‘Breaking the surface’

In cities and their edgelands, water and burdensome clutter enjoy a long-term relationship. Throughout history, urban rivers, canals, ponds and lakes have been used as dumping grounds for every kind of object imaginable – contemporary, illegal, criminal, curiosity, historical, treasure trove…

Questioning our attitudes towards waste and disposal, the environment and our responsibilities towards it, at the end of 2015 the installation ‘L’eau qui dort’/‘Breaking the surface’, by British visual artist Michael Pinsky, turned heads at Parc La Villette, in the north of Paris.

‘L’eau qui dort’ (November 25 to January 3, 2016) highlighted a collection of debris recovered by divers and the Paris canal services, and overseen by Mr Pinsky, from Canal de l’Ourcq, which runs through Parc La Villette.

A total of 40 items ‘raised from the depths’ were suspended over the surface of the water on either side of the canal. And in addition to the inevitable shopping trolley, they included a traffic cone, ‘deviation’ road sign, fridge, cooker, swivel office car, bikes (including two Vélibs), and a trunk.

Each ‘find’ was highlighted by a bluish-green spotlight in a form not unlike that of an overhanging street lamp. The work as a whole was accompanied by an eerie soundtrack (the souls of the ‘discarded’ items?). The sounds were created by youngsters living near the park, using the metallic pieces of debris themselves as instruments.

Out of sight, out of mind

Both poetic and pedagogic, the installation raises a host of questions – how we create and discard waste; the concept of ownership; responsibility for the public space; attitudes towards the environment and recycling.

At the same time, each object stimuates the imagination – how did it end up here? What’s its story? Who chucked it, and why? In the absence of any information, we are free to come up with our own answers, create our own stories…

 Formerly lifelines for city economies (essentially supplying water and transporting goods), today urban waterways such as Canal de l’Ourcq are often key features of regeneration projects. Yet despite a polished public face, they still retain their murky appeal for jettisoning the unwanted. Why?

Because in addition to its open accessibility, the water has incredible powers of invisibility! The act, the ‘crime’ of dumping can go unseen.

The canal keeps our guilty secrets until it is dredged, or a provocative artist like Mr Pinsky comes along…!

Note: in January 2016 Ville de Paris began a three-month project to drain and clean Canal St Martin, which rejoins Canal de l’Ourq.

Climate is culture

‘L’eau qui dort’ was exhibited through a partnership between COAL, the French association for art and sustainable development, and Parc La Villette.

It formed part of ArtCOP21, a festival of cultural activity on climate change initiated by COAL together with its English-speaking counterpart Cape Farewell, which took place across the globe between September and December 2015.

Use of our public realm

London-based Mr Pinsky has undertaken many residencies and commissions that explore issues shaping and influencing the use of our public realm.

Taking the combined roles of artist, urban planner, activist, researcher, and resident, he sets out without a specified agenda, working with local inhabitants and resources, allowing the physical, social, and political environment to define his working methodology.

His plans for 2016 include BeHave in Luxemburg –  a collaborative project whereby nine artists will be investing a former steelworks with artworks – and ‘The City Speaks’ in Hull, northern England.

Cover photo ©Ian Beech

In 2001, New York City (NYC) Transit  came up with a ‘creative solution’ – the  ‘Artificial Reef Project’ – to dispose of its obsolete subway cars. After being steam cleaned and stripped of components that float (oils and solids) and decompose, they are dumped in strategic locations in the ocean to create habitats for marine life and recreational fishing.

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