Visual Arts

UPDATED: Open Channel Flow: What Happens When Public Art "Breaks"?

In the fall of 2009, a piece of installation artwork called Open Channel Flow was installed just west of the Jamail Skate Park and Sabine Street Bridge, along Buffalo Bayou. The sculpture, which made use of existing piping and blended in with the nearby Sabine Street Pump Station, included an old-fashioned handle that could be pumped to produce a shower of water from a spigot 30 feet above.

The sculpture, which was commissioned by the Houston Arts Alliance, was supposed to be operable 24 hours a day, and would be the only shower along the trails that traverse both sides of Buffalo Bayou. It was expected to be a huge hit with runners and skaters making use of the nearby facilities.

The only problem? After the first couple of months, it never did work correctly.

Because I am a runner and I live close to Buffalo Bayou, I was psyched about this. I used the shower after almost every run that fall, but by the following spring the pump had stopped working. I tried it a few times and then sort of wrote it off. Occasionally, if I was passing by, I'd test the pump, but I never really gave it much thought until a few weeks ago when my husband mentioned he had run by and tested it too.

Now that the weather is getting super-hot, and with all the other improvements being made to the bayou trails, it sure would be nice to have a cool, refreshing shower after my runs and paddles on Buffalo Bayou.

The first part of the problem was finding out who is responsible for the upkeep of the artwork.

To start, I emailed Michael Geller, the artist. Geller lives in New York and from what I understand, he travels a lot. I also contacted Trudi Smith, director of public relations and events for the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. I called the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, and eventually I reached out to City Council member Ed Gonzalez on Twitter. It was Gonzalez's chief of staff, Jerry Peruchini, who got back to me first.

While Peruchini was chasing down an answer for me, I got a call from Smith, who was incredibly helpful, but also about as confused as me in terms of whose responsibility the work fell under. Smith had also emailed Geller. She told me the installation had been repaired briefly for a ceremony several months ago honoring the artists with installations in Buffalo Bayou Park. She also said that Geller had relayed that the sculpture is functioning as it should, but that the water might actually be turned off. She recommended I contact the Houston Arts Alliance, which had commissioned the work.

Before I had a chance to do that, I heard back from Peruchini -- at about 3:30 p.m. on Friday (how's that for government efficiency?). He told me that the artwork falls under the jurisdiction of the Public Works and Engineering department, and that the department had fielded a request in March to repair the sculpture. That repair had apparently not been made.

"We've asked for that to be investigated," he said. "We are working to get it resolved, and will definitely keep you informed on its progress."

I covered the original installation as a freelancer for the Chronicle's 29-95, the link to which is currently dead, unfortunately. A quote in my original story, from former Department of Public Works and Engineering director Mike Marcotte, who resigned in 2010, seems apt here.

"We want to have people realize that water is precious," he said. "It takes a certain amount of infrastructure to get to you."

As of Friday evening, the shower was still not working.

UPDATE: 9:28 p.m. June 23, 2013

On Friday we heard back from both Councilman Ed Gonzales's office and Trudi Smith with the Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The news is both good and bad. Open Channel Flow will be fixed, but not until construction on the north side of Buffalo Bayou Park is complete next year.

The following is from Guy Hagstette, a consultant with Buffalo Bayou Partnership and projection manager for Buffalo Bayou Park - Shepherd to Sabine, as forwarded by Trudi Smith:

I am the project manager for the Buffalo Bayou Park project, which has construction under way in the immediate vicinity of Open Channel Flow (note that there also have been two other construction contractors in the immediate area). When I received your e-mails, I asked our contractor if they had shut off water to Open Channel Flow. They say they did not shut off water, but they found the valve, and when they opened it, they discovered a major water leak between it and the artwork. This appears to be the reason water was shut off.

Because our major construction in this area is beginning now, I have directed our contractor to fence off the artwork to protect it from damage. It also will not be safe for the general public to enter this area of the park until early 2014. As part of our work, we will repair the leak and turn the water back on when we are done.

Please note that power to the beacons on top of the sculpture also has been cut because its electrical panel is being removed. We will be re-routing power from another source as part of our work, also.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Shey is an experienced blogger, social media expert and traveler. She studied journalism at Oklahoma State University before working as a full-time reporter for Houston Community Newspapers in 2005. She lived in South Korea for three years, where she worked as a freelancer.
Contact: Brittanie Shey