Project aims to change the way we interact with water
// Alexandra Thompson

“The power to heal, the power to kill. Oh, which will it be?” asks a performing artist and writer, Darcey Blackstock, in his poem titled Blue Ecology, about water. On Mar. 22, Blackstock read from his poem as part of the “Downstream: Reimagining Water” project.

The project was a series of performances, art exhibitions, readings, and film screenings that explore our intimate relationship with water. Supported by Emily Carr University, Downstream kicked off on Mar. 6 at the Concourse Gallery and finished with a roaring round of applause Mar. 22.

There are constant predictions of future wars over water, but Rita Wong, the project coordinator, believes that “water can be a path to peace … whether people imagine water as a commodity to be sold and bought by only those who can afford it, or as a human right, or as a life-giving force, or as a commons that connects us to all forms of life – people, animals, plants who also rely on the water that we do – [water] has a major impact on the kinds of societies, communities and futures that we build towards.”
The project began as a response to Dorothy Christian, a writer and video artist who is part of the Okanagan-Secwepemc Nations in B.C.’s interior, as well as Denise Nadeau, interim director of the Interfaith Summer Institute for Justice, Peace & Social Movements. Both women held great concerns about the many threats to the world’s water.

Christian and Nadeau organized a public forum called “Protect our Sacred Waters”, gathering people from many different traditions to voice their ideas and knowledge on the “Sacredness of Water.” Rita Wong was unable to attend the event, but was keen on the initiative. She found out that “nobody Chinese showed up, so [I] kind of felt like [I] wanted to take that on, that [my] community wasn’t dealing with those questions well enough,” she explained.

Rita Wong decided to “address a gap that should not have existed,” as she tells 12th grade student Rachel Shin in an interview on Open Book Toronto.

Wong has worked with people in a range of different fields for the Downstream project, from artists and environmentalists, to Indigenous elders, each with their own unique insight on water, this substance that “shapes and changes us.” Wong says that she “likes to do her bit to help build a cultural shift, one that really values our watersheds, and understands how important they are to our lives.” Downstream is about bringing forth an environmental awareness on a global scale, but more importantly, to make us aware of what’s “within us,” she explains.

The project weaves conventional Western thought with the traditions of Indigenous elders. One of the presenters, Jeff Bear of the Maliseet nation, is an award-winning producer, writer, and director of independent documentaries. He remarked that “the pursuit of an Indigenous voice is embodied in all of [the artists’] work.”

Michael Blackstock agrees. He uses his paintings, carvings, and poetry as a form of storytelling. In discussion of his most recent work, Blue Ecology, the unifying potential of water, Blackstock emphasizes that there is “so much flexibility with poetry,” and that he tries to capture the attention of a vast audience by using science to introduce his theories on water, as well as the wisdom and knowledge that he has obtained from Indigenous elders to show that water has a spiritual side to it.

“I don’t care if people aren’t buying my books now, I’m writing for two or three generations down the road, for those who will have very little time to think about how to solve the world’s problems,” he says, matter-of-factly.

“My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back,” says Jeff Bear in the same vein, quoting Louis Riel. The artists are the “unpaid civil servants,” as he puts it, “we aren’t getting paid for our work here.”

Since the first cave drawing, nature has inspired art. The artists of the Downstream project are using their works to remind the masses that nature is what keeps us alive, and that we must not “take it for granted,” says Wong.

Water keeps flowing, keeps moving forward, forever changing. The Downstream project also keeps “morphing,” as do those who donate their time and art.

“It’s evolving and ongoing,” Wong says. “Art and culture are really important in terms of raising awareness of the problems that we face, but also encouraging resilience and creative thinking and creative solutions,” says Wong. Through her work, she hopes to “encourage people to be more conscious of water, to educate themselves in where it comes from, and where it goes.”

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//Alexandra Thompson, writer
//Graphics by JJ Brewis

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