The exhibition Salt-Stained Steaks of a Worthwhile Grief is part of the Comox Valley Art Gallery’s program RETURN TO WATER and presents the work of Fathom Sounds Collective – Alana Bartol/Genevieve Robertson/Kat Morris/Jay White /Nancy Tam. The interdisciplinary work in this exhibition emerged through a process of slowing down, listening, observing, and responding over time. The creative process of the artists has been one of inquiry, site specific encounter, dialogue with place, letting go of expectations, giving materials their own agency and allowing the unexpected to erupt. CVAG has supported the collective’s practice through curatorial collaboration, residencies, facilitating site-specific research and relationships with the Comox Valley community and K’ómoks Nation.
Words From the Collaborating Curators
Collaborative curators – Angela Somerset and Denise Lawson – were in conversation and worked with the artists of Fathom Sounds Collective for about two years prior to the opening of the exhibition.
We were first introduced to Jay White by Sandra Semchuk, an artist, mentor, teacher and friend of the gallery, with whom we have been honoured to be in a relationship with over a number of years. Out of this a working relationship with the Fathom Sounds collective grew and the result is this exhibition.
This exhibition is part of the Comox Valley Art Gallery’s convergent program entitled RETURN TO WATER. Everywhere we turn there is water. The land and our lives flow with it – reflected in memory, perceptions, experiences, and relationships with the water that surrounds and permeates everything in our world. Currently here in this community at the KusKusSum estuary restoration project is underway. The project is undertaken by Project Watershed in collaboration with the K’ómoks First Nation. over 8 acres of concrete and asphalt is being removed, the shore will be recontoured and plant species will be replanted. Return to Water convergent program features a sequence of images of the site in February by Keith Enns.
Denise and I had a conversation last night, reflecting upon the Herring spawn that began on Wednesday (the day we opened this exhibition to the public) – pen to paper I wrote down our words merged by our collaborative practice as curators – our tributaries flow:- ‘in the water, right now, the herring are. here. your work is here. bringing new life, new conversations. Stirring, flowing. instigating opportunities to think deeply about how we are in this place and the ways in which we work together.
In a conversation with Alana Bartol when she visited a few months ago to undertake place-based research, Denise and I talked with her about the tributaries and how this relates to collaborations. Tributaries show us about relational practice –leading the water out into the ocean – they flow into and join. The place where they meet the main river – the confluence – in this place of convergence the water begins to journey towards the ocean. We imagined the ways in which artists, galleries, and communities flow towards this convergence – autonomous and intertwined, always changing, exchanging and sharing – As a gallery we acknowledge that this flowing together of events and experiences take shape and shape us over time.
Last night the collective gave a talk hosted by NIC fine arts program. During the talk Gen spoke of materials being charged – thinking about this aliveness I imagined the materials waiting to be released. to root, spill, to form and un-form. I wondered about how it is for us to bring something of ourselves to another place. To set things down. To offer and to receive. I am of Greek, Scotish and Ukrainian Ancestry. Many years ago, while recording video footage in a graveyard in my babba’s home – in Sundown Manitoba. I met two women caring for the the plots and the graveyard. They told me about the plants growing from the soil in that graveyard and how they had been born of the seeds brought in the pockets of their ancestors on the boats. My great babba was born on a boat coming to Canada in 1908.
Again, I was struck by the questions around what we bring to the work we do and the ways in which we work together.
– Angela Somerset
Alchemy – a magical process of transformation, creation, and combination.
On the day the exhibition opened, I went to the sea…not to swim as I usually do…but to be present… to bear witness to a small circle of blue-white water boiling and swirling just off the rocks at Point Holmes. Long fingers began to reach out from their nexus turning the steely blue-grey waters azure and then, a starling turquoise. The sky filled with seagulls, skimmers, eagles, ravens, crows, and blackbirds of every description, all taking to flight, then settling, then taking to flight, over and over and over. Sea lions, seals, and salmon swirled in waves. All were raucous in their revelry for the anticipated feasting. On this day there are no fishing boats…but soon they too, will join the cacophony, their motors drumming with expectation.
There had been accumulating signs in the months and weeks before this moment
… the rain, the snow, the heavy clouds and mists, the wet winds from the southeast, the salty ocean offered up mysteries
… calling us into deep listening, waiting, watching, anticipating, surrender, trust
… and on this day …the herring begin their annual spawning in the Salish Sea
… in these moments, the water holds us all, perfectly in place, in the full round circle of being.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that this exhibition opened on the same day the herring spawn began.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the creative processes that the Fathom Sounds artists ascribe to, individually and corporately, echoes what the water is calling us into.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that this first exhibition of the collective has opened here, where water, in its many forms, is in a dynamic relationship of alchemy with all who are a part of this place.
