By Tyler Dague for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Visitors from the future inhabit a shipping container at Downtown’s Allegheny Overlook Pop-up Park. Government researchers from the year 2132 have gone back in time to find out more about the Allegheny River after a massive flood destroyed all the historical information they had.
The premise above is North Braddock artist Lindsey Peck Scherloum’s latest project for Pittsburgh Creative Corps, an initiative of the Office of Public Art and Riverlife. Through interactive roleplaying as researchers from the future, she and fellow performers questioned Downtown passersby to get a sense of what role the Allegheny River plays in Pittsburgh today. They asked:
What memories do you have of the river? What do you think the personality of the river is? Of the five senses, what is activated the most when you think about the river?
Scherloum, who calls her project “Future Archive,” was intrigued by the answers.
“Almost everybody has said something about how dirty it is, how it probably doesn’t like us very much, how it would be great if we took care of it better,” she said.
The Pittsburgh Creative Corps created artist residencies in partnership with Riverlife, a nonprofit advocacy group for sustainable, equitable development of Pittsburgh’s riverfronts. As the pandemic recedes, the aim is to use arts and culture to help rebuild the relationship between people and public spaces, especially the rivers.
Scherloum’s futuristic fact-finding mission is the first of three artist residencies. Each three-week residency is based in the corps studio, a painted shipping container near the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Scherloum’s information gathering ended July 14; artists Maritza Mosquera and Curtis Reaves will continue the project in completely new ways for the remainder of the summer.
The goal is to take the collective narratives from community members gathered by the three artists and use them to inform future Creative Corps programs, including the development of self-guided walking tours.
Scherloum, who is 8½ months pregnant, and other performers donned masks and futuristic silver uniforms with flashy sequins — er, solar collectors. For a few hours each day, they walked the streets of Downtown with clipboards, audio recorders and a Polaroid camera, talking to residents, families, tourists and others. They interviewed a valet, security guards, a professor and people who said they were homeless.
Scherloum said many of the people she talked to had at least one story of someone drowning in the river. Some said they go to the riverfront for its healing, meditative qualities. The responses were especially varied to one question: What is your vision for the Allegheny River in the future?
“A lot of people have visions of the future where it is more stewarded, it is cleaner,” she said. “And then also many visions of the future where it is completely flooded or gone completely or maybe this is a big, flooded basin.”
All responses are recorded and posted online anonymously. With respondents’ consent, Scherloum takes a Polaroid portrait, one for the project and one for them to keep.
Sallyann Kluz, director for the city’s Office of Public Art, said she was excited to hear how people use the riverfronts and other public spaces.
“When in the hands of an artist, community engagement takes incredibly different forms and can help us to see our spaces and ourselves differently,” Kluz said by email. “Looking at Lindsey’s work, there is a joy and playfulness that comes with her approach … which automatically breaks down barriers and helps people become more engaged with the conversation.”
Scherloum grouped the folks she and her cohorts talked to into two broad categories: those who had little time or desire to talk to her, but would likely take the walking tour, and those who had a lot to say about the river, but for a variety of reasons, likely wouldn’t take the tour.
“I guess my goal with this from the beginning was to talk to people who didn’t have access to airtime in other ways,” she said.
Scherloum was approached by one man asking for money. She had no cash but asked him what he might want from 7-Eleven, and bought him tea.
“He had so much great stuff to say,” she recalled. “I’m reminded of how rare it is for somebody who’s sitting on the street seeing people all day long to actually have an opportunity to talk to them.”
Gunner LaBuff of Squirrel Hill, an actor who took part in the project, said talking to passersby was “a mixed bag” with some avoiding the costumed interviewers and others checking them out before eventually agreeing to answer questions.
LaBuff said it was an “enlightening experience” to find out many people are bearish on the future of the Allegheny River and their role in its survival.
“A lot of people talk about littering, which is a really simplistic view about how to care about river health,” LaBuff said.
“‘I’m not part of the problem.’ I say, ‘OK, would you drive next to the river?’ Someone I asked said, ‘No, I wouldn’t.’
“It’s kind of an interesting perspective about how people are super negative but don’t necessarily have a complex view of how to remediate the river and the general health of the river.”
The interviewers said their futuristic costumes often attracted curiosity seekers who became participants in “Future Archive.”
“I feel very thankful for an opportunity to use art and use this really creative world-building approach to get people thinking in new ways and at the same time collect information,” Scherloum said.
“The hope is that by engaging people about the river in these three weeks … that people are reframing the way that they think about it.”
To participate in the project, go to aMapOfUs.com/the-ancient-ones. The link provides information on where to find interviewers and how to call, email or text your response anonymously. The hotline will be available until Aug. 4.
Photos by Heather Mull.