Canalology – an expanded idea of canals, Emma Leach

Canalology – an expanded idea of canals, Emma Leach

Canalology an expanded idea of canals

Emma Leach

My relationship with canals had been rather limited, I realised, before I visited Canalology. Living in London and travelling on foot as much as I can, my main impression of these waterways was that they are a useful shortcut, a quieter route to avoid the roads and pedestrian crossings. At rush hour though they become a battleground between cyclists and pedestrians; the key skirmishes taking place in the tunnels under road bridges where it’s often necessary to stoop and flatten yourself against the curved wall to avoid a collision. London canals are also dwelling places, with a growing population of people living on houseboats. The one canal dweller I know bought her houseboat for a mixture of reasons, including being priced out of the London rental market. After living on the boat through her first winter, she’s a convert to the lifestyle. However, life on board a boat comes with its practical challenges: arranging a PO Box for the post, finding firewood and water, emptying the toilet, changing moorings every fortnight in the summer months. According to some reports, animosity between people living on houseboats and local residents is building and is common enough to have a shorthand: ‘fleet versus street‘.

Historically, canals were a key part of the Industrial Revolution, but they have been preserved more as curiosities than as functional waterways: either as places of leisure or as remnants of our shared cultural history. They are still an important part of the city’s topography, connecting one area to another, allowing us to traverse the capital by way of trenches dug hundreds of years ago, underneath what was then a very different London.

The River Lee Navigation starts at Tottenham Marshes and runs through Stonebridge Lock, down to Ferry Lane Bridge near the retail parks at Tottenham Hale. Here it is joined by the River Lea1 and it broadens. It curves round past rows of houses to reach Markfield Park at the south end of Tottenham. This stretch of waterways, its towpaths and nearby green spaces, was the site for Canalology festival. Conceived and organised by POST Artists, Canalology followed on from their interdisciplinary, artist-led investigations into specific locations. The festival grew out of a personal involvement that members of the network had with Tottenham, where four of the exhibiting artists live.

Canalology included drawing, performance, sculpture, moving image and writing. These diverse works, which could be discovered on foot by walking the towpath on a hot, spring day, had all been developed in response to their surroundings. This included: the flora and fauna in the area, the intersecting waterways, signage and maps, the culture and history of the location and observations from present day residents of Tottenham.

Bracketing the festival site at either end were two video works: at the north end, in a canalside building called the Waterside Centre, was a video installation, Tipping Point, by Olga Koroleva. In this piece we watch, in crisp HD video, a woman picking up a metal bucket and emptying the contents into a second bucket. We can see the canalside in the background, visible in a thin, dank, winter daylight. As the piece continues it betrays the futility of this woman’s steady and repeated actions sometimes the buckets contain water, sometimes they are empty, but she continues to tilt one after the other, as if hoping the situation will change, or blind to its ineffectiveness.

At the southern end of the festival site, Helena Wee‘s Universal Set was installed in a building housing the Markfield Beam Engine. The Beam Engine is an impressive piece of Victorian engineering that operated on a massive scale, pumping first sewage and then, in its semi-retirement, storm water, whenever required. Universal Set is an animated video work that gives a sense of perpetual motion that seems sympathetic to the Beam Engine’s working history and has a connection with the repetitive movements in Koroleva’s work. Running on a seamless loop, we see computer generated vessels orbiting a teapot the sun in this mini solar system to a soundtrack of repetitive, mechanical clunks and thuds. We are shown images of a universe, the camera slowly drifting past stars and a haze of planetary junk, and a moving bank of clouds as seen through the window of a plane. Wee’s animation alludes to ideas both universal and on a human scale. She has drawn on her research into Brownian motion and set theory, but is also interested in the way a tea break can compose the mind, allowing our thoughts to wander beyond our everyday affairs.

Also showing in Markfield Park, Natasha Vicars‘ installation of eight deckchairs offered festival-goers a resting place for contemplating Tottenham’s skies. For Tottenham Clouds, Vicars took photographs around Tottenham and printed them on the canvas backs of deckchairs. On each deckchair it’s possible, for the knowing eye, to glimpse a local landmark at the bottom of the image but the subject here is the great diversity of cloud forms that play across the images. The work is a homage to one of Tottenham’s famous residents: Luke Howard, an amateur cloud watcher who invented the system of cloud classification that is used worldwide today. Terms including cirrus, cumulus and stratus were coined by Howard at the beginning of the nineteenth century and formed the starting point for the science of meteorology it was the first classification system that took into account the constantly moving, inherently shapeshifting nature of clouds.

