Creative Fusion: Bright Future
Squidsoup & Anthony Rowe | United Kingdom
Kent State University Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative
An installation on the unused streetcar level of Veterans Memorial Bridge uses the light of the ’69 fire to point the way forward.
Perhaps you’ve heard? The Cuyahoga River caught fire fifty years ago.
When Randy Newman’s ironic ode, “Burn On,” called Cleveland a city of light, city of magic, he was singing about the fire of oil and debris that we know as the Cuyahoga River fire of 1969. “The Lord can make you tumble,” he sang, “and the Lord can make you turn, and the Lord can make you overflow, but the Lord can’t make you burn.” That’s the light and magic part.
The fiftieth anniversary of that river fire, the last of a series of Cuyahoga fires, is being commemorated by a number of events. Most are positioned as celebrations of the environmental movement the fire helped to spark, and the turnaround of the Cuyahoga into a healthier body of water—an effort that continues to this day. Under the banner Cuyahoga50, celebratory and contemplative events are taking place throughout Cuyahoga County and include everything from a Green Tech environmental conference, to a music festival, poetry readings, and a sacred river walk. Several of these projects are supported by the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program in an iteration dubbed Waterways to Waterways.
The event that will show Cleveland as a city of light, city of magic the most, however, is likely to be an installation created by UK-based design collective Squidsoup, in collaboration with local partner Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative (CUDC).
High above the river, in a spot once cloaked in the smoke of the river’s fires, Squidsoup will transform the former streetcar level of the Veterans Memorial Bridge (still known to many as the Detroit-Superior Bridge), into environments of light and sound that will both respond to its architectural space and to the events of fifty years ago.
“It’s quite a stunning idea—the river catching fire,” he says. “It’s a sensitive subject—I’ve learned to understand that, as well.
“But on the other hand, what’s done is done, and you’ve moved on a long way since. The effort into the transformation to where you are now is vast. It’s a big hill you’ve climbed. I would think it’s something to celebrate rather than be embarrassed about.”
For the bridge project, the Squidsoup is planning to deploy two of their existing interventions. At the eastern edge of the bridge, in one of its cave-like alcoves, the firm will install an immersive piece from the series Flow, “using the space as the inspiration for a light-based overlay that accentuates the atmosphere of the space and its history,” Rowe says.
At the bridge’s center will be an iteration of Squidsoup’s Submergence project, which Rowe says will act “as a beacon of light” in the time leading up to the June 22, 2019, anniversary, and will be more directly accessible to the public on that day and night.
One of the qualities it hopes to exploit in the installation is the bridge’s dizzying height.
“We plan to lift up the floorboards underneath the work to accentuate the feeling of being suspended within a surreal environment, hundreds of feet in the air above the Cuyahoga River,” he says.
But it’s what is—or was—beneath the bridge that spurred much of the collective’s creativity.
“The river catching fire for the last time fifty years ago will be a direct source of inspiration for the Flow work, and more indirectly for Submergence,” Rowe says. “It is amazing that a river that is now pretty healthy and vibrant was not so long ago so polluted—and a huge achievement to have cleaned it up.”
During his first visit to the bridge in February, Rowe realized that, though the region is in the eastern time zone, it’s location on that zone’s western edge created a particular challenge.
“We work with light,” he says. “We need darkness. Our busy months are November, December, January, February. This event is going to be a mid-summer’s day.”
“It means it’s not going to get dark until half past 10 on the main night of the event.” That prompted Squidsoup to explore the darker ends of the bridge.
“On the other hand—it’d be a bit of a shame to be in the corners when there’s this phenomenal space a half mile up in the sky.” Rowe laments that they couldn’t “fill up the whole bridge,” which would cost millions and millions of dollars.
But for Rowe, the main challenge of creating the work—the sheer scale—is also one of the main attractions of the project. Before his scouting tour he says he had vastly underestimated the bridge’s imposing size and scope, and he was stunned when he first encountered it.
“At something like half a mile from end to end it would need a massive budget to engage on an equal basis with the Detroit-Superior Bridge,” he says. “I hope that working with the architecture, responding to it, but in no way attempting to match or dominate it, is the right—and only—way to go. Time will tell; it is massive, and also a stunning location.”
The CUDC agrees and hopes such projects keep interest in the space and its potential alive. It has at times brought students to the space to repurpose and reimagine it (a zipline was one suggestion). The kind of effort to build the bridge, dedicated in 1917 and built at a cost of over $5 million, and to support the public transportation beneath it, takes a public will that may no longer exist (though it’s worth noting the most recent momentous investment in the region has been the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District’s $3 billion project to prevent pollution from entering Lake Erie and its tributaries).
The philanthropy funding Creative Fusion is the legacy of an economic might long gone from the region. The heavy industry will not return; the streetcar will not return. But the river can and, to a certain degree, has. Another site that would have had a clear view of river fires a half-century ago is now the Ohio City Farm, which provides vegetables, herbs, and hops for Great Lakes Brewing Company, where patrons can pick up a six of Burning River Pale Ale. At the mouth of the river is the sleek and sensuous former coast guard station, the site of the brewing company’s Burning River Fest (taking place this year to coincide with Cuyahoga50 commemorations), which raises money for environmental advocacy work, and—the company hopes—a restoration of the station into a resource dedicated to the study and preservation of Great Lakes waterways. Perhaps the ambitions of the city have returned to essentials that would have sustained it a century before the river caught fire in 1969: food, water, knowledge, art, and beer.
The streetcar level of the Veterans Memorial Bridge will be open on June 22, 2019, during which the Squidsoup installations will be accessible. Tickets are not required, but guests must sign a waiver, preferably ahead of time via an online link, or on site the day of the event. There will be a preview night on June 19, from 8 pm- 11 pm that is free and open to the public, but advanced registration is required. For more information, the waiver form, and preview night registration, visit Cuyahoga50.org.