Dr Becky Shaw Researcher Blog – As ‘How Deep is your Love?’ launches at Contemporary Calgary
About the author
Dr Becky Shaw is Reader in Fine Art and leads the PhD cohort in the Art and Design Research Centre (ADRC) at Sheffield Hallam University. She makes process-based, live artworks in the social realm. Here she writes about her recently exhibited work as part of Dynamic Environment, an exhibition marking the culmination of works concluding Calgary’s WATERSHED+ Dynamic Environment Lab.
In 2016 I was invited to explore Calgarians’ emotional attachment to their watershed by the innovative commissioning body WATERSHED+. WATERSHED+is a commissioning and development body formed by staff from Public Art, and the Utilities and Environment Protection body of the City of Calgary, with Sans Façon as lead artists. WATERSHED+ is internationally known for devising new ways to bring artists to work with state utilities: an Artists Placement Group for the 21st century.
Their project, Dynamic Environment, brought five Canadian and internationally-based artists together to explore aspects of the water system and its changing natural and man-made conditions.
My project, How Deep is your Love?, sought to take the commission to its literal conclusion, by using live art, exhibition and printed material to explore how deeply Calgarians are emotionally attached to their water system. The project involved a period of research where I spent time in every part of the drinking water industrial production system. In the mornings I visited water treatment sites, but in the afternoon I employed my children as researchers and we explored urbane Calgarians’ attachment to the water for leisure – visiting swimming pools, the famous hippos in the zoo, folk festivals and watching kayakers and teenagers hanging out on the beautiful Bow and Elbow rivers. This dual approach drove my conviction that water needs to be understood as an industrial product, a profound life-sustaining substance and also a cultural material.
At the same time, I became fascinated by the work of the City of Calgary leak locators, who use digital and analogue instruments to search for leaks. I spent days with locator Kelly Pyke, trying to hear leaks. The most precise instrument they use is the analogue globe geophone that can pick up the turbulence caused by a leak 3m deep, where the Calgarian infrastructure lies beneath the frost line. The leak locators must compress a huge world in many dimensions: a depth of earth, an horizontal expanse of infrastructure, and the movement of time. These are merged into a sound they hear through two brass globes – tiny ‘contacts’ on the earth. This sound is transferred to both ears via a stethoscope – and then translated into space on the ground by the leak locator. It is not clear whether anyone one else can hear what the listener can hear, and the sounds are not recorded or measured.
I was fascinated by the intimacy of this experience and its contrast with the vast industrial and natural infrastructure. I wanted to give others the opportunity to listen, like the locators did. I thought about the leak locators visiting locations all over the City, turning up in unexpected locations- and imagined the public being able to use the geophone to listen too. The geophones are extremely sensitive, powerful instruments so can present a danger to hearing. I was thinking about ways that children might access the water infrastructure and their relationship to the past and future. I commissioned an extraordinary City engineer- Brent L’Heureux – to make a ‘mini-geophone’ milled out of a full-size one.
Continuing my interest in scale, I was fascinated by the manuals that all City field crews had in their van – a huge, square by square map of Calgary infrastructure, specifying the diameter, materials and joints of every pipe. The City has transferred onto a digital system, but analogue maps are still used. The analogue maps often have updated pages, reflecting the ever-growing edges of the City and the water infrastructure that must serve it. I proposed to stick one together in its full size, inviting City workers to see its full physicality. Staff in the City of Calgary Water Centre were asked to indicate their neighbourhoods and to think what music they would play through the water system if they could, using music as something that would indicate a leak in the instance of a burst – an emotional letting of pressure.
From these ingredients I began to form a series of live works where I might invite Calgarians to reflect on the relationship between their daily lives and the vastness of the water infrastructure. An exhibition to launch the work of all five artists in the Dynamic Environment Lab was orchestrated at Contemporary Calgary. This organisation now sits in the site of an extraordinary redundant Brutalist planetarium, well loved by many Calgarians as children. The building squeezes together concrete minimalism with an over-the-top futurism: highly impure, lively, nostalgic and futuristic – perfectly in keeping with the futuristic and nostalgic character of the analogue geophones.
In this space I installed the huge re-combined city map and the adult and children’s geophones. Visitors can hear the heating and water infrastructure of the building with the two instruments, noting that the mini ones have a higher pitch and less ‘reach’ than the adult ones. This location was then used as the base for the guided tour. The audience were invited to collect the geophones (now morphing from exhibit, to tool, to prop) and to carry them onto our City of Calgary tour bus. On the bus, an energetic, discordant folded print, expertly designed by du.st in Sheffield, became a map, prop, guide, frame and souvenir for a tour, with me as the guide.
The tour took visitors to two locations in West and then central Calgary, locations selected because of their relationship to chosen music- Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance was imagined as the sound of the leak in Montgomery, chosen by a leak locator, while Wish You Were Here was the sound of a leak in Sunnyside, chosen by a Water Centre scientist.
The bus held 16 people and there were two tours. We were met in each location by leak locator Chris Steffen who guided us through the use of the instruments. After one week of autumn Calgary had its first snow on this day, and we listened while snowflakes fell heavily. Listening with the geophones is difficult; you must hold your breath and try to sink beneath the ambient noise. One woman noted a repetitive but soft drumming – the sound of snowflakes landing on the instruments.
The tour began with Calvin Harris’ How Deep is your Love?. This track became the anthem for the work, being at the same time industrially produced and intimate, cold and erotic, asking a question that is both scientific and emotional – how deep is your love? Along the journey I narrated experiences of working with leak locators, time spent in the meter shed, and walking miles of underground piping, squeezed together incongruously with loud excerpts from the play list built by Calgarians that included, amongst other tracks: Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River, and Jeff Beck’s Plinth. The tour participants were invited to think about the relationship between the music being played underground, and the social character of the neighbourhoods- silent, faceless wealthy new builds, grungy wooden old century homes.
Following the exhibition and the tour, the geophones and prints will be reconfigured into a form that enables them to travel, and hopefully be taken out again by curious Calgarians who could, potentially, visit the 14 other locations around the City, indicated on the map.
With huge thanks to Alex Lingnau, all at Sans Facon, City of Calgary Public Art, and City of Calgary staff. Special thanks to Heather Aitken.
Becky Shaw’s How Deep is your Love?’ launched at Contemporary Calgary on Thursday 26 September 2019 and runs until 05 January 2020.
Live works and opening: Saturday 28 September 2019.