– Denise Lawson
Words from Fathom Sounds Collective
“restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise”
– Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,
by Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer
We are a multidisciplinary collective of artists who care about the state of water as a living entity and a flowing field of living bodies. We formed this group to think both collectively and long-term, about the health of water and the role artists play in responding to urgent ecological, political, and social issues that collect around water. We build relationships between beings, and across disciplines, in the hopes of reversing the effects of marine pollution and extractive industries on marine life and water. Salt-Stained Streaks of a Worthwhile Grief conjures the depths of our relationships with water through sound design, animation, drawing, and multi-channel video.
Salt-Stained Streaks of a Worthwhile Grief is the first exhibition by Fathom Sounds as a collective, and incorporates individual work, collaborative processes centered on this region, and collective work which stems from several residencies we carried out together in Skwxwú7mesh Territory, just north of Vancouver. There, we spent time around the fjord of Átl’ka7sem, where locals are fighting (and winning) a constant battle to protect the waters from a liquid fracked gas pipeline, a waterborne LNG storage facility, and regular mega-tanker traffic delivering LNG overseas. The proposed project sits on the former site of Woodfibre, a 100-year-old pulp and paper mill. Located on the ancestral and Unceded territory of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) peoples, Woodfibre LNG claims to be a remediation project, that will “clean up” the site, removing the remnants of pulp and paper mill and replacing them with liquified natural gas (LNG), a fossil fuel contributing to carbon pollution and global warming.
As with the work people are doing in Squamish, we were drawn to the parallels between water stewardship in Comox/Courtenay, the ancestral and Unceded traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation, being undertaken by settlers and Indigenous peoples through habitat restoration and protection education, for the K’ómoks Estuary.
We live in times where increasing floods, fire, and other climate events make it impossible to ignore the need for exploitative and extractive colonial culture to find a different relationship to the land and water. This urgency, coupled with the unpredictability of the COVID pandemic has necessitated in us a spirit of flexibility, gentleness, and generosity. Planned gatherings evolved into exchanges of letters, sound recordings, packages of materials, and other projects. We were called to ask: How do we gather, resist and protect in this time? How do artists counter colonial-capitalist perspectives that support exploitation and extractivism? When we take time to listen to these bodies of water, what do we learn? And what can we give back? – Fathom Sounds Collective
About the Fathom Sounds Collective artists and their work:
Alana Bartol comes from a long line of water witches. Her site-responsive artworks explore divination as a way to question consumption-driven relationships to land, water, and what are colonially known as natural resources. Bartol’s work has been presented in exhibitions and festivals across Canada and worldwide. In 2019 and 2021, she was long-listed for Canada’s Sobey Art Award. Of Scottish, German, English, French, Irish, and Danish ancestry, Bartol is a white settler Canadian currently living in Mohkínstsis (Calgary), Alberta.
Forgetting Fields I, HDV, 55:49; 32 drawings, heated milk on paper, 9″ x 12″, 2022
In this work, native grassland plants in what is colonially defined and named Alberta are drawn using cow’s milk. Initially invisible, the images are carefully revealed using the heat of a candle.
Native grasslands are one of the most developed and threatened landscapes in what is now known as Canada. According to Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society of Southern Alberta, only 43% of native grasslands remain in Alberta and approximately 75% of the province’s species at risk are found in grassland natural areas.
In Forgetting Fields I, drawing becomes a way to acknowledge the plants, while also acknowledging their loss in the landscape, the ongoing impacts of settler colonization, and climate change. The plants in this series grow or have been known to grow in native grassland areas of southern Alberta, Treaty 7 Territory, the ancestral lands of the Blackfoot Confederacy including the Kainai, Piikani and Siksika, as well as home to the îyârhe Nakodabi First Nations (Bearspaw, Chiniki and Wesley), the Tsuut’ina Nation, and the Métis Nation of Alberta Region 3.
This work was developed in part from research completed during Acts of Care, a residency initiated by the City of Calgary and Alberta Public Art Network.
Forgetting Fields II, HD, 40:13, 2022
Drawings of plants on water-soluble paper dissolve in water. In this work, water becomes a collaborator, destroying the drawings in unpredictable ways. Many of the drawings re-form as if by magic, speaking to a process of restoration, natural cycles of renewal and growth, and the intelligence of plants.
