Coastal Camera Obscura III


  • Exhibition April 12 - May 27 2023

Coastal Camera Obscura III
Donald Lawrence

1. In the waters surrounding K`ómoks (Goose Spit and Comox)
Participants will enter a floating, tent-like structure by kayak or other small watercraft
On-the-Water Experience Daily Public Drop-in Event: 10AM – 5PM, May 12 – 14, 2023

2. Gather Place at CVAG | Open Wednesday – Saturday, 10AM – 5PM
Images, drawings, concept models + plans, and publications that describe the development and site-specific presentations of the three iterations of the Coastal Camera Obscura that have been developed to date.


In the shallow tidal bay surrounded by K`ómoks ­— Goose Spit — participants will use a kayak or other small watercraft to enter a floating, tent-like structure, passing through an array of baleen-like flaps designed to prevent light from getting in, or to “not let the dark out”*. Having paddled the short distance from shore, the participants will find themselves inside a small optical theatre, with an image of the surrounding landscape cast inside by way of a simple lens elevated a few feet above the water at the narrow end of the darkened space. The waterborne participants are inside a floating camera obscura, the dark tent supported by a custom-designed floating structure.

Latin for “dark room,” “camera obscura” is a term used since about 1600 to describe an optical phenomenon and apparatus in which light is admitted inside a room or other enclosed, darkened space by way of a lens or small open aperture, to project an inverted image inside, of whatever lies outside, of whatever the apparatus is looking towards. As with Coastal Camera Obscura III, such an image of the outside world may be projected onto a screen or might be cast onto a table or some other surface. Artists such as Johannes Vermeer, Giovanni Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds are well known for having used small, portable cameras obscura — advanced imaging technology in their day — as a tool in their painting process. And, while their devices were the forerunner of later “cameras,” photography, cinema and other forms of image projection, the camera obscura has a much longer history across the realms of art and science in ancient Greece, China, the Islamic world and early modern Europe. In the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the emergence of modern tourism, cameras obscura became popular as walk-in pavilion-like structures at seaside and other settings — interesting examples of these structures may still be visited at a few places in Europe.

Coastal Camera Obscura III takes the experience of viewing an image inside such a structure and puts it afloat on the sea. Its large, luminous projection of the surrounding landscape will provide a contemplative space, with the image moving gently as the structure bobs on the water and shifting as the structure swings on its anchor or drifts with the current. In some respects, with its single, Cyclops-like lens/eye the structure presents an almost animal-like persona. Launched and sited in the waters at Goose Spit, Coastal Camera Obscura III will be a locus for activities encouraging broad-ranging audiences to consider histories of the surrounding lands and of the interplay between art and science, learning and play, while engaging in a micro-adventure at the same time. Kayaks and associated equipment will be provided on-site for people wanting to experience this artwork.

Coastal Camera Obscura III builds upon two earlier projects, realized in St. John’s in 2014 and in Vancouver in 2017. All three projects share the common structure of a fabric, tent-like enclosure suspended within a surrounding, floating wooden framework.  The new structure for this project with the Comox Valley Art Gallery will have a lighter framework, made up of hexagonal wooden poles and metal fittings, buoyed-up by custom-made floats. Reflecting a long history of working with the ebb and flow of intertidal waters the structure will be assembled on the beach on a receding tide and will float as the tide rises around it. It is hoped that this version of the Coastal Camera Obscura will see future venues at locations on the inner coast of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, and in Atlantic Canada.

* with thanks to Canadian Author Robert Kroetsch’s character Sinnot, in The Badlands (1975).

Coastal Camera Obscura III – On-The-Water Experience


Having completed a BFA at the University of Victoria and an MFA at York University, I teach in the Visual Arts program at Thompson Rivers University, in Kamloops, BC. Like many of my projects, this one with the Comox Valley Art Gallery draws upon my long-standing interest in sea kayaking and I am a member of the Sea Kayak Guides Alliance of British Columbia. My artistic works merge traditional and experimental practices around two broad areas of interest: the meeting place of urban and wilderness landscapes and culture, and; pre-photographic optical apparatuses, particularly the early projection device of the camera obscura. Through such projects, I explore interests in the ocean environment and the culture of recreational sea kayaking. Since the mid-2000s, I have placed emphasis on projects that engage audiences in immersive, off-site projects. From 2013 to 2019, I was the lead researcher of the Camera Obscura Project (SSHRC Insight program) in which a group of artists, scholars and students realized the 2015 Midnight Sun Camera Obscura Festival in Dawson City Yukon, followed by exhibitions in public and university art galleries in Hamilton, Kamloops, Lethbridge and Whitehorse, and publication of Art, Research, Play: The Midnight Sun Camera Obscura Project (University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, 2021). With the assistance of student research assistants, I realized a permanent artwork, the Nanton Camera Obscura, in collaboration with the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery in 2019, and this may be visited at the Coutts Centre for Western Canadian Heritage, in Nanton, Alberta. A publication forthcoming from the Kamloops Art Gallery, Donald Lawrence: Casting the Eye Adrift, documents these recent projects in relation to my longer practice. – Donald Lawrence

This presentation is part of the convergent program:
in | at | on : RETURN TO WATER 2023


The artist acknowledges the ongoing support of Thompson Rivers University, as well as the support of Comox Valley Kayaks & Canoes and Dulux Paints Nanaimo.