I often wonder when public art will get beyond its thingness. Public art is a hybrid field—it bridges the civic and the personal, the city with the gallery, connects politicians to artists, and brings the world into our backyard. And we plug these gaps with objects. Our most basic expectations of public art are to achieve a monument, a site, or an artwork recognizable as a thing. If that’s our manual, it is nearly impossible to put anything called art in public without it looking like public art.

Yet we know happiness comes not through things, but through experience. And civic pride is less a product of monuments, than a building up of emotions about place —what it feels like to experience a city. Is the city alive, urgent, inexpressibly itself? Is it a place where I fell in love, or one could fall in love? For a place, earning there-ness is less about having things to see, than having experiences to give, and keep giving. We come to love a place not for its embellishments, but for the inescapable cues that signal where we are in the world—the taste of its water, the smell of Tuesday morning’s air, barbecue sauce that can be had nowhere else, a patterned manhole cover, torqued dialect, or the specific rhythm and speed of bodies moving down a street. These things aren’t quantifiable or even fully knowable, even if one senses them almost immediately.

We are living through an era however, where it’s not a place without a pin. It is no longer that the map is larger than the territory; now the map is the territory, it’s in our pocket at all times, and it is rated up to five stars. If the real lure of the city is unmappable, how does one find its immaterial magic? And if an artwork isn’t a thing, how does one experience it? And if an artwork amplifies our civic bond and love for a place, how does one Instagram that?

These conditions and questions guided my recent visit to Calgary and explorations throughout the region. I have followed WATERSHED+ for five years, and I’ll admit, throughout that time, I could not fully grasp what it was or exactly what the program had realized. I wondered—what was the role of artists within WATERSHED+—were they artists-in-residence?, or consultants?, or had they become some kind of quasi bureaucrats? From afar, this uncertainty is precisely what held my interest.

Normally, if you visit an artist to see their work, they take you to see their work. Sans façon didn’t do that until the last of seven days. On our first day together, we spent a few hours with Wilton Good Striker, Otahkóóksikinakim, an elder from the Kainai Reserve in Alberta, Canada, who blessed the Blackfoot Land we occupied and stretched our sense of time and presence in this place. We then drove two hours to the foot of the Bow Glacier—the source of the region’s water and an epic site that radically shifted my sense of scale of the city and its role in a changing climate. On the second day, I realized we were experiencing their work, if not seeing anything that typically resembled a public artwork.

Here is a place where public art has shed its thingness. And more, WATERSHED+ artists are engaging the city beyond the map. I found, in fully palpable and material ways, a public art initiative that has dispensed with conventional approaches—gone are red dots on a map and objects in a landscape. Instead artists sit at the center of the city: literally, everyday, in a cubical on the second floor of the Water Center; and figuratively, as a perspective invited to engage with the most challenging questions and opportunities of the region. Perhaps the most radical transformation to the context for public art and civic life in Calgary—artists are trusted.

Leaving the city following a week of explorations and conversation, this observation emerged as a kind of beacon of possibility for public art, cities, and our public life. What might shift in our relationships to cities, and public art, if artists were simply trusted? What new forms, of both common ground and unforeseen ideas, would emerge?

But first, how did we get here, and why should we trust Sans façon, or any artist for that matter?

The electricity of the unknown pulls us into contemporary art. It has been a thrill ride of a century—beginning with Duchamp’s readymades, and John Cage’s 1952 invitation to the world and our own thoughts to fill his 4’33” of musical silence, then Yves Klein’s Leap Into the Void 1(1960), and Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ Manifesto 2 (1969) and assertion that her “working will be the work,” to Rick Lowe’s powerful edict that the work directly engage rather than comment on its context, and now Tomas Saraceno’s moon shot toward a future of air travel without fossil fuels. The question isn't where can we go, but rather where are our unknowns—what are the new questions artists might ask of our world.

Yet, the prospect of trusting artists is fraught with self-imposed checks and balances. Artists may bring a particular wealth of ingenuity to their craft, but they’re also tricksters. If there’s a problem to be solved, one is not likely to find an artist on a tidy, linear path toward a solution. You’ll find switchbacks, some breadcrumbs, and covered tracks, and a more enlivened, exhaustive process.

This is exemplified in Bruce Nauman’s neon work The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths (1967). It’s an impossibly hopeful aphorism that can be broken down so many ways in ironic gest, even as its hippie-shaman optimism retains a sliver of real insight. Contrast this with Martin Creed’s neon maxim the whole world + the work = the whole world (2000)—it expresses a fundamental futility of being an artist, yet if one understands “the whole world” as an ever-expanding proposition, might “the work” in Creed’s frame serve to accelerate that expansion?

