Artists in the Field: A rare History of Artistic Interventions and Transformative Actions

What do a conceptual longhouse, an ephemeral dining pavilion, an opera singer in the woods and a photographer in a river all have in common?

They’re all rare sitings.

Over the past thirteen years, artists have been working alongside biologists at the rare Charitable Research Reserve, near Blair, Ontario. The landscape at rare is one of great diversity, including rolling, partly forested hills, limestone cliffs, alvars and floodplain, located at the confluence of the Grand and Speed rivers. The reserve is situated where the Carolinian eco-zone meets the Northern Hardwoods zone, a place of unmatched biodiversity in Canada, threatened by encroaching development. For many Carolinean species, this is the northernmost part of their range, and their only native habitat in Canada. rare plays a crucial role, providing over 900 acres of protected land, with six of eight resettlement landscapes and more than 24 different habitat types.

A white tailed deer on rare land. (Photo: Nick Dunham)

Conserved land has never been more important. According to geologic history, the earth has gone through five major extinction events and now we are hurtling ourselves into a sixth. Climate change, sprawling suburbanization, resource extraction and pollution are fragmenting ecosystems everywhere, undermining their integrity. As ecosystems degrade, so too do carbon sinks and genetic libraries. Species are lost, carbon is released, climate change accelerates and economic disparity deepens. At the heart of this eco-social crisis is a dizzying cultural one: we know we’re in trouble but can’t conjure the political will to change course. We read about melting ice caps, desertification and famines, and for many of us, vacillate between despair and wanting a vacation.

At the same time, something subtle is happening in the biosphere: species are adapting. Conifers are migrating north to cooler temperatures. Bacteria are breeding and feeding on plastics that swirl in the Atlantic and Pacific garbage patches. Willows are recolonizing abandoned mining sites, thriving in contaminated soils. These adaptations aren’t reasons to relax, but they do offer us a pedagogy for moving forward: ecosystems are creative and creativity is resilience. In order to afford ecosystems creative space, we need to preserve undeveloped land.

“Undeveloped land” might be the wrong term. If you look at a natural history of the Amazon river basin, for example, you realize that the jungles there have been occupied and cultivated by indigenous peoples for centuries (plant species were moved about, soil fertility was vastly improved). Similarly, national and provincial parks in Canada were the dwelling and hunting grounds of First Nations, long before they were cordoned off to anyone without a park permit. Conservation efforts often emphasize the importance of keeping people off the land. This both ignores histories of Indigenous occupation and land rights, but also undermines the positive effect humans can have in ecosystems.

Leanne Grieves points out a common tern flying over the Grand River. (Photo: D. Coulson)

The work at rare aims to connect communities to local ecosystems in novel and meaningful ways, forming unique methods of conservation and helping to shift environmental politics. One way of connecting communities to the land is through art. While rare hosts scientists, whose research is instrumental in generating environmental policy, it also hosts internationally acclaimed artists, poets, designers, and public thinkers. Collaborations have ranged from visits and residencies, to projects and installations, to on-site performances and happenings. This article aims to offer background on some of the artistic ventures that have shaped rare, engaged its local community, and helped broaden the organization’s reach.

The rare Charitable Research Reserve is closely partnered with The Musagetes Foundation. As described in their SenseLabs workbook, Musagetes uses “socially engaged art” to “investigate the ways in which we adapt, individually and collectively, to social, economic, environmental and political transitions.” The foundation examines how “art enables us to critique current systems and imagine new social structures.” Because rare views the arts as a legitimate field for research, along with ecological sciences, it is not surprising that rare and Musagetes are closely linked.

The Art of Cruickston

In 2004, a group of local visual artists were given the opportunity to explore rare over the course of a year. Guided by land steward Bill Wilson, the group was taken on hikes in all four seasons and encouraged to reflect and sketch. Wilson taught the artists the ecological principles of bird habitat, behaviour and anatomy. He identified wildflowers, discussed organic gardening practices, and offered some history of the buildings on site, like the Slit Barn. The sketches inspired paintings, which were curated by Faith Turner into an exhibit at the historic Homer Watson Gallery.

[pullquote]Depicting nature in this intimate way challenges the cultural tendency to treat ecosystems as interchangeable and disposable.[/pullquote]Among the group was Heather Franklin, an award-winning visual artist, instructor, curator, gallery technician and arts administrator, who works in drawing, etching, mixed media, print-making and installation. At the time, rare was known as the Cruickston Charitable Research Reserve (CCRR). The project was called “The Art of Cruickston” and was directed by Astero Kalogeropoulos (now the Arts and Culture manager for Waterloo).