This work is inspired by the water stewardship in Comox/Courtenay, BC, the ancestral and Unceded traditional territory of the K’ómoks First Nation, being undertaken by settlers and Indigenous peoples through habitat restoration and protection education, for the K’ómoks Estuary.
The plant species, illustrated by the artist, reference the watershed restoration work of the Comox Valley Naturalist Society Wetland Restoration Project and Project Watershed. The plants were selected from a list documenting common plants in the Hollyhock Flats, a reference site in the K’omoks estuary for Kus-Kus-Sum, a watershed restoration project to restore the Field Sawmill site. The title is a reference to the former name of the sawmill and a call to action.
The final drawing represents the steel-piling wall that has remained in place throughout the restoration process of Kus-Kus-Sum. The removal of the steel-piling wall is said to be the last step in the restoration process, yet the restoration work will be ongoing for many decades as the plants, water, and wildlife return.
Created for the Fathom Sounds exhibition “Salt-Stained Streaks of a Worthwhile Grief” at Comox Valley Art Gallery. In the exhibition, companion pieces to this work are Nancy Tam’s Beyond Dawn, providing an ethereal soundscape for the video, and Letters to Water, a participatory artwork created by Alana Bartol and Genevieve Robertson.
To learn more and support the restoration project visit: https://projectwatershed.ca/2020/01/27/kus-kus-sum.
Genevieve Robertson is an interdisciplinary artist with a background in environmental studies, working between place-based, collaborative, and contemplative material processes. Her practice explores elemental, geologic and more-than human worlds, reckoning with the schism between primordial time and the current moment of frenzied petro-capitalism, climate change and crumbling ecologies. Her practice is informed by a personal and intergenerational history of resource labour in remote forestry camps all over British Columbia.
Meniscus, video projection loop, 2:36, 2021
Meniscus is a video experiment made by lighting a fire on the surface of water and filming with an underwater camera from underneath. It imagines one potential effect of a liquified natural gas (LNG) tanker spill in Átl’ka7tsem (also known as Howe Sound), where the Fathom Sound residencies took place and where our project was initially focussed. As we live through the reality of increasingly devastating and destructive climate-induced wildfires, it also became important to bring the element of fire into the project and exhibition along with water.
Language for the Wrack Zone, bitumen, seawater and gouache drawings on paper, 11″ x 14″, 2017
Language for the Wrack Zone explores the shoreline as a site for material inquiry. The wrack zone is a site of transition; it is the collection of material at the high tide mark on the beach, a vibrating line that traces an ever-shifting sea level, and both ecologic and economic systems of exchange. Produced using found seawater, crude bitumen and gouache, the series explores the wrack zone as both a life-producing site of biological development, and a site of refuse were material remains of a global petroleum trade wash up, changed through extreme conditions. Language for the Wrack Zone maps this transitory space, suggesting amorphous forms that exist between biology and geology, waste and treasure, petrification and liveliness, emergence, and decay. These drawings also mimic – on a small scale – the toxic contamination that takes place when oil spills into seawater.
Alluvial Fan, drawing silt from the Columbia River’s Rosevelt, McNarry + Wanapum reservoirs on paper, six panels, 15′ x 10′, 2019
Alluvial Fan is a six-panel drawing produced using silt from the Columbia River’s Rosevelt, McNarry, and Wanapum reservoirs. The Columbia River runs 2000km from a spring just west of the Kootenay Glacier in southeastern B.C., to Astoria Oregon where it dumps into the Pacific Ocean. This massive river runs through the heart of many interrelated Indigenous cosmologies; and was historically one of the most ecologically and spiritually important salmon-bearing rivers in the Pacific North West. It is also home to fourteen hydroelectric dams on the main stem and over 400 in the entire Columbia River watershed. The dams – in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon – are heralded for energy production, flood control, irrigation, and navigation for inland freight; however, their efficiency has also incurred irreversible ecological and cultural costs. These massive structures have shaped the course of the river irrevocably. Alluvial Fan is a speculative drawing that imagines the Columbia River undammed. The drawing maps an alternate reality where silt can travel the length of the river and deposit at the mouth, rather than be held behind dams.
Kat G Morris is a 2D animator from Northern BC. She graduated in 2018 with a BMA in Animation from Emily Carr University of Art + Design. She is currently based in Vancouver where she freelances and creates work with her friends at Flavourcel Animation Collective. Using hand-drawn digital animation, Kat explores the limits and possibilities of narrative storytelling through symbolism, soundscapes, and fluid, illustrative motions.
Letter To Water, video animation loop, 0:31, 2021
Letter To Water is a digital 2D animated journey to the past, illustrating the Artist’s relationship with water. It explores feelings of comfort, containment and dormancy. It is an invitation to sit and ruminate on your own relationship to water, to embrace the feelings that evoke from the moving image sequence and to sit on what it means for you to be here right here, right now.
