of the critical steps the world needs to take. Figuring out how to constructively reuse resources, energy and urban density to make our city’s a joyous place to live is a critical part of what all cities need to be doing, as well as looking at green infrastructure and reducing our use of fossil fuels.  And since we’re on the river all the time, we've become intimately familiar with the motions and future of the water.

The challenge here is how to build consensus on the most cost effective and equitable solutions. People talk about the green economy, but it’s still an amorphous term, and we have work to figure out how each city can best work those things out. Toward that end, WaterFire was one of the founding partners of the Providence Resilience Partnership, of which Brown is also a very active part. The goal is to both help with education about these issues, but also to create the civic conversation about how we can achieve the best solutions. These are key questions that we must all address, as will the entire next generation.