The Milwaukee Arts Barge (MAB) is a proposal for a mobile performing arts venue that aims to transform Milwaukee’s waterways into activated public spaces. Conceived by architect Antonio Furgiuele, a research fellow at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Architecture and Urban Planning (SARUP), the project is currently sparking dialogue with community partners and local residents to raise enthusiasm, support, and sponsorship to launch the boat.

MAB operates through a working relationship with SARUP, where Furgiuele is collaborating with architecture students to develop the project. Together, the team
is mapping Milwaukee’s waterway infrastructure to demonstrate how the rivers that crisscross the city also constitute and reinforce racial, social, and economic boundaries.
The MAB team envisions that floating a cultural space along the very boundaries of urban segregation might create new opportunities for civic participation and social exchange.

(Courtesy Antonio Furgiuele)

(Courtesy Antonio Furgiuele)

The MAB team is interviewing Milwaukee’s vibrant arts organizations to better inform the design of its boat. If the performing arts are usually experienced within a fixed institutional framework, then MAB hopes to provide an alternative platform that might empower artists to create new kinds of itinerant performances and to provide a vehicle (literally) for emerging talent. What if the stage proscenium could rotate? What does it mean for a performance to be staged in the middle of Lake Michigan? What if a play could be presented in multiple locations during a single production, coupling scene changes with changing scenery? MAB wants to leverage the opportunity for dancers, theater directors, filmmakers, and musical artists to choose real-time and dynamic locational backdrops to heighten their storytelling
practices and performative impacts. The MAB team speculates that the mobile format will be instrumental to advancing performance as an art form, creating new audiences and challenging existing audiences in new ways.

In addition to artistic performances, the MAB team is also studying opportunities for other kinds of cultural, educational, and civic programming. For instance, MAB envisions water scientists and advocacy groups using the barge as an outdoor classroom during non-performance hours to facilitate water-quality testing and outreach events.

While MAB hopes that local residents will take pride in a “born in Milwaukee” project that engages Milwaukee’s specific geopolitical makeup, it also aspires for the barge to “champion a larger exchange” with travel to other Midwestern legacy cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, Furgiuele said. To that end, the MAB team is calibrating the physical requirements of the barge to accommodate regional travel. Furgiuele said that a 70-by-28-foot vessel provides the “sweet spot” for the barge to be nimble enough to navigate Milwaukee’s winding rivers but seaworthy enough to traverse the Great Lakes.

What will the arts barge look like? While its aesthetics currently remain schematic, the MAB team envisions a reflective container in which the mirrored exterior
walls fold open to create a 40-foot-wide proscenium on either side of the barge. A curved screen at one end encloses a green room and backstage space. When the walls fold back into the closed position,
their mirrored surfaces reflect the constantly changing urban surroundings, projecting the city as an image on mobile display.

To share its developing vision with the community, the MAB team recently showcased research and models at the Mobile Design Box, a pop-up gallery space initiated by SARUP. The MAB exhibit, which is part of an ongoing series open through June 30 entitled “Mobility Matters,” includes cartographic constructs, architectural models, and photographic research, among other speculative installations. Pending current grant and sponsorship pursuits and fundraising goals, MAB aims to be in the water by summer 2017.

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