culture/SHIFT: WATERSHED+, Embedding Artists into the City of Calgary’s UEP

3rd February 2017

culture/SHIFT: WATERSHED+, Embedding Artists into the City of Calgary's UEP 4

WATERSHED+ is an ongoing public art programme within the City of Calgary’s Utilities & Environmental Protection (UEP) department which aims to address all aspects of the city’s watershed as an integrated system, including its river, utility function and related services and infrastructure.

Initiated by lead artists, Sans façon, the programme explores how creative practitioners, through their knowledge, skills and experience, might be able to establish sustainable and creative relationships between water infrastructures and the people of Calgary.

This project, which has recently completed its pilot period (September 2011 – June 2016), embeds artists and artistic practices within the core operations of the UEP, giving artists the opportunity to work alongside UEP specialists at the onset to contribute to project design, development of events and community education and engagement.

In practice, interdisciplinary artist-led teams are working collaboratively to create a new integrated approach to Calgary’s infrastructure – one that is mindful of sustainability and environmental stewardship – while building an emotional connection between people and their watershed.

By bringing artists into the planning and development stages, “WATERSHED+ aims to develop awareness and pleasure in the environment, not by changing the water management practice, nor developing a uniform visual language, but rather by creating a climate of opportunity for water initiatives to build an emotional connection between people and the watershed.” As such, a key aim of the programme has been to better understand how to develop a collaborative model in which artistic practices are integral to all aspects of the city’s water services, and complementary to the knowledge and skills of the UEP department.

Completed WATERSHED+ Initiatives to date include:

WATERSHED+: Dynamic Environment Lab

In January 2016, five artists were immersed in The City’s Utilities and Environmental Protection (UEP) Department, for a weeklong program, exploring the impacts of living in our continuously shifting, dynamic environment – a watershed that experiences both drought and flood.

Following on from this, each of the five artists have been commissioned by the city to make new work responding to the dynamic environment and engaging the public through different approaches. Themes being explored include the river’s sediments and archaeological sites, rive bank stabilization, and the relationship between the river’s flow dynamics and infrastructure.

East Bowmont Park Improvement Project

The City of Calgary’s acquisition of the former Klippert gravel pit presented an outstanding opportunity to restore the ecological integrity of the area, while at the same time enhancing the recreational and educational value of the east side of Bowmont Park.

WATERSHED+ lead artists, Sans façon, have led on the conceptual thinking behind this large scale development, working alongside the engineers and consultants to create an engaging space for Calgarians to renew their relationship with the Bow River watershed.

Situated at the intersection between the cleaning of the storm water and the functioning of water utilities, WATERSHED+ is creating the opportunity to make the water treatment train more visible, revealing the processes and complexity of the whole water system.

Forest Lawn Lift Station

Lift stations, a vital part of Calgary’s wastewater system, are used throughout the city to lift wastewater from low-lying areas to higher areas where it can flow by gravity to one of the city’s three wastewater treatment plants.

Part of a much larger system, the lift station provided an opportunity to dissect how people in urban neighbourhoods connect to and understand the importance of water in their daily lives. Connected to the computer operating system of the lift station, a light-powered map was integrated into the fabric of the building  to make visible the underground water network and reveal its movement through the city with the assistance of the lift stations.

Fire Hydrant Water Fountains

Designed by artists Sans Facon

WATERSHED+ Fire Hydrants designed by lead artist Sans Façon

The Fire Hydrant Water Fountain Project is an example of applying creative thinking and process to practical problems – a means of using public art to address civic challenges and enhance Calgary’s communities.

Created 5 years’ ago as a temporary project for the city’s summer festivals and still used to this day by thousands of city residents, the fountains provide drinking water directly from street fire hydrants.

Sans façon describe how the fountains were conceived less as public artworks and more as gestures which facilitate different methods of gathering around water and questioning its origins from within the city. Different assemblages of the fountain pipes allow for different forms of gathering around water including strangers meeting for the first time and families. No messaging or signage is used around the fountains to encourage curiosity and active exploration on the part of the users.


Next steps

Following on from the pilot project, Sans façon have been contracted as consultants to develop a public art plan for the intersection of the public art with the a much broader set of future plans for the city’s utilities over the next 10 years in the following areas:

  • Water Services and Water Resources
  • Environmental Safety Management
  • Waste and Recycling Services

Learning and reflections

Sans façon artists, Tristan Surtees and Charles Blanc, have kindly shared with us some reflections on what has contributed to the success of WATERSHED+ pilot project:

  1. The programme in its current form could not have been possible without the open-minded ethos of the UEP Department, which has enabled an exploratory dialogue between UEP staff, Sans façon, invited artists in residence and Calgary’s communities to develop.
  1. The success of the whole programme has stemmed from its responsiveness to the context of Calgary and therefore relevance to the city’s inhabitants. Alongside this, the long term embedding of Sans façon on within the UEP has allowed for the building up of trust between UEP staff, artists and communities.
  1. The programme has been premised upon artists as equal experts to UEP staff but in different fields, contributing not just public artworks but a wide range of skills, ways of thinking and experience to enhance the city’s relationship with water.

In their view, artists have contributed to the programme in the following ways:

  1. Being at liberty to ask and interrogate questions
  2. Introducing complementary ways of thinking
  3. Being adept at drawing out the passion which has driven people to do the work which they do
  4. Helping in processing change

A big thank you to Sans Façon for their support in creating this resource and for sharing their learning and reflections with the CCS network.

Read more about the WATERSHED+ project on the project website 

Image credits: WATERSHED+ and City of Calgary

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