City of Calgary pioneers the idea of artists building infrastructure

“What is an artist?” “What are artists for?” These are uncouth questions with negative connotations. Definitions by their very nature limit movement and freedom. They can also be insulting if misleading or prescribed. Surely there is value in keeping terms open-ended so that they can transform and adapt to situations as needed.

One innovative example of keeping things fluid is occurring in Calgary thanks to a unique project involving artists Charles Blanc and Tristan Surtees (who have worked together in Glasgow for over 10 years under the moniker Sans façon) the city’s Public Art Program and the Utilities and Environment Protection (UEP) department. In this collaboration the title “artist” has come to receive as much standing autonomy and agency as the designations of “civil engineer” “social geographer” or “biologist.”

Under the umbrella epithet Watershed+ this visionary model for long-term and sustainable collaboration between artists and the city’s water department is intended to develop a meaningful relationship between Calgarians and their watershed promoting eco-friendly waste management and wetland protection.

Calgary’s Public Art Program launched a new Public Art Plan in 2007 that would imbed artists within the UEP’s core activities with Sans façon initiating the Watershed+ project in 2010. As an ongoing and permanent plan for collaboration Blanc and Surtees are piloting the program during its initial phase as the “lead artists.” Once all the plans for long-term viability have been worked through and project initiatives have completed trial phases the lead artists project managers and core group positions can be refilled as needed. According to the artists — who had been trying to work in this way for quite some time — finding an opportunity at this scale and significance was a bit miraculous.

With 20th century “definitions” of artists as radical unbound and disruptive individuals and industry as efficient goal-oriented and streamlined it becomes clear why the worlds of creative disorder and productive order are often segregated — trial by error or naive points of view are undesirable traits in the workforce. Surtees stresses that they do not feel a need to know the final product before beginning as engineers or developers might. Blanc says that some of their initiatives with Watershed+ such as the artist residency program have “no direct purpose” that is no predetermined destination.

Outside of England’s “Artist Placement Group” of the ’60s — which removed artists from their hermetic institutions and inserted them into real business environments — an artist having a vital role within such contexts is unmatched especially at this scale.

The program’s vision started to gain foothold in Calgary just in time for the flood to hit. In a way this underscored a point they were already trying to make: “[that] the unloved unimagined and unknown water infrastructures could and should have a role in encouraging a sustainable and creative relationship between people and place.”

The flood illustrated that we are dangerously out of touch with the connection between what the pair calls our city’s “function efficiency and economy” and the “culverted and hidden” watershed we depend on.

So why are those with occupations vital to the city’s daily operations jumping at the chance to work with these artists?

As a rapidly expanding but still young city Calgary is more willing to examine and re-imagine the precedents for dealing with even basic infrastructure challenges. Setting rather than following precedents Calgary attracts risk takers with a “pioneer” mentality. The businesses and government employees working here understand that risk is a necessity — not least of all because a “safe” or “proven” way has yet to been found. Artists who specifically seek out and thrive in unexplored realms feel comfortably uncomfortable working in this manner.

In more ways than one this pairing is a perfect match.

Sans façon’s socially responsible leanings are mirrored by the environmentally concerned and forward-thinking staff at the public facility. The artists note that the staff at the UEP are some of the most humble and hardworking people they’ve ever met. They are responsible for creating Canada’s largest man-made stormwater treatment wetland which is located at Ralph Klein Park — no small feat. Another accomplishment unrecognized by most Calgarians is that the city’s tap water ranks among the cleanest in Canada. Naturally it makes sense that “environmental artists” would be invested in the development and implementation of sustainable infrastructure. Luckily Calgary took a risk and gave them the opportunity to really do something about it.

“We weren’t really sure what to expect when we began this pilot” says Heather Aitken with the Public Art Program. “[But] it has been an amazing experience to see artists engineers educators and field staff working together.”

In addition to promoting common ecological goals this unlikely placement of artists within civic engineering allows the development of a new collaborative model for cross-pollination of skills and specialties.

An environment of trust is created as bureaucratic structures are expanded and new possibilities for change are introduced. Participants with different skill sets familiarize themselves with specialized languages outside of their own world and search out shared understanding. Alternative ways of thinking combine and produce relationships capable of enormous ingenuity.

Within this democratic model where everyone is valued for what they bring to the table there’s the requirement that everyone pull their weight. This expectation — that the resident artists contribute a great deal of labour and input — is as much a sign of respect for their craft as is giving them the space and autonomy to do things their own way.

One benefit to giving Watershed+ artists adequate freedom is that they are best suited to the task of visually representing what is abstract or hidden. Surtees and Blanc are concerned with the “social utility” of water processing systems proposing that their public presence does not need to be diminished to fulfil their public service. Instead by revealing these hidden systems “[they] have an essential potential to… raise awareness of the complexity and fragility of our environment” says the duo. One of Sans façon’s forthcoming public art projects — which led directly to the development of the Watershed+ program — features a large “vanishing pond” situated in northwest Calgary that represents the otherwise invisible processing of stormwater. As the neighbourhood’s incoming water is delegated the pond’s water level rises and falls to mimic the act of breathing. The project elicits a visceral response where the landscape is an extension of our own bodies resulting in both a poignant representation of the city’s working infrastructure and an emotional connection to our land.

Sans façon identifies artists as those who ask questions: not looking for prescribed answers or venturing activist commentary but attempting to promote curiosity as invisible processes are revealed. In addition to their desire to uncover the hidden and reveal the alchemical “magic” of how waste turns to water the artist’s ability to imagine within and without constraints is also key. For instance particular infrastructure assignments such as creating outfall alterations or highlighting catch basins have inherent functional and design-based controls. But the perceptive creative individual can propose different options for such scenarios. Sometimes it takes an outsider to identify solutions.

Through these defining moments wherein artists become key players in project development the Watershed+ team is altering approaches to waste management just as much as they are changing how public art and the social function of artists are defined. They demonstrate that art can be a fluid process just as much as it can be a static sculpture.

Unlike other politically concerned artists Sans façon has a unique opportunity to do more than point and critique. They are facilitating a conversation within the municipality rather than falling back on the avant-garde notion of the subversive or irreverent artist. This project demonstrates that artists are individuals who can find purpose out of the initial “purposeless” wanderings of their imaginations who believe in a collaborative amalgamation of knowledge and who can visualize the invisible. In a truly innovative and unprecedented way Calgary has demonstrated that artists are instrumental to the development of cities.