CURRENT ISSUE | SUMMER 2016
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Calgary’s Watershed+ Revamps Public Art Expectations

Calgary has been growing, and with that, the municipality’s burgeoning commitment to culture.

In 2004, the City of Calgary’s Public Art Program was established, ensuring that one per cent of all project costs for municipal capital projects over one million dollars be dedicated to public art. It has been through this commitment that the City’s Department of Utilities and Environmental Protection (UEP) launched its very own Public Art Plan that has included two commissions for the Glasgow-based collective Sans façon, comprised of British artist Tristan Surtees and French architect Charles Blanc.

Working in Calgary for roughly the past six years, Surtees and Blanc have expanded the possibilities of the typical public art commission by putting themselves at the heart of the UEP’s organization and developing the Watershed+ program, which has established a basis for bringing creative practice into the city’s work in water management. The scale and collaborative structure of what Sans façon have achieved with this municipal organization is quite unique—the UEP Public Art Plan itself is the first of its kind in North America—and Watershed+ has provided a visionary way of rethinking artists’ relationships with the city.

Sans façon was created in 2000, aimed to draw out aspects of places that normally go by unnoticed. In reaction to what Blanc calls the “sterilization” of cities and the worldwide tendency to big, standalone public art projects, their work frames elements of a site in a manner that engages people in unexpected pleasures of place. Through a largely commission-based practice, the two principals take on public art projects that allow them time to respond to a context, developing works that participate in a discourse with the city.

In 2005, Sans façon was commissioned by Capital Art Projects in Birmingham, UK, to explore the regeneration of the city’s Jewellery Quarter and Digbeth. They presented The distance between us, photographing forgettable areas of the urban landscape and positioning these images on billboards and signs in the exact locations where the images were taken. The result was an almost seamless doubling of views between passerby and site, preserving elements of a city while the landscape around the works evolved.

In response to a more traditional call for public art that sought artworks to draw attention to Swansea’s new National Waterfront Museum, Sans façon also in 2005 produced You are here, a balloon in the shape of a wayfinding arrow that flew above the museum. Their piece challenged the very framework of the commission by implicating itself with the building rather than standing apart from it.

Surtees and Blanc first came to Calgary in 2007 through the UEP’s Laycock Park/Nose Creek Restoration project. Initially intended as a six-month project, the artists were expected to create a single project integrated into the wetland’s redesign which would further the public’s understanding of the creek’s history and condition.

Expanding the possibilities of the commission, Sans façon has since worked extensively with the park’s design team of water engineers, landscapers, and consultants to understand what is being developed and discover ways in which they can contribute to thinking and rethinking about the park’s overall design. Upon learning that 40,000 cubic metres of earth would need to be disposed of in the reconstruction, they proposed a more economically and environmentally sound solution of using some of this earth to create nine follies along the park’s creek that would delineate the 100-year floodplain.

At Laycock Park—the project is still in progress today—Sans façon has also designed a vanishing pond tied into an underground outfall pipe flowing into the creek from a community above; this pond is configured to repeatedly fill and release its contents so that during high-flow months, the pond becomes a “breathing” element, and in the winter, a more stagnant site. Overall, the pond project seems to playfully reframe hidden cycles of the creek’s watershed.

It was Sans façon’s initial experience working with the Laycock Park design team that led them to apply for the UEP’s Visual Language Project. The Visual Language brief asked artists to research Calgarians’ relationship to their watersheds, and to propose visual art projects that would meaningfully connect citizens to this system.

Starting in 2009, Sans façon expanded on this brief by putting together a team of five people including an artist, designer, architect, human geographer and water engineer.  With this group through the twelve months, they collaborated on design development with various UEP staff and did site visits to tie into what was already taking place within the organization. They drew together a core group from the UEP that could advise on areas of interest and help the artists to define what was feasible.

According to Surtees, all the collaborative discussion resulted in a process where “we began to define an area of work which wasn’t about creating a visual language as such, but was about creating an emotional connection for citizens and their watershed through the participation of creative practitioners on existing projects from the beginning as a valued member of a team.”

One result of this experience is the Watershed+ program—a 25-year plan to embed lead artists within the UEP—developed by Sans façon. Adopting the language of a typical city project plan, the artists have published a Watershed+ manual that works through the objectives and strategies of their program, helping provide UEP employees with an understanding of art practices while also helping provide artists with insights into engineering and planning practices. Overall, the manual mediates the gap between creative practitioners and UEP staff.

Surtees and Blanc are now in Calgary working as the first lead artists of the pilot phase of the Watershed+ program, taking part in UEP designs and initiating additional platforms for engagement. Twenty different projects are currently being undertaken by the artists, who base themselves in a large cubicle in the Strategic Services section of the UEP offices; they are becoming integral to the organization, from taking part in the design of a lift station to contributing to a redesign of Bowmont East Park.

Recently, as part of their commission, Surtees and Blanc were asked to come up with the signage for temporary drinking fountains. Instead, they proposed unique fountains whose interconnected piping playfully invites audiences to take a drink and consider the extensive water infrastructure underground. These Watershed+ fountains have already become an important part of the city’s resources; they were used this past summer for Canada Day, the Calgary Folk Festival and Stampede, and they are programmed into festivals and other sites for the coming year.

Another initiative by Sans façon has been the establishment of Watershed+ residencies at Ralph Klein Park (RKP), a man-made wetland that functions as a stormwater storage facility and treatment wetland.

Offering both short-term and long-term residencies to local, national and international artists, the new program provides a studio space at RKP and an opportunity to research and develop new work engaging with UEP and the parks department. The residency program is already thriving, with the UK artist Rachel Duckhouse currently completing her stay, and the anticipated arrival of Windsor’s Broken City Lab slated for later this year.

Sans façon are expected to complete their work with UEP in 2014, handing off the Watershed+ program to a new lead artist who will bring to the framework their own directions and expertise (a new lead artist for Watershed+ is to be appointed every two to three years).

Although it is difficult to demonstrate the value of what has been produced by Sans façon, their significant impact on Calgary through Watershed+ lies in the fact that artists have now been given an opportunity to work with issues that are integral to the thinking around city systems.

Sans façon’s long-term vision of the program is that it maintains its value in the world of public art not only by giving opportunities to artists, but also by being valuable to an organization like UEP, creating an emotional connection for people regarding oft-overlooked city water systems.

As Surtees explains, “There is a pleasure in infrastructure. When you go to the wilderness, you can get excited about seeing mountains, lakes and rivers, but that poetic aspect exists within the city too—it’s just a hidden machine, but it’s fascinating.”

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