By Louis Bockner
Dams and the rivers they alter have a long, complex and volatile history in the Kootenays.
One of these rivers, the Columbia, wears 14 dams along its 2,000 km winding body and is also the centrepiece of the Columbia River Treaty, a controversial power-sharing and flood control agreement signed between the United States and Canada in 1964. Now, after five decades, that treaty is up for renegotiation.
The river and the political, environmental and cultural baggage it now carries are the inspiration for River Relations, a group exhibition that will open at Touchstones Nelson on Sept. 22. The show, which explores the ecological and social impacts of the hydro-electric dams on the river, features eight artists from a wide array of disciplines who have been working on it for over two years.
One of the artists, Nick Conbere, a professor at Vancouver’s Emily Carr University, says the exhibition is timely for reasons that reach beyond the treaty negotiations. “Public attention and public discussion made it seem a topical subject,” he said, “but it’s also topical because we’re debating other dams that are being built, most notably the Site C Dam in northern B.C.”
Conbere’s contribution to the exhibition is a collaboration with photographer John Holmgren that combines photographs of the river’s dams with overlaid illustrations by Conbere. By including multiple disciplines and people in the show he feels it with tackling such a complex topic.
“Just starting to even think about the history and the current issues around the Columbia River can be overwhelming but we all come in from our own entry points. It also provides us with different, objective points of view which compliments us working together.”
The group, which has been meeting regularly since 2015 to share ideas and inspiration, has conducted extensive research and gone on numerous field trips to different parts of the river.
“I find it very provocative,” said Fred Wah, a poet who splits his time between Vancouver and his home near Riondel on the East shore of Kootenay Lake. “It stimulates the mind to talk with other people who are working with the same intensity and concerns.”
Wah, who won the Governor General’s Award for his 1985 book Waiting for Saskatchewan, feels it’s important to draw attention to an issue that’s been quietly flowing by for decades.
“I was around in the late ‘60s and wasn’t paying attention to what was going on up in The Arrow Lakes,” he said. “One of the main points of our project is that we feel artists are stakeholders in things like rivers and as stakeholders we need to be heard. We need to put our oar in if you like.”
A poem as long as the river
Wah and fellow poet Rita Wong decided to write a poem as long as the river, which was a challenge because “it’s a really long river.” To do this they printed out a 120-foot composite of scanned lithographic maps of the Columbia and wrote their own poems along each side. “We didn’t necessarily look at what the other one was writing across the river but we sometimes crossed it when we came to a bridge.”
The entire project is an exercise in interpretation and each artist has taken on this challenge in their own way. Genevieve Robertson, a visual artist from Vancouver, believes that art can create a dialogue to reach a broader community.
“Treaty negotiations and biologists doing reports on specific impacts of the dams create conversations that only make it out to certain audiences,” she said. “Art can reach different audiences but more importantly it has the ability to impact people on a more emotional level, a more intuitive level. It opens doors for thinking in a more nuanced way about something.”
Silt from floor to ceiling
Robertson’s interpretation involved collecting silt from three of the river’s reservoirs — the Kinbasket, the Roosevelt and the Wanapum — and using it to draw 60 smaller pieces that together make up a floor to ceiling installation.
While many of the images Robertson created have unclear inspirations some represent the flora and fauna that’s lost when a riparian zone of a healthy river becomes, what she calls, the “bathtub line” of a reservoir.
“A lot of those images are abstract but a lot of them come from sources that are true. I was interested in mixing the uncanny and abstract with the true.”
The opening at Touchstones will be the first for the exhibition — the second being at Emily Carr — but afterwards Conbere hopes it will be showcased in galleries on both sides of the border. For Touchstones curator Arin Fay, having the show open in Nelson, a place where the culture of the region has been irreversibly shaped by the Columbia River Treaty and the dams that came with it, was a no-brainer.
“I’m super happy to have it coming through our door,” she said. “It’s like a dream exhibition.”
While much of the inspiration for the pieces has come from the river’s turbulent past, the exhibition also looks to the future and the implications the upcoming treaty renegotiations will have in shaping it.
“Now that the river’s been changed so much how can we look at it with another meaning that isn’t just for making a lot of wealth or progress or energy,” said Wah. “Revising this treaty in the next few years is important and I think our voices might be useful in this.”