With cars thumping the expansion joints overhead, All Go Signs director Chuck Karnack shines the biggest flashlight he has at the still pool of spring water that had seeped into the eastern end of the concrete cavern that makes up the subway level of the Detroit-Superior bridge. He tosses in a rock, and the resulting ripples reflect light across the arches, walls and ceiling of a part of the city that no one ever thought of as performance space — until now.
Karnack is programming the east end of the Bridge Project, a two-day adventure conceived by Ingenuity festival director James Levin and Cleveland Urban Design Center director and Kent State University prof Terry Schwarz to re-animate a space that hasn't been used for anything but tours for more than half a century. He'll bring a lineup of bands, other performers and artists to the cavern beneath the edge of downtown. Some will mingle with the crowd. Some will perform on a stage. And some — like a group of dancers from the SAFMOD diaspora — will perform on small platforms floating just beneath the surface of that spring-water pool.
"People haven't been down in this space for 50 years," Karnack says before pausing for drama. "I'm cognizant of that."
Cleveland artists have long known that one of our unnatural resources is inexpensive empty space for studios, galleries and experimentation. We have a long tradition of young artists throwing a few dollars together and being able to afford their own venues. But in addition to the affordable, our repertoire also includes the spectacular. The Detroit-Superior Bridge is a post-streetcar, post-industrial playground that would make any filmmaker drool. Few places in the world boast half-mile, publicly owned spans with a road for a roof and the ambiance of a basement sliced into a lace of pillars and arches, and overlooking a river valley and views of industry, downtown and Lake Erie. Such expansive, unused public infrastructure isn't typically accessible to just anyone, but visionaries Levin and Schwarz were able to get the cooperation of the county engineer's office, which is in charge of the space.
As Levin says, riffing on Shakespeare, "The place is the thing. The key here is showcasing the space. With its views of the industrial valley and downtown and the lake, it connects people to the city in a way that they never have been before. It is one of the most dynamic and charismatic locations in the city."
Levin and his collaborators are programming the west side of the bridge with a similarly eclectic collection of entertainers, including the Electric Junkyard Gamelan — a group that plays original music on invented instruments — and operatic excerpts by Opera per Tutti.
Levin, Karnack and all Bridge Project the collaborators see it as an experiment that will inform future events and get other people thinking about the forgotten space. It's an experiment not to be missed.