Date(s) - Thursday, June 26, 2008
By Catherine Dean
“Art & Ecology Symposium – Water: From Local to Global”, June 26, 2008
No.9: Contemporary Art & the Environment was pleased to collaborate with the Centre for Environment in the presentation of the symposium Art & Ecology – Water: From Local to Global on June 26, 2008.
Toronto-based No.9 is committed to the belief that contemporary art can stimulate positive social and environmental change. As a curatorial agency, it provides artists who share this conviction with the opportunity to make ambitious work in the public realm. It brings the power of art to bear on some of the most pressing issues of our time, using urban public space as a forum for creativity and vital discussion.
No.9’s inaugural installation, Project for the Don River by Québec City-based visual artist collective BGL (Jasmin Bilodeau, Sebastien Giguère, Nicolas Laverdière) opened on Earth Day, April 22, 2008 and ran until June 29. It consisted of a shrunken cruise ship – christened the Nowhere II – 30 feet long, completely blackened and anchored on the turgid waters of Toronto’s Lower Don River. Installed just upriver on the old Eastern Avenue bridge was a giant life buoy, totally out of proportion to the ship. With these absurd shifts in scale, the function of the objects are brought into question. In case of emergency, is the buoy intended to save the entire ship, or is it meant for the river itself? If the ship is seen as full size, then what monstrous waterway is the Don? The Nowhere II and its life buoy are emblems of luxury, idleness and materialism, representing a leisure activity gone slightly wrong. They point to the possibility of being in a place without really seeing it. With their belief in the capacity of art to elucidate the consciousness of an era, BGL are reflecting back to us the conditions of our time, while bringing attention to the ecological issues of the site.
BGL’s phantom cruise ship makes the connection between water, waste and luxury, and the fact that water is never just a local issue. If a luxury can be defined as something of value that is available only to a few then water is the ultimate luxury, while at the same time being the ultimate necessity. The Don is our local water challenge, but also a symbol of water in a larger sense.
The Art & Ecology symposium took BGL’s installation as its starting point in order to make the connection between contemporary art and environmental awareness. BGL’s Nicolas Laverdière started things off with a discussion of their work, much of it made in the public realm and relating to natural systems and ecologies. Often using found materials and re-purposed objects, they are known for making work which responds directly to a specific site. The ecological ideas implicit in their work often stem from a subtle anti-materialism and anti-commercialism.
Jennifer Bonnell, a doctoral candidate in OISE/UT’s Department of Theory and Policy Studies in Education, followed with an illustrated talk on the ecological and social history of the Don River, the focus of her thesis work. By showing the progression of the Don from a wild, natural area to its polluted and industrialised current state, her talk was enlightening as well as sobering. After decades of treating the river as a dumping ground, it is only in the fairly recent past that we have begun to see the Don as a valuable asset which should be restored to its natural condition.
The evening was moderated by renowned broadcaster and writer Jane Farrow. After the first two speakers, she led a discussion with Bring Back the Don’s John Wilson, who spoke briefly about the current health of the river, which has improved since the years when heavy industry lined the banks of the Don but is now compromised by run-off from the city and an aged sewer system.
The evening was completed by a special screening of Irena Salinas’ acclaimed documentary film FLOW: For Love of Water. The film, which concentrates on water privatisation and governance worldwide, provided a global view of water and demonstrated just how crucial it is that this precious resource not be taken for granted.