The Unasked-for Pubic Art Agency (Pippa Koszerek, Marco Cali, Aliki Kylika) also took inspiration from Luke Howard’s system of cloud classification and his fascination with the skies. Sited on a curious, self-contained walkway just off Ferry Lane Bridge, Information Point was a participatory performance. Visitors, allowed onto the metal structure one by one, passed through three staging posts where they had an interaction with a performer dressed in a white lab coat and holding a clipboard. These stern outfits were undermined by absurd headgear worn by the performers a rainbow coloured umbrella hat and an old-fashioned pilot’s helmet and by the sequence of witty and surprising questions they put to visitors. They used, by turns, the language and tone of medical professional, customs officer, Post Officeemployee or weary bureaucrat. Their questions ranged from the straightforward (What is the initial of your surname?) to the unanswerable (Solid, liquid or gas?) Visitors were given an ID card, had their legs measured and had their fingerprints taken. The seemingly arbitrary questions and tasks were used to give each visitor a classification and then, at the final staging post, to confuse this diagnosis: …the evidence leads me to believe that there may have been misclassification,one performer said. There are ways to get this changed.

The performers’ manner and language was carefully chosen, intentionally troubling visitors’ sense of identity. We were left at the end with an invitation to challenge and swap our classifications – taken with the deadpan manner of the performers, this could be seen as a challenge to avoid other types of categorisation and being put ‘in a box’. In the logic of this performance, it is through associating with other people as wide a variety of people as possible that we avoid a restrictive classification:

 As you wander along the canal side you will encounter other people, some of whom have already been classified and, if you link up with them, then the classification can change. So if you actively want to try to change the definitions you should interact with others and transform yours and their type.

Some projects in Canalology referred to the waterway and flora and fauna found around the canal. Fiona Long‘s Sublime Canalgae Floss was a pedal-powered candy floss machine that made subtle reference to the health of the canal nearby. After putting in the effort to drive the pedals, and watching the sugar transform into delicate strands, visitors were handed their resulting tuft of candy floss coloured an unappetising murky green. Long plays with disgust and pleasure in this deceptively light and playful project (notice how close the word ‘sublime’ is to ‘slime’?)

Standing alongside the River Lea nibbling my candy floss, an algae lookalike, I was prompted to think about the threat that algae can pose to water quality and biodiversity. Anyone who lives near a waterway is probably aware of the phenomenon of algal blooms. These dramatic events, which are a disaster for wildlife, result in a spread of green algae sometimes covering miles of water and are a visual reminder of the effect of pollution and climate change on our canals and rivers.

Ilka Leukefield‘s sculptural installation also referenced the ill effects of human activity on our environment. Human Failures, Rescue Remedies showed a mermaid sat on a podium of jetsam an ugly mass of plastic bottles and unidentifiable litter. In mythology, mermaids were sometimes associated with disasters involving water: floods, storms, shipwrecks or drownings. The imagery of the mermaid could be taken as a bad omen. Continuing her research into ‘normalcy bias’, Leukefield wanted to find out whether people walking the towpath would respond to this. Would they react to the presence of this mythical creature, or just walk on past?

Near Stonebridge Lock at the northern end of the site, it was possible to sight James Capper‘s floating water sculpture, Verity. Constructed from a tractor wheel inner tube (for buoyancy), a pump and industrial steel, the sculpture sends arcs of water jetting in five directions. Encountering this absurd object, it was tempting to wonder, ‘Who would put a water feature near a functioning lock?’ The humour of the piece was counterbalanced by the obvious competence of its construction Capper uses the techniques, materials and problem-solving of mechanical engineering, and Verity is a handsome sculpture.

