How Little We See
by amery Calvelli
For most of us, the faucet represents what we expect of our water system. Turn on the tap, water flows. The system underneath – buried pipes bringing water to and away from the home, catch basins for storms, how wastewater is moved uphill – the function of our water system is predominantly invisible to residents.
It's hard to care about what we don't understand. Watershed+ represents a public art program at the City of Calgary that is unique in its embedded process. It is a program that has gained recognition within Canada and beyond for its means of artistic investigation to call attention to that which is difficult to understand. By embedding artists within the City's Water Utilities and Environmental Protection department, new lines of questions were opened up, with the aim of creating, for the public, an emotional connection with their water system.
An early example of this process is revealed by what it didn't do. When approached to develop an identity for a decal to place on a water fountain, the water services-embedded artist duo Sans façon asked, Why? What resulted, after numerous meeting with engineers and water experts was a movable drinking fountain that when plugged into a fire hydrant at a public festival or event called attention to an invisible infrastructure. Not only is bottled water use reduced by the traveling fountain, but take a drink from the fountain and ask yourself, if a fire hydrant has potable water, what does this mean for our water system?
From the embedded artistic process, the Dynamic Environments Lab was developed. The 2013 flood had left an indelible public impression, but water engineers were concerned that as much as Calgary is an environment prone to flood, the city is equally prone to drought. Mitigating risk and developing resilience requires a public that understands. To address the concern of how to bridge a public connection with climate conditions, lead artists Sans façon developed the DE Lab, inviting five artists to investigate and develop an informed response to Calgary's watershed. The diversity of the participating artists is testament to the way the call was written: the artists work in time-based, performative, environmental, and even at times, archeological ways. They explore movement and chance. They build connections with how systems work.
Watershed+ represents a widening of how we define public art. The combination of embedding artists into a city utility, of affording the time for residencies where visiting artists learn how this city works before making new work, and in the case of the DE Lab, creating a call that is undefined in outcome but open to an artistic response – these simple acts were key to generating artistic work that brought water engineers, microbiologists, flood mitigation experts, parks staff, among many others together. The work of water services is not only underground, but accustomed to being out of sight. We notice it when it's not working. What artistic curiosity contributed, both as an embedded process and visiting residencies, was a forging of new relationships for the staff to interpret their work in new ways.
It's difficult to acquire or collect a work that captures a drained reservoir that after cleaning is refilled, or a work that asks the public to listen for leaks, or the capturing of aviary movement and felled trees by beavers. There's no object to mark on a map. But that's part of the point of widening the definition of public art; the process of the artistic investigation leads us to question our ways, to see differently. The work might not be object-based, but each work is specific to the context of the challenge and uniquely connects individuals to this place.
The Dynamic Environment Exhibition is on view at Contemporary Calgary until January 5, 2020.