Hosting artists was an inaugural step for rare in engaging the local community and teaching them about the land trust. American author and environmentalist, Barry Lopez, says that, “one learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it—like that between the sparrow and the twig…” Artists are uniquely positioned to capture these kinds of relationships. A bird is more than a specimen of a species in a work of art. It is a subject. An area of woods is more than a forest type through an artist’s lens. It is a unique dwelling place. Depicting nature in this intimate way challenges the cultural tendency to treat ecosystems as interchangeable and disposable. They are revealed as unique; as singular.

Karen Houle, nationally acclaimed poet, scholar and inaugural writer-in-residence at rare, says this about the importance of understanding landscapes intimately (speaking at a rare panel called Exquisite Woods):

One of the basic impulses in science is trying to say how x is like y. You’re studying this creek but to get oriented to it you say it’s sort of like this creek, and it’s like this creek… The concern that I would have as an artist—but I think this is a concern that we should all have—is that that kind of gesture knocks the edges off singularity… Things are both, in an interesting way, able to be part of a pattern and generalized but at the same time nothing is like anything else. There is a way in which things are radically unique. You don’t love anything in general, you love things in particular.

Houle highlights an important way in which art can work in tandem with scientific research. While science has the capacity to define an ecosystem, artists have the ability to reveal it.

In Art for Democracy, Martha McCoy says:

As we partake of artistic events or exhibits or artworks… we enter a parallel world in which we often have powerful vicarious experiences. These can move us to empathize with people who are different from ourselves, the basis of the fellow-feeling that is critical to a good public life, and an essential ingredient of civic dialogue.

Similarly, artistic experiences can help us to sense our part in a greater scheme. It is an ecological kind of thinking that challenges capitalist isolationism.

Arts Together

Foundational to many artistic projects at rare was a Kitchener-Waterloo (KW) based initiative called Arts Together—Creative Intersections. Inspired by Seattle’s success at attracting innovators by enlivening its cultural sector, Arts Together was a program geared to investing in KW’s arts and culture sector, with the ultimate goal of making KW a design capital of Canada.

Historically, KW was made famous by textile manufacturing and agriculture. Today, it’s known as the birthplace of Blackberry (formerly Research in Motion). It has become one of the most desirable regions in Canada to live, being close to Toronto, while offering a higher standard of living for less cost. However, the population influx—it’s the fourth largest centre of immigration in Canada—has created a demand for development, which poses risks to local ecology. This is one of the reasons that rare’s influence in KW, and beyond, is crucial.

Harbingers of Spring

Have you ever been in the woods and thought you heard music? The vibrating of cicadas, the rhythmic chirping of birds, the swelling overture of wind. Canadian composer, R. Murray Schafer, hears it. On April 30th of 2009, Open Ears, a biannual festival of music and sound, came to rare with a project called “Harbingers of Spring.”

[pullquote]When many trees are producing sap simultaneously, the sound can be heard by the naked ear.[/pullquote]Supported by Arts Together, Harbingers of Spring was a three-hour soundwalk led by Schafer and featuring his original compositions. Guests were led to various auditory stops around rare. Schafer extracted scenes from his environmental operas which were performed live. The objective of Harbingers of Spring was to insert sounds and music into the rare landscape, which emulated or were in concert with the sounds already existing there. Schafer says of the walk: “There are some musical works which to some extent suggest the sounds of nature… The breeze and things of that sort. I wanted to try to get people to really listen to that bridge between the sounds of nature and the sounds of music.”

While leading the groups on the walk, Schafer discussed histories of hearing. He talked about how early cultures were able to interpret noises from 20–30 km away. Schafer encouraged guests to listen for the sounds of trees growing—a soundscape that is manifested in the resonance of sap gushing through the inner xylem of a tree’s trunk. When many trees are producing sap simultaneously, the sound can be heard by the naked ear. (This concept has also been discussed by Peter Wohlleben, in his 2015 book The Hidden Life of Trees.)