Another challenge to trusting artists might be that artists are simply invited to the proverbial table too late to do real work. Expectations of their process, and more stringently the outcomes of their work, are pre-baked into the dialogue. As one surveys the landscape of public art internationally, there is a pervasive “on time and on budget” aesthetic that is code for we know what it looks like and it will offer no surprises. Of course this is antagonistic to any vital creative process, and to any vital city.

Following a presentation by New York developer Douglas Durst, Dutch architect Bjarke Ingels prodded “Why do all your buildings look like buildings?” That question extends the late San Francisco-based artist David Ireland’s mantra “you can’t make art by making art.” If a building doesn’t aspire to look like a building, or if an artist resists “making art,” what can we expect? There is terror, surprise, magic, thrill, and new knowledge lurking in the unknown.

This is the basic and profound shift of WATERSHED+: the unknown is embraced everyday.

Coded within the UEP Public Art Plan is respect for process and trust of artists:

As part of The City of Calgary's Utilities & Environmental Protection (UEP) Public Art Plan, WATERSHED+ embeds artists within UEP's core activities, where they do not decorate or embellish but play an active role on project teams to create interest, intrigue, and public understanding of the watershed… WATERSHED+ proposes a long-term plan, which represents a major step in taking creative practice further into the day-to-day activities of UEP and implementing new working methods and processes.

It is an adage within The City of Calgary that 60% of The City’s assets are underground. It’s also a municipality that uncommonly brims with pride—we all know the image of the disenfranchised, shuffling and duty-bound civil servant—that is not Calgary. In this city, at the confluence of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, City staff are passionate for their own work and are powerful ambassadors for the city. Their passion is fully present at the wastewater treatment facility, in the composting center, and through a FaceTime chat with environmental inspectors. Yet passion is proprietary and cities conceal themselves. The family and friends of a wastewater engineer, or even landfill employee, may well know the dedication they bring to their role, but cities forget to celebrate, or even reveal their everyday miracles. So much of the work of WATERSHED+ projects like Forest Lawn Lift Station and Fire Hydrant Drinking Fountains has been to elegantly unveil the impact and value of infrastructure, and to a larger degree, municipal services to the daily lives of Calgary residents.

Paul Fesko, City of Calgary’s Manager of Strategic Services for Water Resources, offered an understated evaluation of the public art program’s interest to “…get artists speaking to the same things that are of value to us.” The more transformative effect is that in Calgary, artists make the city visible.

Transformative may be the most overused description of the effects and impacts of public art. I left Calgary wondering, ‘is WATERSHED+ transformative if the practice is insistently normal, if it creates common ground within our polarized public and civic life?’

There is a common refrain that ‘artists are problem solvers.’ That is limiting at best, and instrumentalizes the ascendant possibilities of artistic practice. Artists rather ask new questions where no one perceived a problem. They take the raw material of everyday life—Martin Creed’s world—and add something that expands the universe.

In the midst of the 2015 West African Ebola crisis, Los Angeles-based artist Mary Beth Heffernan 3 asked a new question regarding the care of patients in the most vulnerable moment of their life. She realized the caregivers "looked completely menacing… I mean they really made people look almost like storm troopers. I imagined what would it be like to be a patient? To not see a person's face for days on end?" Her response was to fly to Liberia, and make smiling portraits of the caregivers to adorn the chests of their protective suits. In a period of incredible loss and human tragedy, Heffernan’s almost “stupidly simple” idea brought a deep humanity to the experience of patients and caregivers.

Following the catastrophic flooding of 2013 in Calgary, the chief engineer charged with developing a resiliency plan for the city’s future hit a wall. He couldn’t get past a fundamental obstacle in his modeling. At a loss, he walked down the hall, to the second floor, to find the resident modelers of the unknown. The engineer and Sans façon talked for three hours, turning the problem over, thinking about the life of the city, its resources, and its invisible yet essential values. He said, ‘I knew I could trust you to help me see this problem in new ways.” Their conversation exemplifies the kind of radical normalcy WATERSHED+, and artists, bring to our world.

1 http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathonkeats/2015/09/08/find-out-how-yves-klein-leaped-into-the-void-and-got-photographed-at-this-new-moma-exhibit/#6e317c4b55f2

2 http://www.feldmangallery.com/media/pdfs/Ukeles_MANIFESTO.pdf

3 http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2015/04/09/397853271/an-artists-brainstorm-put-photos-on-those-faceless-ebola-suits