Playfully Exploring the Unknown of Philadelphia’s Water Future

The Camp Little Hope Collective: Aislinn Pentecost-Farren, Mary Rothlisberger, Isabella Martin, Walker Tufts.Hidden City’s Kelly Natatorium explores a resource that many environmental experts have dubbed “the oil of the 21st century”—fresh drinking water. Although the surrounding Philly Water Works has recently experienced successful renovations, the specific site of HCP’s Kelly Natatorium continues to remain closed to the public. One of nine exhibition spaces displayed in HCP’s 2013 Festival, the Natatorium owes its temporary transformation to the imagination and work of the artist collective, Camp Little Hope.

The collective, whose mission is to “produce curatorial interventions that expand people’s relationship to the commons,” has turned the Natatorium’s three abandoned swimming lanes into the interactive "Bibotorium.” The artist collective defines their fabricated new word as the following:

Bi•bo•tor•ium: noun - A time-machine, laboratory and harbor space for radically re-imagining the world’s water.

The Bibotorium exhibit tells the rich aquatic history of the Natatorium’s architectural heritage. Camp Little Hope combines the building's rich aquatic history with exhibitions that explore the unfolding water narrative of the region. In this way, The Bibotorium balances its focus between the history and future of water in the Schuylkill River and surrounding city of Philadelphia, creating an educational think tank space that is both socially and scientifically involved.

As a visitor of The Bibotorium, I spoke with two of Camp Little Hope’s members, Aislinn Pentecost-Farren and Mary Rothlisberger. Dressed in jumpsuits to help make them recognizable among the exhibition’s visitors, Aislinn and Mary elaborated on the artistic and educational intentions for creating the Hidden City Philadelphia exhibition space.

Through our conversations, I learned that the design of the space is all about offering visitors spontaneous choices. Participants need to decide which illuminated swimming pool lane to explore when they enter the exhibit. Once in the empty cement swimming spaces, visitors can choose to spend time viewing photographs of the 1960’s functioning natatorium. They can also opt to view advertisements of the 1920’s aquarium. The power of choice ties into one of the main messages of the art installation - that people still have the freedom to choose their unwritten water futures.

To explore the future of water, people can discover the fictional stories and letters written by the Camp Little Hope collective, depicting Philadelphia’s waterways in 2062. Participants eventually talk with the collective’s members, sharing their personal thoughts and relationship to water while listening and learning about the history and projected future of this essential natural resource in Philadelphia.

Pentecost-Farren believes that the primary reaction that most participants experience from the exhibition is one of surprise. “Most people do not have any idea that 50 years from now, scientists are predicting that the salt line of the Atlantic Ocean will reach many of Philadelphia’s freshwater sources,” she explains. While this projection is indeed surprising and jarring to our imaginations, the collective has been very intentional “not to freak people out” with this future reality.

Camp Little Hope skirts around the potential doomsday tone often associated with rising tides and dwindling freshwater supplies by reminding participants that the future does not currently exist. By offering participants the space of a theoretical future, it provides them with breathing room to creatively envision how we are going to fix these problems. Mary Rothlisberger elaborates, “When a person is bogged down with fear, their innovation juices dry up. And that is the last thing that the collective wants to have happen to our participants.”

Over the first three weeks of their exhibition, Camp Little Hope has successfully involved a variety of participants in rethinking their relationship to Philly's water. The collective has partnered with the Waterworks Interpretive Center and local elementary schools to involve young students in the conversation about future waterways. Every morning, groups of students join the art collective to collaboratively design the exhibit's "pollution extractive-technologies boat" -- a vessel that explores adapting to a world where all water sources have been polluted. Conceiving of such a boat allows students to brainstorm innovative ideas for meeting human health needs in a changing water climate.

Thanks to input from students, the current boat’s design includes systems that clean polluted water and grow food for fish. The boat also offers living quarters for residents thriving amongst the rising tides of Philadelphia’s waterways. The sketches remind Camp Little Hope to keep the boat’s design imaginative and fun. In their lighthearted approach to a complex issue, the collective's Bibotorium empowers participants, providing resources for embracing Philadelphia’s documented water history while playfully yet effectively exploring the city’s unknown water future.  

Andrew Schlesinger is a passionate environmental thinker and designer. He can be reached at andrewpschlesinger@gmail.com