By Alana Bartol and Sarah Nordean
“Like archaeology, which is time read backwards, gravel mines are metaphorically cities turned upside down, though urban culture is unaware of its origins and rural birthplaces.”
Developed and curated by artists Alana Bartol and Sarah Nordean, Water-witching for Wanderers (and Wonderers) was a public art project that materialized in Quarry Park, Calgary, Alberta. The community of Quarry Park sits within the boundaries of Treaty 7, traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy, consisting of the Kainai, Piikani, and Siksika Nations; as well as the Tsuu T’ina and Stoney Nakoda First Nations ancestral lands. The City of Calgary is also home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region III.
Through dowsing, Water-witching for Wanderers (and Wonderers) invited the public to explore the residential, commercial, and recreation areas of Quarry Park. Dowsing or water-witching asks the land to speak, to disclose its information: a form of divination used to locate ground water, mineral deposits, lost objects, and other resources such as oil. Dowsing, in this project, is a metaphor for creative work, for navigating not only the land, but the contours of complex, sometimes just as opaque bureaucratic systems and processes, institutions and publics.
Dowsing tools come in many forms: the most recognized divining rods are Y rods, often a forked tree branch (willows or water-loving trees are best) or two L shaped rods, often made of copper. If a rod is not at hand, resourceful dowsers enlist other materials – pendulums, pieces of chain, that, when poised over an oil pipeline, for example, suddenly halt, making the hidden manifest.
Dowsing is inquiry; it involves asking questions. The rod’s ensemble of responses is limited to “yes,” “no,” or “unclear,” but its responses arouse another ensemble of questions in its user: what is this “yes,” what is my “no”? Learning how and when to ask questions is integral. How one might explain one’s dowsing results is an altogether different concern: dowsing’s long history as a pseudo-science conjures coincidence, mendacity, even sorcery as explanations. What, then, is “reliable” information about the land? What kinds of knowledge unfold in a dower’s body? How might we see dowsing as both practice and knowledge?
“It’s always green in Quarry Park”
–Quarry Park website2
It wasn’t always green in Quarry Park. A former Lafarge gravel pit, Quarry Park is one of Calgary’s most radically transformed brownfield sites.3 A project of the Remington Development Corporation, Quarry Park is now a live/work community with over 2000 “home sites”, commercial retail, and Fortune 500 Corporations, including Remington Development Corporation and Imperial Oil headquarters.4 The community has an innovative stormwater management system, ample green space, walkable pathways, and boasts a “European flavour” complete with stone bridge, canal, clock tower, and triumphal arch. Quarry Park also has a methane management plan accessible online to deal with the methane gas released from engineered fill, the neighbourhood’s foundation.
On October 2nd, 2016, we held a dowsing workshop at the newly constructed Remington YMCA in Quarry Park. The participants were introduced to dowsing tools, methods, and techniques, and we spoke about the relationships between dowsing and walking. We used coat-hanger L-s, willow branches borrowed from along the Bow River, and drain plug pendulums, as we encouraged participants to ask questions as they divined: we considered the ways in which the site’s history shaped its present communities, keeping in mind that, in Lucy Lippard’s terms, the “gravel pit, like other mining holes, is the reverse image of the cityscape it creates – extraction in aid of erection. If the modern city is vertical (a climb, leading to a privileged penthouse overview), landscape is predominantly horizontal (a walk, through all walks of life).”5
Together, we walked outside the Remington YMCA and divined our way along Quarry Park’s canal. We encountered concrete roadblocks, property lines, fountains, pathways, sidewalks, gates, condominiums, and construction sites. In relation to both built and natural forms of egress, participants eventually dispersed and followed their own paths through the community. Towards the end of the afternoon, without any instruction, the group found each other at an open grassy spot along the Bow River. Some were struggling, waiting for responses from their dowsing tools; others found a sense of freedom and playfulness, moving into areas they wouldn’t normally dare to go. Some found the questioning that accompanies such divination powerful in and of itself.
