In Winter 2015, we unknowingly began a 2-year adventure that would carry us through the structural underbelly of the City, launch us on an educational + emotional rollercoaster, and (hopefully) result in our most public project to date.
In 2015, we casually applied to a Request for Qualifications posted by Calgary Public Art. The RFQ invited artists to create patterns for a Glowing Pathway in West Eau Claire, south of the Peace Bridge on the riverwalk. The newly named Delta Garden site was appealing to us – partially because we live a kilometer from the Peace Bridge and bike across it several times a week, because our art practice leading up to 2015 was centred around LIGHT, and because we believe in the radical potential of public space in Calgary (especially green spaces). This is a site where nature + culture mix, where recreation + transportation meet, and where Calgarians are drawn almost magnetically by the ravenous beauty of the Bow River.
Despite being enticed by the site, however, we applied to this project hesitantly. We were busy with temporary projects, and working on our first “permanent” public artwork was an intimidating prospect (especially in the wake of Travelling Light). Additionally, we were concerned by the wording in the RFQ, which asked artists to work with phosphorescent aggregate to design a pattern for the new pathway. We, like so many others, had seen video of Studio Roosegarde‘s Van Gogh Pathway in Europe, and (having encountered copyright infringement problems of our own) we were hesitant to step on the toes of another artist.
When we voiced these concerns to Calgary Public Art, they were receptive and conversational. They expressed similar concerns, but explained that their intention was not to hire local artists to build a Studio Roosegarde piece, but rather to invite artists to explore experimental materials to create an illuminated artwork embedded in the new bike and foot paths of West Eau Claire Park. I don’t remember when we decided to apply, but we did so with the intention of stretching the possibilities of the artwork, of subverting the Call, and creating a work that isn’t just design, but holistically integrated into the spatial, cultural, architectural, and environmental considerations of the site.
When we were awarded this project, the real challenges began. We approached our research first by exploring a variety of phosphorescent and reflective materials, starting with the most obvious: glow stones. Our hypothesis, based on previous experience with glow-in-the-dark material, was that phosphorescent aggregate would require strictly controlled lighting conditions – ie. the more darkness, the better.
We also know that glowing materials tend to photograph more brightly than they appear in real life (see images above), and thus pre-existing examples of glowing pathways utilizing glow stones may not be reliable references. For example, we learned that the Van Gogh Pathway built in the Netherlands actually requires an ongoing charge from ultraviolet lights in order to glow through the night.
If a relatively rural bike path requires additional UV lighting to glow, how would glow-in-the-dark materials withstand the sky glow of downtown Calgary? The Delta Garden site is in close proximity to the bright lights of Calatrava Peace Bridge and several new developments. Concerned about the effects of light bleed into the Delta, we conducted on-site tests with our colleagues from O2 Planning + Design (the landscape architects who designed Delta Garden) and the Park’s Lighting Designer from SMP Engineering. Tests affirmed our hypothesis that glow stones would indeed require supplementary lighting to exhibit a bright and satisfying aesthetic.
Ultraviolet light has unknown impacts on natural habitats (including bugs, birds, and bats), especially when installed in a permanent capacity. During the day, glow stones look like almost nothing. They’re made of plastic polymers (which would likely respond less than ideally with freeze and thaw cycles). This, in combination with our concerns about stepping on the toes of artists overseas, deterred us from pursuing glow stones for Delta Garden. Instead, we decided to reinvent the project, approaching it as an opportunity to create a beautiful, site-specific, and iconic public work for Calgary.
And so we began a new line of research, an exciting exploration of reflective, refractive, and recycled materials. Armed with the resources and relationships that come as a perk of collaborating with Calgary Public Art, we began months of development. Little did we know that we were turning a key in the lock of the City, and soon we would have an entirely different understanding of this place + space…