In our experience, most collaborations begin out of two things: proximity + necessity. Proximity because, if you intend to work together, your paths should already be crossing (at very least in an abstract sense). If you’re in close proximity with someone, it means you don’t mind being around them, that there is some comradery, reciprocity, and shared respect to draw an organic collaboration out of. Whether you already have proximity with someone and collaboration is a byproduct of closeness, or you have to build proximity with collaboration as an aim, for us shared proximity is a baseline for collaboration.
Necessity breeds collaboration because, ideally, the combination of your skills should be greater than the sum of its parts. There should be a healthy difference in your perspectives and experiences so that the collision of your skillsets can catalyze new understandings and ideas, and can solve seemingly impossible problems. Necessity is the mother of many things, from resource sharing to radical thinking, and can lead to collaborations that are reciprocally productive for all.
A good collaborative team can accomplish more than any individual artist would be capable of, and we’ve found this especially true when making long-term public art.
Above: the team working on slip studies, lighting tests, and construction visits
Over the course of our two years working on a new public artwork for Delta Garden, we have been fortunate enough to share proximity and necessary skills with an innovative, responsive, and laterally-minded team of architects, Calgary Public Art employees, Parks Staff, City Project Managers, Contractors, Consultants, and more. As we move towards the installation of this artwork, our team continues to grow, expanding to include still more perspectives and skills – from sandblasters to concrete coring specialists – and the parameters of our collaboration grows with it.
When looking at public artworks, it may not be immediately evident how many hands have touched the work from start to finish. How could someone looking at Bowfort Towers or Roger That or River of Light or Bloom or any other long-term public artwork (commissioned by the City or anyone else) and begin to understand the complex system of collaborative checks and balances that grow into any single piece? How could they understand the compromises and limitations of making long-term public art in Calgary’s harsh, outdoor environments? Frankly, if you’ve never had to think about it, why should you be aware that dozens, if not hundreds of people are involved in various stages of any permanent public art project? (This is part of why public art costs so much, but also why it’s beneficial, economically, socially, and communally for a city over time).
Above: early install tests using survey markers (unlike the survey monuments now being used)
Our artwork began very differently than it will end. It’s thanks to our team that we are able to build this artwork at all, and we owe a great deal of gratitude to all the folks who have met with us many times, brainstorming, trouble-shooting, and working to co-develop a successful artwork with us.
Certainly, the aesthetic and procedural approach of this work have been significantly impacted by collaborating with many people. For example, our public art conservator in Ottawa made us think about the long-term durability of all our materials, from metallurgical constraints to the temperature and solar limitations of various adhesives. Glare Study experts in Toronto asked us to consider the impact of shiny materials on fast moving cyclists, pedestrians, and helicopter traffic in the area, including thermal and physiological implications. Concrete experts and survey monument manufacturers shared their install expertise, including suggestions for specialty tools and procedures to maintain a high-quality final product that will (ideally) last for several decades.
Our City of Calgary team challenged us to question our own process, especially a tendency we share with many artists to look for the cheapest, rather than the most robust, solution to a problem. This is the ultimate value engineering: looking for the least expensive solution over time, rather than in the moment.
This came after our initial material (glued survey markers) failed destructive testing with heavy machinery used to clear snow, and the whole team met to discuss alternate solutions. We subsequently replaced the markers with survey monuments – a beefier, more mechanical material. While the monuments are more robust and we can afford fewer of them within budget, we have the added benefit of being more beautiful and more interesting objects than our proposed markers. This could not have happened without input from our team.
Above: our second (successful) round of destructive testing with City snow plows
Perhaps our most significant collaborators on this project have been the folks from O2 Planning + Design (the landscape architects who designed Delta Garden). In one sense, they have the most to lose if our artwork doesn’t work with their designs, and – while the final outcome is yet to be determined – they have been an amazing group to work with. Generous in their encouragement, technical help, productive critique, and adaptation, O2 has allowed us to work holistically within their space, empowering the potential of this artwork. Ideally, our work will add a richness to their design that wouldn’t be possible without either half of our collaboration.
The contrived proximity created by working with a team mandated by a ‘client’ could feel forced, and it hasn’t always been easy. There have been many moments when we yearn to be working in a less bureaucratic, less public, less (necessarily) challenging context. But we feel lucky to be working with such a skillful, diverse collective of people. Big thanks to our team for their ongoing collaboration – it has been a pleasure to share your proximity.
The latest addition of collaborators has included ‘The Public’ (this amorphous + dazzling entity that we’ll write more about very soon) through the Invisible City Survey. While this is a different sort of interaction than designing the artwork, we’re enjoying the experience of meeting different people on the the Bow River Pathway.