Monday, September 21, 2009

Renato Vitic Walks on Water

Yesterday Renato Vitic lead us on an art walk through the city center streets. Walking on Water was presented at Visualeyez as part of a show at the Art Gallery of Alberta called The New Flaneurs curated by Marcus Miller. We gathered at the entrance to the gallery and discovered the artist wearing a distinctive red and white checkerboard suit. He was a walking traffic sign. To introduce the piece, Vitic emphasized that the audience helps to create an art walk, that the participants become performers.

The artist had mapped out the journey ahead of time and gave us various facts about water in Edmonton and beyond. He peppered his talks with profound quotes about water carefully chosen for each site and set activities for the audience along the way.

"Sanitation is more important than independence."

The first stop on Vitic's tour is a storm sewer. Apparently there are 60,000 storm sewers in Edmonton, none of them adorned with art, as they often are in other cities. The artist wryly pointed out there is potential here for some creativity--(Vancouver has a lot of sewer art, in fact they add more every year.) Speaking about the importance of treating sewage, Vitic stated that one out of six people in the world doesn't have clean drinking water.

The audience was asked to put one arm on the shoulder of the person in front of them. Thirty people snaked in a conga line, exploring the concept of "flow" lead by a man in a checkerboard suit in and around the pillars of the buildings. We created quite a spectacle. Spectators laughed and some even tried to join in the fun.

The second stop on the journey was the pool at city hall, which had recently been turned off and drained. Vitic knows his statistics: apparently every year the city of Edmonton disposes of two million litres of water from its public pools and fountains. Wowza. The good news is that since 2005 they have started to de-chlorinate the water and used it to irrigate city parks and green spaces. Next, Vitic had the crowd form a big circle in the pool, the circle changes, mutates, until it becomes the symbol of infinity.

"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you pour water into a cup it becomes a cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend."
--Bruce Lee

The next feature we headed for was the Epcor fountain. The festivities for Edmonton's AIDS walk were in full swing, so we pinned on red ribbons as we listened to the artist talk about the issue of the corporate management of water and the history of water in its use in monuments. He told the story of the doomed emperor Nero who created an artificial lake in the center of Rome as a symbol of his power. The artist told people to get into groups of three and he used velcro to strap their legs together. Vitic instructed the teams to be like water and move to the other side of the square together. Hilarity ensued.

Always leave something to wish for; otherwise you will be miserable from your very happiness."
--Baltsan Graciau

Now we headed for a fountain inside the Citadel Theatre. The artist talked about the mythology of fountains and gave us each a Icelandic Kronar to throw into the pond to make a wish. He wanted to use a coin that was under five cents that featured aquatic imagery and this cod-adorned coin fit the bill.

Sometimes if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known."
--Winnie the Pooh

Now we crossed Jasper Avenue and stood facing the North Saskatchewan River which the artist tells us originates from the Saskatchewan Glacier on the Columbia Icefields and flows across the Prairies into Lake Winnipeg. It used to be a major fur-trading route until the railway supplanted that role. Vitic asked us to write positive quotes about water on pieces of bristol board to carry on our journey. He helped us staple them to sign boards along the way. As soon as we started walking with the signs, an occasional person in a car would start yelling at the group. Fear of those who want to go against the flow?

This is where I ran out of space on my camera. Mea Culpa.

Water needed to produce the following food items:

potatoes: 103 litres/kg
wheat: 185 l/kg
corn: 289 l/kg
rice: 393 l/kg
soybeans: 412 l/kg
beef: 20, 663 l/kg

We headed up to the Sobey's grocery stored where Vitic talked about the role of water in the production of food. He asked us to explore the concept of flow once again by having us walk a half a block in fifteen minutes. This got the attention of the Sobey's employees who started snapping photos with their cell phones. Curious bystanders asked me what was going on. One man who was going to ride his bike of the sidewalk had to stop and take another route. The surreal slowness of movement suggested evaporation. There was a race at the finish line to see who could come in last.

Our final stop was another dry fountain, this time at Beaver Hills House Park, a fountain somewhat hidden and integrated into the landscape, meant to honour the local Aboriginal community. Ironically there was a sign saying the water was not suitable for swimming or bathing in. "Hey," called a woman on the grass, Can I play checkers?" "Maybe," say Renato, and then he let out a hearty laugh.

Finally we ended to tour by having a chat on the patio of Latitude 53, where we were served fine mineral water. "There aren't many professional walkers," Vitic said to me. "It's an activity for amateurs." I asked what he meant and he told me about a kind of Buddhist religion where the monks walk constantly, with a goal to walk virtually circumnavigate the circumference of the earth. He says that there are people who walk behind them to prop them up when they are sleeping. Vitic also said that its an activity that goes across class structures. I liked the accessibility of his walk. It's something that drew in an interesting cross-section of people and the structure was loose enough that you could converse and meet new people so it became a real social event. Also, it was something you could opt in or out of at any time.

To be a tourist in your own town is something I love to play at, and art walks are a great vehicle for seeing the everyday in a new way. The Ministry of Walking in Calgary, of whom Vitic is a member, is interested in making people aware of pedestrian culture, and maybe even luring them out of their cars to walk more often and appreciate their environment in a more human way. The implications of art walks are sometimes subtle: the effects trickle down into our bodies and brains and alter the flow of information and attention in ways we might not be conscious of. Some of its poetry percolates into the groundwater of our minds for many weeks later.


  1. ... thinking about water, and related issues like climate change, and the human impact on this planet. came across this today, and thought it a fitting thing to share, given the content of Renato's performance.

  2. Thanks for sharing that photo. The contamination of our water supply is a huge issue in this country because we've got a bad history of dumping our garbage with impunity because we've had the space to do it. We shall reap what we sow.