Fountaineering: making a public splash

While broadly admired, those moist, kinetic sculptures we know as fountains are, to most, part of a static urban interaction that begins and ends at the retaining wall. People see the urban fountain as a type of street furniture that is not exactly participatory. Yet a growing number have learned to appreciate their city's aquatic adornments more damply than their fellow citizens. They're not afraid to put their sandals aside in favour of a deeper urban experience.

What I am trying to say is that some of us like to get into fountains.

Though the first splash may have been born out of yearning on a hot day, the pursuit now nicknamed "fountaineering" grew out of an ideology that extends well beyond a fondness for cooling off. Though it is unlikely he was the first to ever commit such an act, it's to the credit of the late Jeff Chapman — a former co-conspirator of mine in fountaineering as well as in life — that modern Torontonian fountain-jumping truly took off.

Chapman baptized himself in nearly half of the city's more than 50 public fountains, chronicling his adventures with hard-hitting reviews ("This half-jacuzzi, half-fountain is surprisingly bubbly and comfortable. I really have no idea why I was the only person in this fountain at the time this picture was taken") on the Urban Oases website www.yip.org/oases — a domain a little less travelled than his Infiltration.org site, but full of the same rebellious urban zeal.

Since Chapman's death in 2005, the informal movement he pioneered in Toronto's less-charted waters has become a bit of a cause aquatique among Torontonian wanderers. Chapman's younger brother, Kyle, launched the website Urban Oases Tribute (www.wrftpb.com/oases) as a memorial to Jeff — imploring people around the world to step outside their comfort zones and into public fountains. Urban Oases Tribute has received dozens of submissions since August 2005, many from total strangers.

Somewhere along the way, this act of commemorating the late Chapman's subversive (and submersive) spirit combined with the movement towards reclaiming public space. Admittedly, this mode of reclamation makes a person that much more likely to accidentally encounter a rat wedged into a fountain drainpipe — but these are the risks enlightened city-enjoyers take. While municipal powers-that-be may not endorse citizens exposing themselves to the limited hazards of, oh, a rash — there's something to be said for the grown-up act of assessing your own level of risk tolerance and using your city as if it were your own. Because it is.

Indeed it is such small acts of self-guided conscience in the face of implicit civic boundaries that redefine not only how we take possession of our city (thus strengthening our bonds with it) but how we re-form ourselves as conscious, intentional citizens in the city's landscape. Spacially transgressive yet ethically aware behaviours such as playing urban games, fountaineering, and guerilla gardening are manifestations of an enlightened populism that supports the idea that creative and free-thinking citizens will produce a better society. We should jump into fountains because it frees our minds of the usual trappings of the daily trudge, and also because as people who stop to reconsider social and architectural boundaries, we form a more considered and invested citizenry. That, and it's an awfully fun way to cool off on a hot day.

Like any deviant urban act, fountaineering garners an odd response from onlookers trapped in the confines of the "dry" mindset of fountain enjoyment.

"Part of the fun of the hobby that I discovered later is the peculiar reactions of the people witnessing them. There are some people who will sort of stare at you, there are people who sit by fountains who will intentionally get up and leave," said Kyle, whose fountaineering exploits have by now surpassed his late brother's in thoroughness as well as psychological reflection.

"Very few laugh or try to enjoy it with you," he adds. "It seems strange for something that seems so natural."

Wandering Toronto with an eye peeled for fountains cements the notion that, whether or not one elects to physically connect with them, fountains and water sculptures are necessary ingredients of a humane and healthy urban landscape. Like trees and planters, benches, and gathering places, fountains provide physical and psychological space around which to collect and centre the thoughts and activities of urban living. Fountains mix the idea of tribute and celebration — they're the quintessential moving monument to a city's glory — with the vitality of art that a thriving city must embrace.

And whether they're something we notice every day, or take for granted, our cityscape would be dry without them, in both literal and figurative terms. From the waterfalls in Cloud Gardens to the harp-like strings of Yorkville; from the sprawling paradise of fountainry that decorates Exhibition Place to the sublime pleasures of the Caltrava-in-a-Caltrava at BCE Place — Toronto's fountains are not superfluous sprays but civic anchors. Connecting to them physically adds irreverence, excitement, and tangible ownership to one's city experience and sense of wonder. If you've never explored this kind of fountainy free-thinking, you should really consider getting your feet wet.