Researcher Blog by Dr Becky Shaw: How Deep?

About the author

Becky Shaw is C3RI Postgradate Research Tutor in Art and Design and Reader in Fine Art in Sheffield Institute of Arts (SIA) at Sheffield Hallam University. Becky’s research focuses on the relationship between people and the material world, and how ideas of objectivity and subjectivity dwell in objects. Current work chronicles the life of an object and its concealed modes of production. Becky is often found in places where people and objects, or materials interact – in large social environments including hospitals, factories, and education.

In May 2016 Becky Shaw was invited to Canada to develop a new public art work in Calgary, Alberta exploring Calgarian’s relationship to their dynamic natural and man-made water system. The project was led by Watershed plus, a unique art commissioning organisation situated within the City of Calgary’s Water Centre. In this post, Becky talks about her time spent with Calgary’s Leak Locators and how Calvin Harris provided a link between water infrastructure and the individual, between the industrial and the emotional.


I’ve been interested in infrastructure for a long time, seeing it as a material expression of ‘publicness’. My Calgary research explores how the man-made water infrastructure becomes tangible to residents. This led me to spend time with the City’s leak locators. The leak locators travel across the city using a range of listening equipment to locate water leaks three metres deep. Calgary is very good at limiting water waste but in a high-pressure system subject to deep ice some breaks are inevitable.

Calgary Logistic Stores. Becky Shaw 2017

Calgary Logistic Stores. Becky Shaw 2017

Listening uses a range of equipment, including the extraordinary analogue globe geophone. This is like a double-ended earth stethoscope, where the listener must translate sound from two ears into a space on the ground. The leak locators are enormously skillful, having to understand the impact of materials, fluid behaviour, geological history, traffic, industry and landscape on what they hear. Not surprisingly leak location has its own myths- including mystery noises and unnatural behaviour of water.

I have been working alongside four other artists: Peter von Tiesenhausen (Canada), Steve Gurysh and Stokley Towers (USA) and Tim Knowles (UK). Following a visit to the Central Logistics Warehouse we decided to devise a public event to generate visibility for the underground water infrastructure and convey aspects of our projects. The Logistics Warehouse is a huge City storage facility, holding materials and equipment for lighting, administration, cleaning, and transport but primarily for water services. With Watershed+ staff we developed a City of Calgary ‘Doors Open’ event, where the public are invited to see inside organisations.

The extremely knowledgeable Logistics Stores staff began the tours, giving a context to the warehouse, followed by artists talking about objects in the stores that related to their projects. Visitors asked many questions: about the technical capacities of the stored equipment; the scale of City operations; about the politics of water metering; environmental issues, and also about water services as a context for public art.

Calgary Logistic Stores. Becky Shaw 2017Calgary Logistic Stores. Becky Shaw 2017Calgary Logistic Stores. Becky Shaw 2017

Ever since I went in the stores I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between the water infrastructure and an individual (me). The water system exists to maintain the flow of fluids around the human body – the water passes through two ostensibly invisible systems. This basic observation led me to try putting bits of my body inside all the different components, large and tiny. I used length of limb as a measure of how deep I could get inside the system. I photographed every attempt and formed a rapid ppt ‘video’ of stills accompanied by Calvin Harris’ popular, brash (even cheesy), erotic and elegiac ‘How Deep is your Love?’. This ‘dirty’ song, like water, is both industrial and emotional.

Calgary Leak Location Van. Becky Shaw 2017

Calgary Leak Location Van. Becky Shaw 2017

At the same time as trialling this work, one of the leak locators, Chris Steffen, very generously agreed to take part in Open Doors. He brought his van and the leak location equipment and took the fascinated public on the journey from a suspected domestic leak through to its location. I have been wondering how children would listen for leaks, and as part of this we trialled a set of ‘mini-geophones’ made by the extraordinarily skillful Brent L’Heureux in the City Fabrication Shop. The ‘Doors Open’ context gave us the chance to see how people might engage with this equipment that feels ancient, high-tech, medical, and utopian – all at the same time. We noted that it was not necessarily what they could hear that mattered (its actually very difficult to hear leaks) but the way they listened, moved and what they expected to hear.



Image credits: Becky Shaw, 2017

Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of SHU, C3RI or the C3RI Impact Blog.