After almost 3 years of planning, research, design, and building, our first civically-funded public artwork in Calgary opens this Friday, September 21 for Calgarians to explore.
We have an entire blog dedicated to the project, but we’ve condensed our adventures into one handy post below.
Delta Garden + The City Unseen was created specifically for Calgary’s iconic Bow River pathway. Using 12,000 brass survey monuments to create a shimmering river of sediment, the artwork curls through the delta-shaped garden. Designed by local landscape architects O2 Planning + Design, the garden is intended to be a contemplative social space, funneling traffic off the Peace Bridge into the city beyond.
We created our patterning in response to the park’s landscape design and river research. Because this project was created in collaboration with the City of Calgary, we had access to River Engineers. We learned about flow dynamics, fish habitats, the importance of riparian habitats, and flood mitigation. We were shown how the river has changed over time.
One of the scientists pointed out that “there are no deltas in the Bow River system.” Fascinated, we realized that the Delta Garden is a mythical place – not a map, but a metaphor. Wanting to explore the intersection between reality and myth, we built a miniature model of the delta, and simulated flow through the space. This, in combination with our research, informed the patterning for Delta Garden + The City Unseen.
In considering possible materials for the artwork, we were searching for a familiar material that would mimic the glitter of light off water. Initially, we wanted to use a found material. We went on many research trips, exploring the materiality of our city.
After experimenting with many found materials (and discovering many limitations with materials intended to survive outdoors for years underfoot), we selected brass survey monuments for their physical and conceptual properties.
Traditionally, survey monuments are permanent markers used to pinpoint coordinates, establish property lines, and assist surveyors in mapping the landscape. You can find them embedded in the concrete of cities around the world.
We also have a personal tie to surveying – my Grampa, William Skulsky, surveyed across Northern Canada. You can read more about his adventures here.
However, we weren’t thinking about surveying in the traditional sense. After learning about the wandering course of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, we began wondering: how can one use permanent markers like survey monuments to chart the land when the landscape itself is not solid? Given enough time, mountain ranges shift, wildfires reshape forests, and rivers snake through the landscape in a serpentine, ever-changing way.
Above left: the linear way humans map the landscape. Right: the serpentine way rivers want to move across the land.
Delta Garden + The City Unseen re-appropriates brass survey monuments to explore the dissonance between manmade methods of mapping the land, the land’s natural divisions, and the power of our perceptions to transform any given place.
Manufactured locally by M2M Machining, our monuments were made to be special. Instead of listing the coordinates of a space or naming the utilities buried beneath, they chart the social coordinates of the city, speaking to the psychogeography of Calgary.
Text on the brass monuments was gathered through The Invisible City Survey, a public survey named after Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972). Standing in a survey booth on the riverwalk, we asked passing pedestrians two questions: Where are you going? and Where do you want to be?
If they couldn’t visit the survey booth, the people were invited to answer the survey online or at a free Artist Talk we hosted at the Public Library. Posters (above) were displayed on the C-train.
We compiled the most interesting survey responses into short fragments. Words and phrases from the surveys were engraved into the brass markers and sorted into boxes of randomized text (with the help of many volunteers).
We even re-created a few drawings from our younger survey participants.
Drawing this artwork from concept into reality was far more complicated than we ever could have imagined. We had perhaps hundreds of meetings with architects, engineers, and City of Calgary officials.
Before we could install the artwork onsite, there were slip studies, a glare study, engineering consultations, a test plot, and destructive testing. We needed to ensure the artwork won’t be too bright for aircraft, or too delicate for snow removal equipment.
The process of embedding the monuments in the ground took many many months and many many hands. We were involved in two capacities: mapping the patterns into the park and charting the placement of the monuments.
We worked directly with the sandblasters, spending weeks onsite literally blasting our pattern into the pavement.
The coring and drilling site of each monument was marked in advance with an X. We marked all 12,000 Xs ourselves to ensure aesthetic continuity.
The process of installing the monuments into the park took months, stretching across some of the coldest days of 2017-2018. Our gratitude goes out to the teams that managed and performed these tasks: CANA, Road Savers, and so forth.
By early Summer, the final concrete was poured, the final sandblasting completed, and the final monuments were installed. The landscaping was finished and plants started to take root in the Delta Garden.
Now, we are in a final push to polish and wax the monuments before Delta Garden and West Eau Claire Park open to the public this weekend.
At the end of this process, over 100 people have been employed in the creation and installation of this public artwork. There have been countless meetings, hundreds of citizens engaged, thousands of photos taken, dozens of walk-throughs, and one late-night ‘play date’ to work on lighting design. Together, our team has invested thousands of hours building a 25,000 square foot art installation in the heart of Calgary.
We’re excited to finally share! While the artwork twists and forks through the Delta Garden like a river, as you move closer, there are little secrets hidden in the work for everyone.
As you move through the space, the text underfoot creates an esoteric poem, inlaid into the concrete. These are the answers to our questions: Where are you going? and Where do you want to be? And yet, they tell another story too… a more mysterious tale about the people in this place we share, their thoughts, fears, and desires.
Over time, the text will wear and the monuments will tarnish. The most popular routes through the Delta Garden will be polished underfoot. The less popular routes will weather and discolour.
Intended to trace desire lines through (and beyond) our city, the artwork speaks to myths + maps, rivers + boundaries, nature + culture, in an effort to illuminate the unseen cities beneath our everyday experience.
This artwork was commissioned for the City of Calgary Public Art Collection. Our immense Thanks to Calgary Public Art, The City of Calgary, Parks, CANA, our volunteers, our polishing helpers, and everyone who contributed to the Invisible City Survey.
All are welcome to celebrate the opening of West Eau Claire Park (the home of Delta Garden) this Friday, September 21, 2018 at 10:30 am. Or take a stroll any time!