Indianapolis, IN: FLOW/ Can You See the River?

View of a rural river with decorative posts in the foreground
Photo by Mary Miss / City As Living Laboratory

How can public art and complementary programming raise awareness about environmental challenges in the urban environment?

Conceived by visual artist Mary Miss, “FLOW: Can You See the River?” is a city-wide public art project in Indianapolis that reveals how the ordinary activities of citizens affect the health and future of the White River water system. As a collaboration of artists, community organizations, scientists, and city planners, “FLOW” engaged the citizens of Indianapolis through physical installations along the river, an exhibition, and an online interactive mapping tool ( in order to enhance Indianapolis residents’ awareness of the waterway and many of the river-related issues that affect their lives.


Indianapolis, Indiana’s capital, is the largest city in the state and the 12th largest city in the country. The city covers 368 square miles, including 7 square miles of water, and has 200 feet of elevation change within city borders. Ironically, the city was founded on the White River as a transportation waterway, yet the river proved too shallow for use in trading. Indianapolis is considered the largest city in the United States that is not constructed on a navigable body of water. The White River quietly winds throughout the city, mostly unnoticed due to thick brush and trees.


With over 1.7 million in the metropolitan area, the City of Indianapolis is home to just over 840,000 residents. The population is 62% White, 27% African American, 9% Hispanic, and 2% Asian. The White River weaves through many central neighborhoods, including some of the most economically challenged communities in Indianapolis. Today, Indianapolis has a diversified economy, including state government, education, health care, and finance. Tourism is also a vital part of the city, with several large annual sporting events like the Indianapolis 500.


Artist Mary Miss, in collaboration with her local partners, assessed the need for greater awareness of the White River and its impact on daily life in the city. She found that the River provided over 70% of the local drinking water, yet was polluted and visually hidden.

There was a need for environmental education to assist local residents in understanding how their personal actions impact the waterway and their reliance on this resource. As one scientist put it, “all property is riverfront property because it starts at your front door.” Feeling like this type of environmental information was not publically accessible, Miss had previously developed a collaborative approach, known as City as Living Laboratory (CaLL) to create environmental awareness in New York City. Her team developed a methodology to make aspects of the environment more apparent, tangible, and visceral to residents. She approached partners in Indianapolis with the idea that her artistic approach might bring more awareness to issues of sustainability.


Artist Mary Miss created “FLOW: Can You See the River?” a city-wide public art installation paired with an exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and public programming. She used the intersection between art and science to raise awareness and begin conversations about environmental challenges. Miss saw the river “as a mirror of the city” and incorporated mirrors into the installation to engage people in particular places along the watershed. The physical experiences asked visitors to slow down and take notice of the natural resource that are typically overlooked. The project layered physical elements with technology, utilizing voice recordings accessed by visitors on their cell phones to provide additional information. Ultimately, Miss wanted to assist residents to increase their awareness of the White River, understand the dynamic ecosystem, appreciate the resource, and empower residents to improve the health and sustainability of Indianapolis.


Initiated by Artist Mary Miss, the FLOW project is a collaboration between the artist and Marda Kim, Executive Director of EcoArts Connections. The project partnered with over 20 Indianapolis arts, science, environmental, municipal, and other organizations in understanding the history and current issues around the White River. Many of these organizations had existing interest in the White River and water quality prior to the project, but lacked the resources or support to communicate their message. Of particular importance was the working relationship with Tim Carter, then the Director of the Center for Urban Ecology at Butler University, which led to the development of the NOAA sponsored web based app, trackaraindrop, as well as Scott Morlock at the USGS who helped to make connections and provide information that was invaluable to the development of the project and its content. The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) spearheaded the development of public programming content and the White River Festival. IMA also led an educator workshop for 60 primary and secondary teachers throughout Indianapolis, creating the potential to engage thousands of area students through lessons plans and follow-up field trips. While the installation and some of the programs were conducted by the IMA, community groups of all types were able to utilize their expertise to host additional programming outside the scope of the grant.


Miss placed over 100 stopping points along a six mile stretch of the White River to highlight significant or unique aspects of the river system, such as a levee or wetland. Mirrors and oversized red map-pins were carefully located on the Indianapolis Museum of Art’s grounds, the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park (a 100 acre park) and along the White River from Butler University to the White River State Park downtown.

Standing in front of the mirror markers, visitors adjust their view until the red mark on the mirror lines up with the red pin in the landscape, bringing together the water element, its name, and the visitor’s reflection. The “guide-by-cell” service provided a call in number for visitors to hear additional information about the waterway feature. In addition, Miss installed an oversized floor map within the Indianapolis Museum of Art to introduce visitors to the expansive project.

