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Karen Kocher keeps Barton Springs alive interactively

Filmmaker collecting history, culture, science for ‘Living Springs’

Like many Austinites, Karen Kocher wants to save Barton Springs. She doesn’t think a mere appeal to the senses, however, will do the trick.

“The vast majority of people see the springs as a place for recreation,” says the documentary maker. “It absolutely is. But I don’t think we can save it if we just see it as a place for recreation.”

Kocher — rhymes with “poker” — has been documenting aspects of the springs since she attended graduate film school at the University of Texas more than 20 years ago.

Now a lecturer for the same film school, she is hoping to complete “Living Springs,” an interactive documentary about the history, science and culture of the springs, including spiritual practices that occur there. The project in progress can be seen at

Kocher is still collecting images and stories from families who have enjoyed the oasis for decades. If you’ve got ’em, she wants ’em.

“For so many people who lived here in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, the springs were central to their lives,” Kocher says. “Especially in the summer months. It’s hard to imagine today, with air conditioning, TV and other diversions, but the springs were the place to be for everyone — although not all at the same time.”

Indeed, part of her story grapples with the segregation of the springs, which ended in 1963.

“One part of what I am doing is archiving stories of a place that might not be some day,” she says. “At least not in the way that we’ve known it. On the other hand, I’m telling the story for all those newcomers and young people who don’t really understand why Barton Springs is an icon, Austin’s symbolic center.”

Diving right in

Kocher grew up in New Jersey and attended George Washington University in Washington, D.C., before working for the German magazine Der Spiegel. She came to Austin in 1989.

“UT was the only film school I could afford without taking out a lot of loans,” she says. “And you can see that I never left.”

That same year, Earth First’s Tim Jones took her on hikes around the Barton Springs recharge zone, then still fairly undeveloped. As a filmmaker, she jumped right into the hottest topic in town — the Save Our Springs political battle. Her master’s degree project became “Common Ground: The Battle for Barton Springs.”

“It was made for $85 dollars on a S-VHS camera,” she says. “But it tells the story as well as I could understand it.”

She interviewed the major players, including developer Gary Bradley and politicians Brigid Shea, Frank Cooksey and Bruce Todd, preserving a key part of Austin’s cultural history.

Kocher later collaborated with Marshall Frech — co-editor with Turk Pipkin of the “Barton Springs Eternal” book — on a CD entitled “Barton Springs Interactive.” On film, she shot “Spring Symphony,” a day in the life of the springs over the course of a year. Both are shown daily at the pool’s public Splash! exhibit.

Currently, Kocher, whose husband is film historian Tom Schatz, teaches film editing, social documentary making and interactive digital storytelling at UT.

“In what I teach, I always have to go back to school,” she says. “I trained as a filmmaker. But interactive media is the best platform for the kind of work I do. A film ends up in a theater. Interactive is available 24 hours a day. I can also update it, add to it, expand it, change it if I get it wrong. It’s a living document.”

One of her first such projects, “Austin Past and Present: An Interactive Digital History,” came out in 2006.

“It took seven years to make, and we used 1,600 still images,” she says. “There’s two hours of motion picture documentary covering Austin’s history from prehistory to the present. You can find it in a kiosk at the airport, at the Faulk Central Library and hidden away at City Hall.”

She explains why the interactive medium is a good match for such historical subjects.

“People usually pick out a character and tell the story in a linear fashion,” she says of traditional historical narrative. “But what about those stories, like the odd person, or the thumbprint of a slave on a brick? How to do you bring that into a linear story? It’s all kind of an aside. With interactive, you can bring in all the asides … and tell a truer story.”

Collecting for the springs

“Living Springs” is Kocher’s sixth project related to the revered swimming hole. Because it’s a work in progress with a $150,000 budget, she has already posted a banquet of interactive segments while hoping to raise another $50,000 through her nonprofit to finish it.

Besides digging out photos and stories, she is documenting what happens there today, including spiritual rituals such as a Christian baptism, a Tibetan Buddhist blessing and a Native American water gathering ceremony.

“It’s one of the four fountain springs that include San Antonio, Comal and San Marcos,” She says. “It’s also tied to rock art found in West Texas. The fact that Barton Springs appears on a rock painting in West Texas proves it has been important to Texas for thousands of years.”

She has filmed some of the performances that have been staged in the springs by Sally Jacques, Dee McCandless and Gene Menger. And she looks carefully at the science of hydrology and the springs’ rare salamanders.

Right now, she wants more family photographs taken at the springs anytime from the 1920s through the 1970s.

She has hit the jackpot several times through the families of Delmar Groos, the locker boy and lifeguard who went on to design the Sunken Garden and other features; Jack Robinson and his father, Buster Robinson, longtime Zilker Park caretaker; and of course, Beverly Sheffield, who taught lifesaving at the pool before overseeing the entire Austin parks system.

Yet she knows there are more treasures out there in attics, garages and family photo albums.

Among the important historical chapters she and Brittany DuFriend, an intern and UT student, have unearthed are early attempts by groups to integrate the pool. In 1959, a Unitarian minister took some African-American friends to the springs as an act of civil disobedience. Progressive journalist Ronnie Dugger did something similar in 1960, as did Joan Khabele, daughter of civil rights pioneers James and Bertha Means.

“Also college kids would get in line to get tickets repeatedly,” Kocher says of a practice echoed in the desegregation protests against Austin theaters. “There’s not just one hero to that story.”

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