WATERSHED+: Dynamic Environment Lab
Major natural events change our lives and how we think about nature. Living in this constant shifting and complex natural environment impacts how we relate to our landscape and to each other, before, during and after a major natural event. What role do we play and how does our relationship with nature play out? How do we balance the emotional response we have to nature, to the city, and to its spaces? These inquiries directed the development of the WATERSHED+ Dynamic Environment Lab.
In January 2016, The City of Calgary’s Public Art Program brought together artists Steve Gurysh, Tim Knowles, Becky Shaw, Peter Von Tiesenhausen and Stokley Towles to participate in the WATERSHED+ Dynamic Environment Lab. The artists were immersed for a week within the Utilities & Environmental Protection Department. The intention of the Lab was to foster innovative and collaborative public art practice, explore the complex relationships between citizens and their watershed, and support cross disciplinary methods of working by bringing artists, subject matter experts and members of the community together to collectively experience Calgary’s dynamic environment. A thoughtfully considered program was laid out for the Lab, taking the participants on an expansive journey of Calgary’s watershed: going upstream to see the origins of Calgary’s headwaters at the Bow Glacier; downstream to Blackfoot Crossing to understand Calgary’s important role within the Bow River watershed; and visits to a number of key water infrastructure sites, many impacted by the 2013 flood.
The Lab was intended to be a launch point for each of the artists, taking their learnings from that shared experience to develop individual projects that would offer them the opportunity to build and nurture relationships with City staff and other subject matter experts as they explored the impacts of our continuously shifting environment.
The WATERSHED+ Dynamic Environment Lab is presented by The City of Calgary’s Public Art Program and Utilities & Environmental Protection Department and funded through the 1% For Art Policy.
An exhibition of the WATERSHED+ Dynamic Environment Lab was held at Contemporary Calgary from Sept 26, 2019 to Jan 5, 2020.
The artists and their concepts
In collaboration with Jen Reimer, Magnus Tiesenhausen and Dave McGregor.
In the spring of 2017, the Saddleridge reservoir in northeast Calgary was drained and dried for scheduled maintenance. The immense subterranean chamber had been sealed for forty years; its full volume — 38 million litres of water — lay still, in complete darkness. It is part of a largely invisible, complex infrastructure that supplies Calgary with filtered water originating from the Bow Glacier — shuttling clean water to, and ushering dirty water away.
The empty reservoir is a colossal, alien space. A slight sound within the massive chamber can reverberate for up to 25 seconds. Certain frequencies compound upon themselves, intensifying in resonance. Peter von Tiesenhausen commissioned video and sound artists to record an improvised collaborative work within the reservoir. The resulting fleeting images and sounds comprise Reservoir, an impression of this unknown place.
Upon maintenance completion, the reservoir was resealed and filled, returning to silence for the next four decades.
Peter’s work has been the pursuit of genuine connection to the world, the people and the materials that surround him.
His work often deals with ideas of time, life, voyage, death, spirit, nature and humanity. It explores relationships and interaction with community with an attempt of affecting and somehow measuring change in a given environment with the relic of the event or the installation being the only trace. There is a strong pursuit of sustainability often evident in the work and an attempt to understand time and substance from a variety of perspectives.
Knowles’ work centers on the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary; the movements, activity, constant flux and shifting processes of the space and its inhabitants. This focus was further concentrated during an intensive artist residency there in 2018. Guiding this immersion was an idea to “map the movement of everything” within the sanctuary.
Utilizing a GPS enabled tablet with detailed satellite imagery, the artist was able to plot the paths of birds, animals, people, and the trees felled, industriously milled and moved by beavers.
Mapping movements and recording hundreds of tracks has resulted in a series of drawings which reveal the workings of the sanctuary, observing the various patterns of behavior, relationships between wildlife and environment.
This work and the insights gained informed Knowles' contribution to the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary Restoration Project, influencing the routing of water channels, paths and his original design for a hybrid structure that is part log jam, part bridge and part bird blind.