Sounding, vinyl graphic installation, 2022
Sounding is a piece that stretches across the large window at the front of CVAG, and casts shadows on a big blue wall situated behind it when the daylight is right. At night, it is a portal between the main gallery and Gather Space, flooded with a blue glow that acts as a tube between two worlds, inviting people to squeeze between one room and the next.
Members Jay White and Kat Morris collaborated with existing artwork to collage, shape, and bring to life this transformative piece. Nancy Tam brought life and movement with accompanying sound that draws you to the artwork and invites you inside.
Nancy Tam is a sound artist and co-creator of interdisciplinary performances. She is a founding member of the interdisciplinary performance collective A Wake of Vultures and Toronto-based Toy Piano Composers collective.Her compositions, performances, and collaborations have toured in Germany, Denmark, Finland, Belgium, Norway, Hong Kong, the U.S. and throughout Canada. Nancy works and lives as an uninvited guest on the unceded territories of the S?wx_wú7mesh, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
The notion of interconnectivity between weather, objects, and human activities permeates the collection of work titled ‘Quiet Invitations’. Taking form as a tryptic of audio pieces, this work offers a space for contemplation on latent and apparent relationships between the tide, the sun, and human made industrial interventions.
Quiet Invitations (3-channel headphone piece)
Quiet Invitation 1, channel 1 – headset audio, 5:00, 2022
An invitation to take a night walk through the city to find the water’s edge before returning to the city.
Beyond Dawn, channel 2 – headset audio, 9:00, 2021
Commissioned by FuGen Theatre in Toronto, ‘Beyond Dawn’ is a contemplation aimed at calming the nervous system. I often struggle with considering myself outside of nature and creating barriers for me to feel connected with my environments. By making ‘Beyond Dawn’, I offer myself and my listeners a way to recontextualize our awareness and relationship with notions of ‘nature’, rest and meditation by evoking and overlapping internal and external worlds.
Quiet Invitation 2, channel 3 – headset audio, 25:00, 2022
A collection of stereo and binaural field recordings motivating the creation and development of ‘Quiet Invitations’. Recordings from this collection are used throughout the series. As a piece on its own, ‘Quiet Invitation 2’ is a 25-minute walk between artist Alana Bartol and myself where we shared thoughts on listening. We walked through streams, along the concrete paved grounds at Wood Fibre, and finally to a paper mill in Gibsons, where we found water again.
Quiet Invitation 3, 6-channel outdoor public sound installation, 2022
‘Quiet Invitation 3’ is composed of 3 connected layers that responses to the rhythms proposed by the tide and the sun. For a while now, I have been intrigued by offering elongated experiences of time as a gesture of empathy toward non-human subjects like the land, the water, the sun, the moon. The tide relates to the moon as well as the earth globally and specifically to local geographies. Responding to predictive tidal data, the soft drones of this piece map the four daily tides local to the gallery as it moves to and for the front of CVAG. Also responding to the predictive data, the sparrow’s song marks every sunrise and the roosting crows punctuates every sunset of every day.
Special thanks to:
The sawtooth waves produced by the electrical transformers, how beautiful are they as they rounded their corners whilst bouncing around the gutted warehouse on Wood Fiber
The crashing waves of Howe Sound
The sparrows proclaiming their presence inside the chemical waste land on Wood Fiber. The site awaits its fate to becoming an LNG holding facility
The roosting crows near Still Creek
Jay White is an interdisciplinary artist and animator with a background in environmental engineering. He activates storytelling across multiple platforms and various media to transmit land-based knowledge to future generations. White’s films have won awards internationally and he has exhibited nationally and worldwide. Jay is of Mi’kmaq and European descent, an Assistant professor in the Faculty of Culture and Community at Emily Carr University, and lives in unceded Skwxwú7mesh territory.
Old Growth (Re-Membering), fir and cedar charcoal on bleached pulp sheets, 32″ x 30″ each, 2021
In the summer of 2020, the Fathom Sounds collective kayaked across Átl’ka7tsem (Howe Sound, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory) to an abandoned pulp mill and settler townsite known as Woodfibre. A partnership of multinational corporations is proposing to rebuild Woodfibre into an LNG storage facility, and use megatankers to ship the gas through the narrow fjords and across the Pacific.
Átl’ka7tsem has been designated a UNESCO Biosphere region, but this does not protect the marine life that have returned since the abandonment of industrial marine traffic in the region.