The walk was curated by Peter Hatch, a composer, academic, and Open Ears’ founder. Among the artists who participated were soprano opera singer, Brooke Dufton, waterphone virtuoso, Jesse Stuart, and flutist and ethnomusicologist, Ellen Waterman. The walk also featured instruments for the guests to play themselves, such as an area of wood blocks strung together and hanging from trees, which could be hit with sticks like xylophones. You can watch a video here by the late Philip Bast, which features samples from the walk. Schaffer concluded his walk with a call for greater listening.

Imitate and CAFKA

CAFKA (Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener and Area), a partner in the formation of Arts Together, is a non-profit, artist-run organization that presents a free biennial exhibition of contemporary art in public spaces in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. In 2011, sculptors and installation artists Sheila McMath and Michael Ambedian, created Imitate, as part of CAFKA’s exhibition that year themed “Survive. Resist.” Imitate was made up of two earthworks installed at rare. For those unfamiliar with the term, “earthworks” are art pieces made from found natural materials, such as rocks, wood or soil.

McMath and Ambedian created an archway made out of woven beech sticks and a “root piece,” which was a rectangular framed section of ground where soil had been removed, revealing the living roots of a hemlock tree. McMath describes the root piece as, “an intricate, amazing piece of nature that isn’t normally revealed.” She explains that they chose a hemlock tree because, “it has a really shallow but very intricate root system… [with] gorgeous, lace-like, yellow veins.”

Sheila McMath and Michael Ambedian, Imitate (after Nils Udo), 2011, tree root, earth, 91 x 61 cm

Both the archway and the root piece emulated earthworks done by other artists. The archway was inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s work and the root piece was modelled after a piece by Nils Udo. McMath and Ambedian chose to imitate these works after reading designer Bruce Mao’s “Incomplete Manifesto for Growth.” In it, Mau suggests that artists should imitate freely. “Don’t be shy about it,” he says. “Try to get as close as you can. You’ll never get all the way, and the separation might be truly remarkable.”

There were unique challenges for McMath and Ambedian to overcome at rare as they went about their project. In order to be granted access to work on the reserve, they spent months learning about the reserve and demonstrating that they could work there in a way that would not negatively affect it. In a video on CAFKA TV, McMath chuckles:

We’ve learned about salamander habitats and how to maintain them. We’ve met people here that we would never have met before, who have amazing aesthetic sensitivity. They’re not artists, necessarily, but they’re so attuned to their environment that the details of things are not lost to them.

Ed Burtynsky and Isabelle Heyeur

Brazilian political theorist Roberto Mangabeira Unger argues that “art is not philosophy. It cannot, without violence to its nature, turn its discoveries into a teaching about the conduct of life. It can only enlarge the field of vision on which such a teaching can draw.” This conception of the artist as someone who offers perspective is certainly fitting for acclaimed Canadian photographer Ed Burtynsky, who visited rare in 2006.

Photo: Edward Burtynsky

Burtynsky is best known for his large-scale industrial landscapes and the film, Manufactured Landscapes, which documents his work. Using large-format field cameras, Burtynsky captures expansive areas in exquisite detail. Thematically, he focuses on environments that have been profoundly transformed through industrialization.

While visiting rare, Burtynsky photographed the confluence of the Grand and Speed Rivers, as well as Maple Lane. Maple Lane is a trail on the south side of the property, behind Langdon Hall, and is the remnant of an historic colonial carriageway, lined by sugar maples. Burtynsky’s photograph shows the subtle contrast of the lane, which alludes to the history of colonization, against the old growth forest that encroaches upon it. This forest is some of the last remaining old growth Carolinian forest in existence. As Executive Director of rare, Stephanie Sobek-Swant points out, “there is less than 0.01% of old growth Carolinian forest left anywhere!”

Photo: Edward Burtynsky

Six years after Burtynsky visited the reserve, another photographer came to rare. 2012 brought Isabelle Hayeur, a digital image artist from Montreal who is known for her large-scale photographic montages, videography, and site-specific installations. Hayeur, who’s interested in “the evolution of places and communities in the neoliberal sociopolitical context,” was working on a project documenting the transformation of rivers, “bearing witness” to the “upheaval” caused by industry, development and pollution. She visited waterways from Florida to New Jersey’s Chemical Coast, before arriving at rare to photograph the Grand River, which is also known as O:se Kenhionhata:tie in Mohawk (meaning Willow River).

