Water as a Gift - Making of - Post-Mortem Part 1

This is a work-in-progress post. I’d like to come back and tend to this as I go. In the meantime, you’re welcome to explore whatever is here so far. 🌱

This past fall I created a piece called Water as a Gift for a small group show in Cambridge, Journey with our Kin. The piece is by far the most complex, ambitious project I’ve taken on so far, and I’m so proud of what I managed to accomplish. You can see the project on my website, and my research/process file collection here.

That being said, the making of it (and exhibiting it) was a journey of its own, and I wanted to reflect here about the experience for myself down the road, but also to shed light on the process for anyone else making work along these lines (kinetic sculpture/installation). I love the work of Olafur Eliasson and Ann Hamilton, but just imagining the making of such large-scale works can feel inaccessible; I try to remind myself that they have literal teams of designers and engineers, and that they too have probably made mistakes and faced failures! So hopefully by sharing my own here, in this ‘post-mortem’, it may make even something like this, more approachable.

I’ve split this up into two parts, because it was getting so long. In this part I’ll cover the making-of the project, in Part 2 I’ll cover the exhibition and lessons learned.

In this post:

The initial proposal

I became involved through a call for proposals for the group show back in June. The two curators, Dani Kastelein-Longlade and Amina Lalor, were looking for a few other artists to create artworks “that explore relationships to land within and surrounding the O:se Kenhionhata:tie* watershed, on the Haldimand Tract”. I knew immediately that this was something I wanted to apply to, as my work had been focusing more and more on environmental phenomenology and our relationship to is. I actually submitted two proposals, I was so excited. This one however was much stronger, in part because it built directly off of previous work that I had made and exhibited at the School for Poetic Computation in 2019.

Light as a Gift at SFPCLight as a Gift at SFPC

My proposal was as follows:

Building off of my previous piece Light as a Gift, I want to explore our relationship with water through an installation animated with projection mapping called Water as a Gift. Using the same components of a reflective basin of water animated by a mechanism dipping in and out, video is projected on and reflected off the water to create a light show. The basin would be customized to illustrate Kenhionhita:tie/The Grand River, that we are familiar with aboveground, while also revealing the hidden watershed it and its tributaries draw from. Sixteen dipping mechanisms representing the creek tributaries create ripples across the surface and affect the projected video: scenes of nature shot within the area.

The watersheds provide life to creatures in numerous ways. While aboveground divisions from city borders, counties, and treaties are familiar, the watershed’s boundaries are unseen, typically obscured, and in places unknown. How does the land care for us? What is our relationship with water? What does a reciprocal relationship look like? Through the production and exhibition of Water as a Gift, I’d like to explore these inquiries.

mock up showing the connection between the basin shape and the watershedmock up showing the connection between the basin shape and the watershed rough 3D render showing what I thought it’d look like, with 16 dippersrough 3D render showing what I thought it’d look like, with 16 dippers

Developing the idea + research, and red herrings

I received word that I had got the project in July, and that we would be installing the show at the end of October. Seems like lots of time — but of course it went quickly!

I felt like I had a good idea of what I wanted to do with it, but in fact there was tons of open questions still. How big did the basin need to be and how was I going to make it? How was I going to highlight the river and tributaries? Would the video just be cuts of the water, or would it be more involved? How was I going to wire up the sixteen(!) mechanisms, and if they were supposed to represent the tributaries where would they be placed? What would the dippers be made out of? What were they supposed to represent? Should there be a human element and what would that be? Should the water come from the river itself? How would it be replaced as it evaporated?

There were tons of technical questions, but also conceptual ones as well.

Early on, I was struggling with this conundrum: I was making work about the natural environment, yet I was planning to use plastics and man-made materials that were harming this environment. I had titled the piece ‘Water as a Gift’, and talked about a reciprocal relationship, yet how could I say it was a gift when I took it for granted in my own day-to-day life?

