There’s something in the water

The Academy of Natural Sciences presents The River Feeds Back

3 minute read
Phillips records audio by a body of streaming water, standing on a bed of rocks, daylight cascading over the area.
Artist Liz Phillips recording the enchanting sounds of the Schuylkill River for 'The River Feeds Back.' (Photo by Eugene Lew.)

The health of waterways tells a story about the health of an environment and the Academy of Natural Sciences has a variety of programming in 2022 for what they have called Water Year. The focus is intended to “provide a fresh perspective of the water systems that bind us together.”

Be water, my friend

The latest part of the Water Year programming is The River Feeds Back from sound artists Annea Lockwood and Liz Phillips. The artists have known each other since the mid-1970s when Lockwood, who is originally from New Zealand, found herself in America. They have remained close since then. Lockwood is a composer that has made four other river sound maps. Phillips has been working with sound in sculpture and creating sound installations, mostly interactive pieces, in museums, public spaces, and alternative spaces that are easily accessible.

During the pandemic, Lockwood and Phillips would meet and record in little ponds or at state parks, developing ways to capture the sound above and also below. As they captured the sounds on their outings, they also thought of ways they could share this experience in an exhibit.

The River Feeds Back is a sensory experience and tactile interactive exhibit. Objects made of wood, clay, and slate have been created as materials from waterways. Visitors will move through the gallery to areas that will be activated by movement or touch. The objects have transducers and, depending on the size and shapes of the object, are made into speakers through these transducers. The sound of the object comes through as well as any sound they have recorded to put through the object. Visitors can move freely around the space listening to the sounds above and below as well as activating individual spaces by interacting within them.

Visual, audible, tactile sound

“We started up in Mining Country, beautiful country,” Lockwood said, “and I was fascinated to be there in the upper Schuylkill. Little by little, the recordings moved downstream recording both at the surface, which is full of detail, and other recordings made below the surface.” This kind of multiple recording strategy is done to give the sound depth. As you pass through the exhibit, it is like walking along sections of the river. “The underwater recordings are kind of exciting because many people may never hear what is under the surface there,” Phillips said, especially of recording near highways that have been built near the river.

Lockwood and Phillips are providing a way for anyone to experience the Schuylkill riverbed, areas that are not easily traversed by everyone. The artists aim to create an experience that is authentic and completely accessible. The immersion of this exhibit is visual, audible, and tactile. Visitors that cannot hear the river in the exhibit recordings can feel the river through the objects. Visitors that may never be able to get close to the Schuylkill at Black Rock Preserve or deep into French Creek will be able to move through this exhibit and have close to the same experience. Immersed in the textures and the sound of the river, and everything that comes with it.

For Lockwood and Phillips, it is about showing the river as it is. “It’s moving how people have worked so hard to clean the river at let it be, as it were, free. You see how alive the river is,” Lockwood said.

“We are hoping people get close,” said Phillips, “and listen carefully to these long takes of the river.”

What, When, Where

The River Feeds Back. June 1 through October 30, 2022 at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. $17-22, free for members and children under age 2. (215) 299-1000 or


The main building that houses the Academy is wheelchair accessible, but because of its age, it can be difficult to navigate for visitors with mobility impairment. The Academy will grant free admission to one caregiver or aide accompanying a guest with disabilities, as needed. Please ask at the front desk and a visitor services manager will assist you. See more about the Academy’s accessibility online.

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