Water-witching for Wanderers (and Wonderers) imagines walking and dowsing as forms of openness: to possibilities, to questions, to resisting the imposing and organizing forces of the city. Walking itself conjures power. In Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2000), Rebecca Solnit names walking as a means of resistance to the speed and alienation of industrialized society. “It may be countercultures and subcultures,” she suggests, “that will continue to walk in resistance to the postindustrial, postmodern loss of space, time, and embodiment.”6 Unencumbered by a vehicle, walkers choose their responses to the spaces through which they move.
As part of Water-witching for Wanderers (and Wonderers), five Calgary-based artists and five participants in the dowsing walk created small, handheld artworks in response to the history of Quarry Park. The ten works created have been placed in weatherproof containers and concealed on site. They are discoverable through a map in this publication and online.7 These pieces live in the community as public offerings, vulnerable not only to human intervention but to the forces of nature, including the extreme freezes and thaws of Calgary winters. Each container has a guestbook for viewers to sign that provides information about the artist, the work, and the project.
As a public artwork, Water-witching for Wanderers (and Wonderers) was commissioned as an art walk to be held in conjunction with the official opening of the Remington YMCA. In its more recognized forms, public art has a strong presence at the new recreation centre. The Fold (2016), a large self-weathering steel sculpture by Vancouver-based artist Adad Hannah sits near the building’s entrance.8 Placed in an open plaza-like space lined with benches and landscaping, this monumental sculpture acts as a focal point, inviting people to gather around and interact with the work. In contrast to Hannah’s piece, ephemeral public artworks like ours open possibilities for engagement in other ways, beyond singular places, materials, or forms. As this project developed, lines blurred between participant and co-creator, curator and artist, the permanent and the temporary, shifting the power relationships between the work and its publics. While the spectacle of a fixed, monumental work summons its audience, Water-witching for Wanderers (and Wonderers) offers multiple access points that invite various kinds of participation and conversation.
This project was designed as a way for people – including the participants, artists, and wanderers – to move through a location, through a landscape, and to respond to it. Like a dowsing rod, this publication, and the artworks themselves, are intended to be held in one’s hand. Water-witching for Wanderers (and Wonderers) might be considered “anti-spectacle” public art: the work unfolds and becomes itself as people become active agents in its processes.
As we divined our way through negotiations and administrative processes, through built and natural scenes, we returned to questions of trust between artists and their publics, between artists and the systems they work within, artists and administrators, and artists and collaborators. We end with a series of questions for walkers and dowsers alike: does public art have to remain in public space? Do size and scale matter? Will the artworks in Quarry Park be taken, confiscated, destroyed? Will they be viewed as art? Who will discover them?
1 Lucy Lippard, Undermining A Wild Ride Through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (New York: The New Press, 2014), 11.
2 Quarry Park website, Remington Development Corporation. Accessed February 1, 2017, www.quarrypark.ca
3 Environmental Law Centre (Alberta) Society defines a brownfield as a vacant or underused property where past actions have resulted in contamination, and the property has a strong potential to be redeveloped for other uses. “Fact Sheet: Brownfields”, Environmental Law Centre (Alberta) Society, 2006, accessed February 13, 2017, www.elc.ab.ca/Content_Files/Files/Brownfields_AREF.pdf.
4 See “Residential” and “Office” webpage sections, Quarry Park website, www.quarrypark.ca
5 Lippard, Undermining A Wild Ride, 10.
6 Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (New York: Viking, 2000), 267.
7 Water-witching for Wanderers (and Wonderers) website, Alana Bartol and Sarah Nordean. Accessed February 20, 2017, www.waterwitching.wordpress.com
8 Quarry Park Recreation Facility Public Art Project, The City of Calgary. 2016. Accessed February 17, 2017. www.calgary.ca/CSPS/Recreation/Pages/Public-Art/Quarry-Park-Recreation-Facility-Public-Art-Project.aspx