Making it - materials and trouble-shooting

The basin

The biggest challenge (and time sink) was probably the basin. With materials in mind, I really wanted to find a way of making it out of something other than plastic. Yet I had also proposed I would make it in the shape of the Grand River Watershed — which I learned is a very awkward shape to work with! It’s long, and quite wide, yet has this skinny bit at the southernmost end that sticks out at an angle and past the body. I quickly found that simplifying the shape to be both roughly accurate and still reminiscent of what you’d see on the map was difficult.

the watershed shapes - heightmap in grey, basin shapes in bluethe watershed shapes - heightmap in grey, basin shapes in blue

Also, each side meant a joint or seam that could potentially leak water. That was really my greatest fear with this project: that my piece would collapse, and water would go everywhere in the gallery. (more on that later)

I looked into metal welding, wood, glass, even vacuum-formed plastics and others. I needed the projector light to be able to hit the mirrors and bounce off and onto the wall, and there was also of course the aesthetic of the basin itself. It’s possible one of these other materials may have worked (and in the future, I’d liked to try glass, as it’s more scratch-resistant and responds well to silicon for fixing leaks), but ultimately I decided to stick with acrylic because I had worked with it before.

But I got hung up on the shape for a long, long time. I looked into making it myself, ending up on aquarium tank forums, asked for quotes from everyone in the area… this part of it was a lot of just emailing. Not so creative. I also made up lots of 3D mock ups for myself, as well as physical paper cutouts to lay down on the floor to get a sense of scale, and how big it needed to be to have presence, without being to unwieldy to have made and transport.

No one I talked to could guarantee a leak-proof basin. And the more I thought about it, the more I questioned just how important the shape was. The basin itself doesn’t actually reflect that much light, it’s the mirror that does. Eventually I had to let go of this idea, and settled for a rectangular basin — there were only four walls or eight edges, which meant better chances of it being sealed well against water escaping. And I also liked it in reference to this being a ‘portrait’ of the river — it was like a picture frame.

The mirror map

The basin itself was only necessary to hold the water, and while it would reflect some light, I knew from my previous piece that mirror was the best way to reflect the most light — and hence the clearest image from the projector.

I briefly thought about getting actual mirror, but decided it wouldn’t be budget-friendly. I tested mylar, but that was too blurry and easily distorted. I had previously made laser-etched earrings out of mirrored acrylic, and found that the etched design would actually reflect quite clearly with strong light, so I opted for that route. I also found that I could indicate the shape of the watershed in better fidelity through the laser-cut mirror than the shape of the basin, as well as show all the various tributaries through an etched line (which I traced by hand).

I was interested in the topography of the land, and for a while explored using height maps and creating layers with the mirrors, because the point of a watershed is to funnel water through gravity into another body. There is elevation change, but the vast majority of the land is fairly flat, and I also didn’t want to mis-represent the elevation, and so did away with that idea in favour of just a flat map. The trouble was the size of the shape (which itself was awkward to work with) was larger than most laser-cutting beds, and it was going to be expensive (like 300$ - 400$ alone) to produce.

During my research into watersheds I found that the provincial government had lots of online interactive maps that could show you watersheds at various levels:

primary watershedsprimary watersheds quarternary watershedsquarternary watersheds

I was able to split the entire Grand River watershed into a further 27 sub-watersheds, which I could then reassemble like a puzzle. This saved on waste, and thus $! I worked with Smoke Lake locally, who was great.

my chart for reassembling the puzzle in the gallery - the watershed is flipped, to account for the reflectionmy chart for reassembling the puzzle in the gallery - the watershed is flipped, to account for the reflection

Fake it ’till you make it

One issue was that all of this design, research, consultation and production took time! At this point it was nearly October and I didn’t actually have anything made. Meanwhile, the gallery was asking for images to use in promotional material.

I had been making 3D mock ups for myself, to work out the dimensions of things within the gallery space, and also think through what the dipping mechanisms would look like. So I thought I may be able to make a 3D rendering of the intended product that could be used for marketing. However, this ended up being another time sink that wasn’t actually that useful.

The issue was that I wanted to show the reflected video, which was caustic reflections, meaning light that’s being reflected or refracted through uneven, curved surfaces (the water). There was lots of trouble-shooting; Blender’s Cycles engine can do this to a degree, but it wasn’t fully rendering the distortion. I ended up finding the LuxCore render engine that could actually take an emitted image and get the results I wanted.

reflection without causticsreflection without caustics with causticswith caustics

I never actually ended up using this for the marketing image because I received the laser-cut mirror pieces in time to take photos in real life, but it was useful and exciting to get a visual on what this thing could look like in the end.

the marketing image I usedthe marketing image I used

The dipping mechanisms

The last components to come together were the dipping mechanisms, the small fishing rod-like motorized things that create ripples in the water. I had learned to create simple circuits and work with motors at SFPC, and in the original work Light as a Gift, used a really quite rudimentary motor to create the dipping. For this project I had proposed to create sixteen, because that’s how many tributaries feed into the Grand River. Originally I had thought the actual objects dipping into the water could be willow branches, because the Mohawk call it O:se Kenhionhata:tie meaning “Willow River” for all of the trees found along it. I had also previously done another variation on this project called Leaf Dance, that was inspired by watching willow branches dip in and out of the water.

