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For two weekends, a disused piece of Raleigh's architectural history came back to life

The Bain Project 

click to enlarge Click for larger image • Members of The Bain Project - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

If a jewel in plain (if dust-covered) sight can be "discovered," then credit Christian Karkow, a sculptor, with unearthing the E.B. Bain Waterworks on an October night in 2007 while he was exploring the neighborhoods near downtown Raleigh.

Or credit Daniel Kelly, a painter and Karkow's colleague at Clearscapes in Raleigh, who seized on the building's potential after joining Karkow on his return visit later that night. It was Kelly, Karkow says, "who really got the bug" and was the leader from then on.

Soon Kelly was organizing things with Tracy Spencer, an artist who worked for Raleigh developer Greg Hatem's company, Empire Properties. Empire owns the building. So credit Spencer, too. And props to Hatem.

But finally, what made The Bain Project so marvelous wasn't the building itself, as cool as it is, or what any single person did in it, or even two or three. It was that a dozen artists assembled by Kelly and Spencer, working as a team and subordinating their specific efforts to a shared expression, were able to bring the building to life—"to activate it," as they often said as they puzzled over how to do it—in ways that were completely authentic and utterly imagined.

The Bain Project was performance art, minimalist art and celebratory art all at the same time. Above all, it was public art of the best kind, designed solely and brilliantly to excite the public mind. No one was paid, except in the form of the visitors' reactions. That, and the fact that over the four days of its existence on successive weekends in May, a project that some of the artists thought might be seen by their "friends and loved ones only," as one said, gathered steadily growing audiences—some 1,500 folks in all.

In Raleigh, where public art is as unused as the Bain building itself, it was both an eye- and a mind-opener. Or as Lia Newman, another of the artists, said in amazement: "Who the heck knew?"

The Bain Waterworks, with its sky-lit concourse, massive fixtures and stunning Art Deco design, is both a throwback and—as presented by The Bain Project—a look ahead. Built during the Depression, it reminds us how the quality of our public works once mattered so greatly to our economic survival. It closed in the '80s, as our throwaway society emerged (and a bigger, unlovely waterworks opened in North Raleigh).

And its future? Unknown, except that the Bain, which exists in amazing solitude in South Raleigh despite the fact that it's nearly a neighbor of the new convention center (and has a Fayetteville Street address), must be a beautiful and utilitarian something in the emerging era of sustainability and adaptive re-use.

This was the animating idea of the Bain Project. The artists treated the building, Indy writer Hobert Thompson said back in May, "as one big found object," still characterized by its wondrous engineering, but also by the weeds and the vines that were growing all around and into it through the windows. Rooms once used for sleeping by workers on the night shift were lately visited by the homeless who live quite literally in the shadows of Raleigh's skyscraping heart.

The artists used it all—the old bathtubs, the marble orbs ("flocculation balls") that once helped to separate the water from the sediment, even the dust and vines—as the basis for strategically located installations that suggested, based on its past, what the Bain could become. It could house people. It could house art. It could be a movie house.

Above all, though, it could gleam, as it did in the center of the great concourse. Amid a row of grimy control panels connected to the empty tanks below, one shining console—representing two weekends' worth of Karkow's chrome cleaners and elbow grease—caught the skylights' glint and reflected it to the eyes of its beholders. Everyone who saw it smiled.

With nothing wasted, little needed to be added except dignity, which was the great ingredient the artists supplied. Dressing in lab coats, signing in their visitors with elaborate ceremony and taking on with the greatest seriousness their roles of—well, given the Bain's status it wasn't exactly clear what the roles were, but they were important—the dozen collaborators embodied their respect for the building, for water (which is in short supply) and for work of the most ordinary, vital kind.

It was so different than the typical "showing," says Sarah Powers, one of the artists and the executive director of Raleigh's Visual Art Exchange, that a few visitors demanded to know "where's the art?"

But most of us knew the art was everywhere, especially in our own imaginings.

Finally, in one of those happy strokes that happens when artists get it going, one day Dana Raymond, an associate professor in the N.C. State University College of Design, wondered what would happen if he rotated one of the giant sprayer nozzles on the water tanks. Answer: It made the most amazing, screeching sound, which reverberated around the big old Bain and brought his collaborators running. Raymond's a sculptor, but he knows his way around music as well, and now he's known as "The Maestro" for the symphonic composition he produced using the nozzle valves, the flocculation balls on the pipes and—of course—the synthesizer that was the building itself. It was the cacophony of a plant producing water, and of people working in concert.

All told, in the words of Raleigh writer John Dancy-Jones, it added up to "a massive but orchestrated symphony of sense experiences."

"Rather than transform these technical elements [of the building] or even disturb them much, the artists re-inhabited ... the facility with installations that responded to and coexisted with the strong presence of water," Dancy-Jones wrote on his blog, Raleigh Rambles.

They also provided Raleigh with the strong sense of what's possible when people set aside their narrow interests and work together to imagine a better future for all. Is there any more important form of art than that?

The artists officially listed as participants in the Bain Project are: Marty Baird, Luke Buchanan, Jen Coon, Christian Karkow, Daniel Kelly, Tim Kiernan, Stacey Kirby, Lee Moore, Lia Newman, David Nicolay, Sarah Powers and Dana Raymond. The documentation team consisted of Christopher (Critter) Wentworth, KC Ramsay and Natasha Johnson. Visit www.bainproject.com.

  • For two weekends, a disused piece of Raleigh's architectural history came back to life

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