There were many points when Fiona Bowie figured Surface was dead in the water. Her technically complex aquatic public art project on Vancouver's False Creek hit its fair share of snags, taking Bowie through a crash course in technology, marine biology and boating. The work has now officially launched, coincidentally at the same time as the evolving environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.
Surface - described by the Vancouver artist as an ongoing live documentary - tracks underwater life in False Creek, a small Pacific Ocean inlet off English Bay that was in the news this week when a grey whale made a brief surprise appearance.
Bowie has mounted a video camera underneath one of the ferries that chug along the water between Granville Island, Science World and downtown. The camera is connected to an on-board computer, which sends a signal out via radio waves, employing technology typically used for military applications. The images ultimately stream online (surfacer.ca), also appearing on a small on-board monitor, and a massive LED screen mounted on a False Creek concrete plant. Passersby can also watch the video stream on their smart phones.
Just don't expect to see very much. This is not a glass bottom boat experience à la your last Caribbean holiday. Think of it as the art of absence. False Creek, once rich with aquatic life, suffered staggering losses following the waterfront's industrialization at the turn of the last century. Gone were the salmon streams, the now-endangered eulachon and the copious prawn populations. Bowie's video installation makes that impact visible.
"When I went in to pitch the project, [to the city's Olympic public art program]" Bowie says, "I think my very first line was 'this is not a Sea World experience.' There may be hours on end where there's an image that's bereft of any life whatsoever.'"
Surface was installed in February and operated for about a month over the Olympic period before being taken off-line so the radios could be overhauled and the software tweaked, as Bowie and her team dealt with numerous technical glitches. Surface was re-launched toward the end of April and will continue until the technology gives out. The LED screen should operate for 100,000 hours, but the computer has a lifespan of only 2-5 years. (Bowie says she'd be willing to replace it out of her own pocket, though, just to keep the project going).
There have been other challenges: The theft, during the Olympics, of a computer, closing down one of the viewing sites; a Transport Canada ruling that the LED screen could not be mounted on top of the ferry - her original plan; and a surprise decision by the military to dredge the creek before the Olympics for security reasons.
Still, the message of Surface is being heard, one that has particular resonance right now with the threat to aquatic life as a consequence of the massive oil spill off the Louisiana coast. "I'm hoping not that that disaster brings attention to [ Surface]but that maybe a combination of things will actually make people interested in doing something ... instead of just thinking about it."
While the camera has caught some striking images of eels, minnows and small crustaceans, for the most part it registers endless unidentifiable particles floating by. Microscopic marine life? Bits of garbage? Bowie isn't sure. But she is in no way disappointed.
"We knew it was not going to be a teeming image with lots of life. I knew that from the start. That was my point, really."
Sometimes the point takes some explaining, but Bowie has found that viewers are getting it. "Several people that I've talked to have said: 'That's the point if there's nothing to see, isn't it?' So I was kind of heartened by those completely unsolicited points of view."
Aquabus, the company that runs the ferry, says passengers have really engaged with the work. "There's a lot of curiosity. People are wondering what's down there," says General Manager Jody Collins, who adds he's personally noticed in nine years of working on the creek a resurgence of aquatic life, including harbour seals, salmon and the odd sea lion.
All the more reason, says Bowie, to create awareness around the issue right now.
"It's this crucial moment in time where life is actually starting to come back," she says, gesturing toward the water. "But then again, the oceans are in such peril. Life may be coming back, but it's so delicate, and so fragile."