A surprise under a bridge

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

The public art piece “Swimmers,” currently residing under a bridge that crosses Wingra Creek at John Nolen Drive, consists of five life-size human figures, each at a different stage at a swim stroke. Madison-based artist Chris Murphy placed the figures there as part of the Madison Arts Commission‘s BLINK program, which provides artists with small grants to put up temporary art installations around the city. You see the figures as you walk or bike along the path on either side of the creek, or pass under them in a canoe or kayak. The bridge isn’t very high, so from the path you can see the open backs of the figures, which Murphy creates using light but strong orthopedic casting tape. Depending on the time of day and the light and how much you look out for unexpected things above you, the figures might first appear as reflections on the water.

“I really wanted to have these figures kind of up out of the way where you couldn’t necessarily see them until you were almost upon them,” Murphy says. “They originally glowed in the dark, but that was years ago. The phosphorus in there has long since gone dormant.”

Murphy has played with water and reflections before, including in an earlier piece that he placed on a bridge over the Yahara River. It’s a way for him to mingle viewers’ experiences of water with his own. He lives just a few blocks from the Yahara and remembers helping to sandbag it during the fall 2018 floods. He worked as a tugboat deckhand in south Texas in the 1970s.

To put up a piece of art like this in a public space is to give up a lot of control over it, and Murphy has embraced that. The birds that nest under the bridge have already incorporated the sculpture into their lives, often hanging out on a wire that holds them up. “They’ve actually been starting to play around, using the figures as obstacles as they cruise around,” Murphy notes, adding that there’s also a big beaver who lives nearby. 

Murphy also has an accepting attitude about how humans will interact with the piece. It’s been all too easy for people to assume that the gauzy, translucent “Swimmers” are meant to spook them, as a report from Madison’s NBC affiliate demonstrated last week. I found the story kind of trivializing—it’s a very view-from-nowhere way to look at art—but Murphy takes it as evidence that the piece is doing what it’s supposed to do.

“50/50, people think it’s really cool or really creepy, or really cool and really creepy,” Murphy says. “That’s fine with me.”

If you’re not navigating Wingra Creek by boat, you can see “Swimmers” from the bike path that runs alongside the creek. It’s easy to get to if you pull into Olin Park and park near the boat ramp. You can currently also see Murphy’s work at the Parched Eagle Taproom on East Wash, the Wisconsin Science Museum, and in the bar area at Crucible.



Madison metal band Corridoré creates a bleak but cathartic vision on its debut album.

Half-Stack Sessions and Tone Madison are teaming up to present Infamous Local Fest, a weekend of music and workshops running September 20 through 22.

The Record Store Dropouts podcast goes in-depth with queer-punk duo Gender Confetti

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Sujeo is closingThe Capital Times reports. Four Star Video Heaven has launched a crowdfunding campaign and plans to relocate. The Nomad World Pub plans to relocate as well, vacating the old Cardinal Bar space. Our Lives Magazine wants your help to combat vandalism targeting LGBTQ media.

This week’s Madison calendar: Wash headlines a benefit for the Rape Crisis Center at Art InSex, Lies, And Videotape screens at the Central LibraryAnd more.

Upcoming Tone Madison Events!

Saturday, August 10: John Wiese, Erik Kramer, Jeremy Van Mill. Arts + Literature Laboratory, 7 p.m. (Tickets available online, no fee)

Wednesday, September 11: Avola, Elrond, Saint Saunter, Woodman/Earhart. Communication, 8 p.m. 

September 14 and 15: Half-Stack Sessions and Tone Madison Stage at the 2019 Willy Street Fair. Lineup coming soon!

September 20 through 22: Infamous Local Fest at The Winnebago and Communication.

December, date TBD: Tone Madison Best of 2019 Listening Party

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

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