Photo of the Grand River by Isabelle Hayeur

The environmental state of the Grand has ebbed and flowed over the past century. Once a bucolic landscape that inspired Homer Watson’s The Floodgate (1900–1901), it was later described in 1937 by MacLean’s magazine as an “open sewer.” In more recent years, native species have flourished again in and around its waters, including brown trout, bald eagles and osprey. Still, the river flows through an increasingly populated region (home to around 1 million people), where industry, commerce and agriculture apply significant environmental pressures.

Hayeur’s photograph of the Grand captures the duality of the river, which is at once vital and polluted. Her photograph is taken from within the river, half beneath and half above water level. This partly submerged perspective contrasts the beauty above with the turbidity below. It asks us to see the river in its complexity, while also recognizing that we are inherently connected to it.

Isabelle Hayeur, Grand River 01, 2012.

Dining Pavilions

Also on the Grand River at rare was a fleeting installation called Dining Pavilions. In July of 2007, Geoffrey Thün, a professor of Architecture at the University of Waterloo, had his students create “no-trace” dining pavilions, brought to and removed from the banks of the Grand River at rare using zero fossil fuels. The pavilions were set up, enjoyed and taken down within forty-eight hours, and used to serve a three-course meal, where at least one course was cooked using a heat source on site.

The pavilions were described in a rare newsletter:

If you were to have taken an evening stroll along the Grand River on Saturday, July 9, you would have come across an extraordinary sight. Intermingling with the natural beauty of the riverside setting was spectacular handiwork—in the form of dining pavilions… From suspended chairs to ethereal fabric to curving pieces of wood reaching up from running water, the pieces were nothing short of artwork.

The Lusthaus dining pavilion. (Photo: Kimchi Ho)

Thün challenged his students to think holistically when designing the pavilions. They were to consider the environmental context of rare and the Grand River, the relationships between the structures and the rituals of dining, as well as “the poetic qualities of a temporary shelter,” as Thün describes it. To Thün, the project offered “an unparalleled learning experience.” He explains:

For us to be able to work on a sensitive site where other research initiatives are underway underlines that imagining the manner in which we build, gather and celebrate must be conceived of as part of the larger ecological systems in which we form a part.

Homeland/Security and Three Sisters Garden

The Grand River flows through The Haldimand Tract, a region of land that was granted to the Six Nations in a 1784 treaty by Frederick Haldimand (Governor in Chief of the province of Quebec and its territories). In recent years, the tract has been the site of land disputes between members of the Six Nations and developers. Jeff Thomas of Six Nations highlights these struggles in his 2009–2010 site-specific installation series, Home/land & Security, commissioned by RENDER (at the University of Waterloo). The series explored the land claim disputes, concepts of “home” and “security,” and dissonance between native and non-native communities.

The series included works by Thomas, archival photos from the Six Nations, as well as installations by fourteen other artists. Ultimately, Thomas was interested in encouraging an intercultural dialogue, while also sharing First Nations’ history of the region. A traditional three sisters garden was devised and later planted at Springbank Gardens at rare. The concept of the three sisters garden is an Iroquois teaching. The premise is that corn, beans and squash are inseparable crops that should be grown together.

Common Ground

In July through September of 2012, a multi-venue, site-specific series unfolded in the Cambridge area (near rare), including installations at the reserve. Common Ground by Idea Exchange was a project produced by curators Iga Janik and Esther E. Shipman. Billed as “where land meets art,” the project was described as a “challenge [to artists] and the public to think more broadly about the role of culture in the community, its impact on the environment, and the very shape art can take when it is placed outside of assumed institutions.”

Common Ground united landscape and urban designers with citizens, business owners, government departments, academic institutions, and other organizations to participate in outdoor installations and events, as well as gallery exhibits. There were six projects at or involving rare.

Detail of Haudenausaunee – A Modern Long House. (Photo: Fred Hunsberger, courtesy of Waterloo Architecture)

One of these projects was “Haudenausaunee – A Modern Long House,” installed near Springbank Garden by University of Waterloo Architecture students, under the direction of Dr. William Woodsworth. The students, who were taking Woodsworth’s course “Twelve Architectures,” designed a contemporary version of an Iroquoian longhouse. While there was no immediate intention for the house to be built, the students installed an outline of its footprint. A series of artfully designed, blue and red stakes were put in the ground. A single rafter was installed in July; a symbolic gateway to the imagined building.