Walking atop the map, visitors were able to locate their homes and other landmarks in relationship to the body of water and understand their relationship to the larger watershed. The markers were up for a period of three years and are currently being repurposed as a part of the current NSF supported ‘Steam / Lines’ project which will open in the summer of 2015.


FLOW proved to be an extremely collaborative community-wide effort that reached far beyond the boundaries of the art museum and traditional arts audiences. Under Miss’ leadership, project partners successfully implemented the design, engineering, fabrication, and installation of physical site elements in 100 locations along the White River and held an exhibition at IMA with public programming from Indianapolis residents. A project website was created, including an interactive mapping tool with information about each stopping point. A citywide evaluation was completed by Randi Korn and Associates, Inc. (RK&A) studying the effects of the project on Indianapolis residents, using standardized questionnaires and in- depth interviews (see the resources section). RK&A reported the project to be “highly successful in raising awareness of how the White River affects residents and how residents affect it. In particular, interviewees often cited learning things that they did not know before, such as the history of the hundred year flood, the USGS’ monitoring of the White River, and that the canal provides drinking water to the area.” As a first project for City as Living Laboratory, Miss showcased the power of the arts and artists, as civic leaders, to address and raise awareness about community problems.


Exceeding her expectations and after 14 years of engagement in the city, artist Mary Miss reports the project has created tangible momentum around environmental issues and the White River. Begun in 2011, the White River Festival is an annual celebration of the White River and the land, wildlife, plants, trees, streams, and people who live in the areas surrounding it. More than twenty festival events took place throughout central Indiana to complement the FLOW installation, including FLOW Family Day hosted by IMA. FLOW Family Day included: BioBus, a mobile microscope lab, to discover the organisms found in nearby water system; performances by Susurrus Dance Company; and a U.S. Geological Survey water mapping demonstration. IMA is currently considering taking down the stopping points on their property and Miss is hoping to repurpose the components in other neighborhoods. Building upon the FLOW project and with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), Butler University’s Center for Urban Ecology received funding to create a toolkit of river awareness inspired by the public art project. They created a Raindrop Application that tracks the route of water from a users home to the river, utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) and mobile phone technologies. Additionally, Butler University was awarded a two-year $2.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation with Miss as a co-principal investigator to create sites along six Indianapolis waterways where arts and science will be used to educate the public about Indianapolis’s water system.


Flow: Can You See the River?
Online home of the project, including interactive map

Mary Miss Goes With the Flow
Article in Art in America

Ecological Art
Article in the Indianapolis Recorder

  • Butler University Center for Urban Ecology
    City of Indianapolis Office of Sustainability
  • IUPUI Construction Engineering Management Technology (CEMT) Purdue School of Engineering & Technology
  • Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art
    Friends of the White River
  • Hoosier Environmental Council
  • IDNR – Indiana Project WET
  • IDNR – Project Wild
    IUPUI Center for Earth and Environmental Science
  • IUPUI Regatta
  • Indiana State Museum
  • Indianapolis Art Center
  • Indianapolis Department of Public Works
  • Indianapolis Zoo
  • Indy Parks
  • La Plaza
  • Marian University
  • The Nature Conservancy
  • Riverside Civic League
  • USGS Indiana Water Science Center
  • Upper White River Watershed Alliance (UWRWA)
  • White River State Park

A variety of public programs were offered to complement the installation

  • Teacher workshop: San Antonio-based educator Penelope Speier led a session for local educators using Speier’s Moving Waters curriculum.
  • Public Talk: Artist Mary Miss presented the FLOW project, discussing project intent, site history and ecology, and collaborations.
  • Fall Water Performance: On the Fall Equinox, dancer Oguri and his dance company performed a site-specific dance piece with a live soundscore by composer Paul Chavez with Feltlike, including local musicians and non-musicians to make and pick up sound within the environment.
  • Planet Indy Speaker Series: Maude Barlow on the Right to Clean Water: Global water activist Maude Barlow shared her three-point plan toward a water-secure world and offered new ways of perceiving local water resources.
  • Winter Nights Film Series: The African Queen: A public showing of this classic Hollywood movies was shown with a trailer about FLOW to link to the contemporary installation.

The project team wanted to know whether the FLOW installation affects IMA visitors’ and Indianapolis residents’ awareness of the White River. They were particularly curious to learn whether the installation had an impact on the following:

  • Perceptions of the White River
  • Awareness of how the White River affects their lives and how they affect the White River
  • Understanding of issues that impact the health of the White River
  • Awareness of actions that can help improve the health of the White River
  • Feelings of ownership regarding the White River