The paper from Old Growth (Re-Membering) was taken from the Woodfibre site during our visit there.
Let us not forget – this paper is old growth douglas fir, cut without permission, pulped and bleached and rendered into sheets that would become paper towels and toilet paper.
These bleached sheets have been lovingly wiped and cleansed with charcoal from various fires.
If we are willing to grieve, then listen, we might hear that the remnants of these trees might still have a life-affirming agency. Fathom Sounds Collective is looking into the possibility of using the paper as a substrate for seedlings that would be planted back in the area where the Woodfibre logging originally took place.
LETTERS TO WATER (an interactive installation in GATHER PLACE at CVAG)
Letters to Water is an invitation for reflection on your personal relationship with water, as a life-giving element, a part of the ecosystem you inhabit, or a part of your embodied experience as a human. Writing and dissolving your letter is an opportunity to engage in an intimate ritual between you and water, and a chance for you to gift something back to water through this ephemeral process.
Letters to Water began as a letter written from one Fathom Sounds Collective member to the others, describing her relationship to water in her home in the West Kootenays, where the water is controlled down to the millilitre through an intricate network of hydro-electrical dams and an international water governance treaty agreement. The letter reflected on local rivers and lakes in this context. It also reflected on the experience of being pregnant with twins; becoming a body of water for new beings to briefly inhabit.
Fathom Sounds Collective centres water as a collaborator, teacher, and lively participant in the process of creating Salt-Stained Streaks of a Worthwhile Grief and thus we felt it was important for water to be present in the Comox Valley Art Gallery for others to engage with. In the installation, water becomes a repository for words, memories, marks, emotions, thoughts, and stories. What does the water hold? How does water care for us? How do we care for it?
– Alana Bartol and Genevieve Robertson
Invitation to the community –
“Remember you are water. Of course you leave salt trails. Of course you are crying. Flow. P.S. If there happens to be a multitude of griefs upon you, individual and collective, or fast and slow, or small and large, add equal parts of these considerations: that the broken heart can cover more territory. that perhaps love can only be as large as grief demands. that grief is the growing up of the heart that bursts boundaries like an old skin or a finished life. that grief is gratitude. that water seeks scale, that even your tears seek the recognition of community. that the heart is a front line and the fight is to feel in a world of distraction. that death might be the only freedom. that your grief is a worthwhile use of your time. that your body will feel only as much as it is able to. that the ones you grieve may be grieving you. that the sacred comes from the limitations. that you are excellent at loving.” ― adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds
“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses & liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” -Toni Morrison, The Site of Memory
The artworks in Salt-Stained Streaks of a Worthwhile Grief are our love letters to water. Many of the works in the exhibition evoke past, present, and possible futures for relationships with water, between water and plants, water and trees, water and contaminants, water and humans, water and wildlife, water, and the other elements.
We invite you to take a moment to reflect on your relationship with water by writing a letter to water. Think about the quotes by adrienne maree brown and Toni Morrison before you write your letter.
What do you want to express? What memories do you want to share? What does water remember? Has your relationship with water developed and changed over time?
Write a letter to water on the water-soluble paper provided
Letters can take the form of drawings, writing, poems, text, or other forms of mark-making
Give your letter to water by placing it in one of the rain barrels
Watch it dissolve
As the materials breakdown,
What do you see?
What do you feel?
A willow wand can be used to stir the water,
helping the water receive your letter
Fathom Sounds Recommended Reading List:
(Resource Library publications + research books are available for reading at the gallery in the Reception HUB during the run of the exhibition)
Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown
How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell
Braiding sweetgrass : indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Staying with the Trouble Making Kin in the Chthulucene by Donna Harraway
These Wilds Beyond Our Fences by Bayo Akomolafe
Undermining by Lucy Lippard )
Paying the Land by Joe Sacco
These Wilds Beyond Our Fences by Bayo Akomolafe
–Orphan Well Adoption Agency – Latitude 53
–Outdoor School – Edited by Diane Borsato, and Amish Morrell
-A Woman Walking
-Water-Witching for Wonderers (and Wanderers) – free for people to take, left several copies
Artist books created by Genevieve Robertson:
-Looking Through a Hole in the Earth
-Walking in the dark
-Shoring, Centre for the diffusion of useful knowledge
-The Capilano Review: collaboration
-Downstream: reimagining water
-River Arts: reimagining the Columbia
-The Mill, Nanaimo Art Gallery
-Black Diamond Dust, Nanaimo Art Gallery
-Dark Mountain: Abyss
(Artist books created by Genevieve Robertson at CVAG can also can be seen here)