Tim Knowles works across a range of mediums, utilizing drawing, photography, video, sculptural interventions and participatory events or actions. The work often exists in multiple forms; as an action or event, an exhibition, an online project, a publication and even as an idea spread by word of mouth.
Akin to scientific experimentation, a situation is engineered in which the outcome is unpredictable, directed by the external forces. These operations or performances seek to reveal the invisible forces in the world around us and investigate the nature of hidden systems and patterns.
Over a two-year period, Towles followed construction crews in Calgary as they repaired water and sewer pipes. He interviewed the workers and combined their stories with images to create a performance that explores the complexities and challenges of spending a career underground. The piece details how the work feels: “There’s something calming about it … in kind of a creepy, ‘this is like a grave’ kind of way”; personal space: “Working in such close proximity, you get to know the other crew members, the shampoo they use, their deodorant...”; and safety: “Place a pebble in the crack of a dirt wall. If the pebble moves, the wall is coming down”.
Built with stories from dozens of City of Calgary employees, Surfing Underground weaves together the social landscape and culture of construction work, extreme weather, and the unpredictable nature of the public.
For more than a decade, Stokley Towles has explored the systems that keep cities alive and the people who run them.
Towles takes up residency within a system, observing it closely, and interviewing the people who work there. He gathers stories and combines them with artifacts and images to create performances that reveal these otherwise hidden worlds.
Towles’ adeptly transforms these observations into stories that captivate audiences. His performances illuminate new meaning in everyday activities—turning a water faucet, flushing a toilet, taking out the garbage. Towles’ work invites audiences to look again at the familiar and see the extraordinary.
Parts Per Trillion
Culminating three years of research and development, Parts Per Trillion is an artwork that imprints and accumulates human activity within a geological context. While it imagines the immense diversity of forces, subjects and objects which inhabit the Bow River Watershed, the work also alludes to the perspectives of researchers within the UEP Department, which allow us to perceive the watershed in astonishing resolution and specificity, in parts per trillion.
Composed of an edition of earthenware ceramic sculptures, each object in this collection is the result of a process that began with the artist 3D scanning of a selection of found artifacts relating to the Bow River Watershed, including a graffitied river rock, a Cliff Swallow’s nest, a recently unearthed bison skull, and a centrifugal separator. This physical archive addresses the Bow River Watershed as a vast and entangled collective of parts: geological, historical and anthropological.
These forms were then reproduced using a ceramic 3D printing process and were subsequently pit-fired along the banks of the Bow River in Edworthy Park. This gesture both finalizes the ceramic process, carbon-dating each object, while registering a visible mark of the landscape.
Steve Gurysh is an artist who works fluidly across disciplines, processing environmental contexts into potent objects containing wild materiality and speculative temporal relations. The location of his work plays multiple strategic roles while he often employs a circuitous and process driven method of production. His practice is also uniquely collaborative and dialogic, seeking common ground with water quality scientists, radiation safety experts, engineers, artists, and archeologists.
How Deep is Your Love?
How Deep is Your Love? is a study of actions, objects, and stories developed to explore Calgarians’ emotional attachment to their water infrastructure.
Focused on a precise point where residents’ needs and civic responsibility come into contact, and sometimes conflict - the water leak - Shaw has followed the work of City leak locators, and the use of one instrument in particular, the analogue geophone. Listening beneath the noise of a city, interpreting the vibrations made by the underground infrastructure is an experience few will ever know.
A re-assembled city infrastructure map exemplifies the vastness of the system and the complexity and achievement of water production. In comparison, the geophones seem too modest to be effective, however, with the few highly trained locators, they are integral to maintaining this complex system.
By making these tools accessible, Shaw attempts to intimately connect Calgarians to their water infrastructure while encouraging viewers to think about their lives in relation to materials, geographies, and systems.
Shaw’s work attempts to capture the scale and complexity of our social and material relationships. Shaw is interested in large-scale contexts of care, industry and education and the places where these systems overlap. The works are carefully researched, responsive and often collaborative, working with residents, employees, communities, and technical experts. Often involving playful actions, her work moves materials or activities between spaces to experience them differently. While creating a dialogue about specific social contexts, her works question the role of art in public places and communities.