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Roll up your pant legs for John Duckworth’s current installation, 'Wade in the Water'

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MICHAEL CAMPINA
  • Michael Campina
Antarctica is a helluva long haul from upper King Street. Or so you thought.
The massive ice shelf way down yonder is also super chilly compared to our sweltering heat, and traffic there is not nearly as congested as here, unless you get waylaid by a penguin parade.

But as Wade in the Water, artist John Duckworth’s bold installation for Enough Pie’s Awakening V: King Tide hopes to make clear, there are critical points of connection between the Lowcountry and the lowest (latitude-wise) continent — besides the fact that we have Southern charm and it’s got the South Pole.

Antarctica is pristine wildness, “the last place on earth not owned by anybody or claimed by any country,” says John Duckworth, a Johns Island artist and fine art photographer who last gave Charleston a wake-up call with his 2014 City Gallery at Waterfront Park exhibition exploring Buddhist mindfulness themes, titled Awake. It’s also one gigantic melting glacier, and a remote and vulnerable part of the planet that captivated Duckworth’s imagination when polar adventurer Sir Robert Swan visited Charleston in December 2015 to share his wonder and concern for the continent, and to try to recruit a “Charleston ambassador” to join his next Antarctic expedition.

He ended up with a crew of eight from Charleston, including fifth-grader Isabelle Gray, one of the youngest visitors ever to the Antarctic, and Garrett Budds, conservation director for the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and steering committee member for Awakening V, and whose stunning expedition photographs helped inspire Duckworth’s vision for Wade in the Water.

As Swan made clear, what happens in Antarctica doesn’t stay in Antarctica, and likewise, our local actions in Charleston have global impact. When that polar ice melts and turns to water, it contributes to rising sea levels, which in turn contributes to King Tides and increased flooding events in low-lying areas, say for example, East Bay Street and various parts of Charleston and the Upper Peninsula. Which in turn means traffic snarls resulting from flooded roads, which means you may be wading in some water, or be late getting to or from work or maybe yoga, which means it’s time to wake up, folks. More than your ruined savasana is at stake.

Like Awake, Duckworth’s new installation — part of Enough Pie’s broader Awakening V effort using art to raise awareness about climate change and the threat of rising tides — is also an ambitious multimedia project. For starters, Duckworth and a talented team of collaborators, including photographer Garrett Budds, musician/vocalist Ann Caldwell and her gospel singers, composer Lee Barbour, audio/production mastermind Quentin Baxter and sound/light/technical guru Todd St. Onge, are staging the installation in a long abandoned and semi-eerie former roller rink above the new Redux. It’s one vast, dusty and very empty canvas that Duckworth has transformed into a large-scale site-specific immersive experience.

In many ways Wade is a follow-up to Duckworth’s earlier Awake, and in fact, a primary component of the show — the use of locative audio — was intended to be incorporated in Awake, only the technology hadn’t evolved enough then to pull it off. Locative audio basically allows the exhibition visitor to hear audio files planted in precise locations and “walk through sounds” paired with images or particular spaces.

“Now it’s feasible,” says Duckworth, who with a little online sleuthing found “the guy,” a British app developer named Josh Kopecek and the expert in this leading-edge smartphone technology. “I emailed him, explained what I envisioned and wanted to do, and he basically said ‘Yeah, it’s doable, but it’s never been done before.’”

Here’s how the technology’s inaugural rollout in an old roller-rink works: a recording of Ann Caldwell’s gospel singers belts out the spiritual “Wade in the Water," the sound backdrop for one of three distinct audio zones that immerse the visitor in a deeply interactive and participatory experience, using GIS points and other locative wizardry. As guests move through the space, their intimate encounter of sound and image will seek to underscore their interdependent relationship with the natural world, ultimately linking Charleston’s flooded streets with Antarctica’s melting glaciers.

“Sure this has the potential to flop, but I love that it’s an experiment, and I know good things will come out of it. They already have,” says Duckworth. “I’ve loved engaging with all the creative people at Enough Pie and Redux, and all my friends and colleagues who are helping pull this off. It’s been exciting.”

But more than exciting, the work has been meaningful for the artist and community advocate who’s a Charleston Moves board member — and deeply concerned about the environment. “It wasn’t like I set out to do an installation related to Antarctica, but one moment I’m listening to Robert Swan, and next thing I know here I am. I’ve come to realize you don’t go start a movement, movements move you.” Which is exactly what Duckworth hopes will happen to those who experience Wade in the Water.

Check out Wade in the Water at Redux, Tues.-Fri., 10 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sat. 12-5 p.m. through June 10.


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