Installation view of Haudenausaunee – A Modern Long House. (Photo: Fred Hunsberger, courtesy of Waterloo Architecture)

Another installation at rare for Common Ground was “3byLAND – THREADby Janet Rosenberg & Studio, a distinguished landscape architecture and urban design studio. THREAD was an interactive walkway, reflecting the region’s agricultural as well as textile heritage. A “u” shaped structure with no walls and dangling yellow ribbons invited visitors to walk through it, as if walking through a “sinuous wheat field.” Glowing against the silhouette of rare’s iconic Slit Barn, the installation beckoned at night like a field illuminated in the sun. The yellow ribbons — “wisps of wheat” — were made of fabric, hence the relationship to the area’s history of textile production, and were illuminated by ground-mounted lights. Janet Rosenberg & Studio rightly describes their installation as “an unexpected piece of art along a country road.” In fact, it would have been quite haunting to drive by at night.

THREAD installation at the Slit Barn. (Photo: Jeff McNeill)

A third project as part of Common Ground at rare was Theory + Design – ARCH 425. This project, created by students in the fourth year “Theory and Design” course at the University of Waterloo, taught by landscape architect and associate professor, Elise Shelley, saw eleven installations created in between Springbank Farm and the Slit Barn.

Each installation was created by a group of five to six students, and conceived of to enhance the physical landscape either aesthetically or functionally. Shelley describes the projects in an article for The Record as being “inherently temporary with most of them more akin to art installations than a functional piece of architecture.” From rustic daybeds placed in grass fields, to plaques with engraved poetry, to manufactured spider webs, to a giant white orb made of wire and foam, the student’s projects temporarily transformed the landscape, while drawing attention to its inherent qualities.

Situated Landscape, one such installation by “Team Hargreaves,” explored the act of inserting simple pieces of furniture into a grass field, examining how those objects displaced the grass in ways that could be interesting, inviting or revealing to someone who finds them. The team described their piece, saying: “Chairs were used as devices to immerse the individual into the volume of the grass, placing their field of view at varying heights. Each one was placed strategically, providing a focal point on the site.” Beyond inserting a chair, the group also installed a daybed made of wooden shipping skids, stools, a ladder, a wooden lounge chair and mirrors. Ultimately, the goal was to invite guests into a state of “contemplation or meditation,” while seeing an area of rare in a new or intriguing way.

Team Hargreaves, Situated Landscape, 2012. (Photographs provided by the artists, courtesy of Waterloo Architecture)

Transformative Action

Seeing possibility is important as we move forward to address environmental-social crisis. So much of environmental discourse focuses on what is vulnerable, degraded or lost. There is value in seeing what is singular, vital and resilient in ecosystems as well. This knowledge can challenge nihilism and complacency, and inspire transformative action.

In recent years, activism has led to mostly rhetorical changes in environmental governance. The federal Liberals appointed a Minister of Environment and Climate Change, which suggested that environmental issues would be taken seriously. Yet policy has barely turned. The paradox is painful—Canada is actively growing oil infrastructure while verbally committing to lowering emissions.

[pullquote]…transformative action arises from visionary thinking and imagination.[/pullquote]Drastic change is not easy or politically savvy. In order to justify the growing pains that a major shift in energy policy (or any significant environmental policy) would entail there needs to be cultural buy-in. This requires a culture able to visualize an alternative environmental ethos; a relationship between itself and the environment that is not based wholly on extraction and commodification but something more reciprocal and sustainable. Unger, who I quoted earlier, argues that transformative action arises from visionary thinking and imagination. In Religion of the Future he describes visionary thinking as a process of perceiving what is and then perceiving what could be.

The two recurrent moves of the imagination — distancing from the object (recollecting perception as image) and transformative variation (grasping a state of affairs by reference to what it might next become) – represent requirements of insight into any part of the manifest world.

The collaboration between artists and rare has offered a microcosmic example of how the arts can be a space for visionary ecological thinking. Whether it be a forest soundwalk or an unusual riverside dining experience, the artistic projects at rare have arguably created deeper connections between the reserve and its visitors, while encouraging sober reflection on how colonization, development and industry have impacted the landscape and local communities. The implications of this thinking may reverberate well beyond rare’s acreage to impact other communities. This in turn may create broader shifts in environmental politics, contributing to the political momentum we so urgently need.

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Mike Young is a Toronto-based writer, recovering actor and environmentalist. He’s co-authored two short graphic novels with Oxford University Press, written essays for Alternatives Journal, Guts Magazine, Undercurrents Journal and Demeter Press.

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