However I quickly learned this just wasn’t practical, on account of the scale and fragility of them!

I shifted instead to the hands. Hands, particularly cupped together, have been a motif I keep coming back to. Without needing any other tools we can hold water and other elements in them, they’re both a vessel and an open form, an offering. And to me, a gift is an offering. In this case, too, tributary as in tribute both come from the Latin word tributum, meaning “a thing contributed or paid.” I think there’s an interesting conflict here, between this term we use for streams that join larger rivers, but also the way people divert and take water from this rivers to use and then expel (sometimes with waste/pollution).

Hands, are also a uniquely human symbol — it made sense that once I started working with this that the dipping represented the human interaction with the water, and so the dipping mechanisms came to represent five largest towns/cities in the watershed. (It also handily meant that I wasn’t making 16, which I soon found would be logistically much more difficult to do) You can see I was thinking about aspects of cities and how I could tie the aesthetics of the mechanism into it through using building-like shapes or using bricks.

I really am not an expert with hardware, mechanized movement and stuff like this, so it was a struggle! I did a lot of drawings, trying to figure out how the movement would work, and all the different parts needed. I’m positive there are more efficient, graceful ways of creating the same thing I did but better… but I was working at my skill level, which was: beginner!

Each dipper is its own individual motor and circuit that got plugged into a standard outlet. This is how they work, from the outlet to the motion: a converter reduces the supplied electricity to 5V (which is safe to work with, so I wasn’t dealing with anything major), a USB cord extension that I opened up at one end to expose just the power and ground wires which went to a speed controller chip, then that was connected to a speed-reduction geared toy motor (which at max would go about 30rpm), then a coupling to connect the motor shaft to an egg-shaped flat piece of wood with a channel carved in it.

The motor slowly rotates the white, egg-shaped disc piece which has a groove that the rod sits in. I ended up using a stiff arc-welding wire rod, which was yet another adventure in research and a trip to East Hamilton to find. The rod is held partially in place at one end by being notched into a hole, where there is some room for movement as it shifts, so that it’s angled up. If the disc was circular, the height of the rod wouldn’t move, but because one edge is farther from the centre where the motor’s shaft is attached, it changes height as it’s rotated. This wasn’t perfect, and often times the rod would get pushed into the hole and create too much tension for the motor to turn, or the rod would just fall out of the channel.

my mock upmy mock up the final result, made with major help from my dad, the woodworker.the final result, made with major help from my dad, the woodworker.

The components are still partially visible like the motor on top (just super and hot-glued, ha!) , but we were able to tuck the speed-controller into a hole drilled into the wood block (on the other side of this view), and drill a hole through the platform to thread the power cord through. The rest was concealed underneath the platform the entire piece sits on. Furthermore, each of the mechanisms were plugged into a power bar, which was lifted off the ground, and that was connected to a remote-controlled power bar that would protect the wall-plug from being short-circuited in the event water got onto the electronics. That was all figured out by Matt, who helped install and maintain the piece at the gallery (more on that in Part 2).

Finally, the hands at then end were 3D printed in resin. Charlit Floriano helped to create a 3D model of a hand that I mirrored, and these were drilled and then attached to the ends of the rods.

  • initial proposal, building off of Light as a Gift
    • mock ups
    • light as a gift
    • sketchbook pages
  • research
    • the land, river, watershed info
    • production methods for the basin, mirrors and mechanisms
  • 3D rendering red-herring
    • trying to figure out what the reflection would look like, not having the actual components ready for the marketing images
  • concept ‘water as a gift’ -> knowledge
    • environmental personhood
  • working with water = extremely difficult
    • conversation with Charlit - trying to control water vs. what water does best, ‘portrait’ vs ‘collaborator’
    • vulnerable art = trusting yourself? trusting people to receive it?
  • the ‘final’ piece, how it works

Pt 2

  • budget breakdown + fees
  • maintenance and care of the work
    • the hands
    • water
    • motors
    • basin 1 breaking, basin 2
  • workshop?
  • lessons + what I’d do differently next time
    • asking for help
  • things to build on further
Up next Log 11 - Manifesto Week 1 - Embodied Research
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