Collaborative duo Atelier FraSe (Francesco Gorni and Serena Montesissa) design and manufacture architectural interventions. For Canalology, they spent time observing the movements of humans and wildlife on the canal and towpath, finding a location for their work that is hard for people to reach but much frequented by ducks and other birds. This structure sat right at the edge of the canal and was built from reclaimed wood resembling a pyre, a lookout or a treehouse. Shelters was positioned where the River Lea and the River Lea Navigation converge a broad stretch of canal, forcing us to encounter the work at a distance. Looking across the water, I enjoyed the sense that I was excluded from this work. I could look at it as much as I liked, but actually its ladders were an invitation for ducks and birds to climb up and nest, not for me (they probably couldn’t bear human weight). Atelier FraSe describe their structure as ‘sketch-like’ and its form is more gestural than pragmatic. At its base there is a tangle of timber, beams pointing in all directions, and the two ladders point down towards the water but the rungs stop shy of its surface.

Chrysalides, byRebecca Leach,were positioned in various locations along the festival site. These clustered sculptures are inspired by the cocoons that encase moth pupae during their metamorphosis, drawing attention to this less noticeable insect wildlife of the canals. Leach also used the mythology and folklore associated with moths and butterflies in her storytelling event these creatures have often been used in fiction to symbolise metamorphosis and states of transition.

Also responding to local wildlife was Gwen Bajon‘s Fata Morgana. Each of six sculptures consisted of a criss-cross of wires creating the form of one of London’s most ubiquitous urban animals: a fox. Each wire fox was mounted on a wheeled base that passersby were invited to pull by a lead they could walk, dance or play with the sculptures.

Other works in Canalology responded to artists’ explorations of the site and its local residents. Jenny Rolfe-Herbert prepared for herproject by taking an eight hour walk around the festival site. During this walk, at hourly intervals, she stopped to write a short text that summarised her surroundings. The resulting text works, together making up 8 Hour Tottenham Canal, describe Rolfe-Herbert’s sensory observations the sounds, smells and sights that confront a pedestrian walking the towpath, including snippets of overheard conversations. Embarking on this walk, the artist situated herself in a tradition that connects the disciplines of walking and writing stretching back through history, but described more recently by authors including Rebecca Solnit and Robert Macfarlane. Rolfe-Herbert’s writings are short and sketch-like, specific to the time and place that they were observed. In Canalology, they could be found on hand painted boards, discreetlyattached to railings, tree branches and fences. As such the texts had to be encountered in the same way they were created by walking.

One board, tied to the branches of a tree, said:

8pm bench opposite pylon

Burning wood crackles in a metal drum fire.

Aeroplane murmurs overhead.

Trees rustle in the wind, a voice calls in the distance.

Buzzing of a power tool, a scatter in the bushes.

A cat meows.

Patter of the cats paws as it jumps on to a wooden boat.

The cold breeze fights against the warmth of the cats body under my hand.

Cat sneezes.

Also using text was Words of Tottenham, a project by Samantha Penn that included a blog and a publication. Penn gathered work by Tottenham-based writers, written in response to local events, history and landscapes a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. She made contact with writers and groups through online message boards and led some contributors on a walk across the festivalsite, encouraging them to write direct observations of the park and canalway. The miniature, concertinaed publication was available to collect from POST’s information point in Markfield Park and included sentences lifted out of their context. The resulting prose poem indicated that the task of writing about their local area had meant that some writers had seen their surroundings anew: The rubbish bin is elegant dark green, could be a postbox from another country.

The final work was a drawing that both stood apart from the other pieces and acted as a frame for the whole event. Map of the River Lee from Stonebridge Lock to Markfield Park by Mary Yacoob was printed on the reverse side of the festival brochure. This highly intricate, hand drawn map depicts the festival site using an aesthetic that is a mixture of the historical and the contemporary. In her research, Yacoob picked out imagery from archival maps their decorative details and geometric patterns and from contemporary wayfinding signs like those positioned all across London, designed to present the most pragmatic travel information clearly. On this map, the central circle contains a birds eye view of Tottenham without road names, but it’s possible to orientate yourself using the recognisable symbols for tube and National Rail stations. The thing that is most noticeable is just how much water there is Tottenham seems almost more water than land, as along with the canal and river there are a series of reservoirs that puncture the landmass. Looking at this map, it immediately brings to mind the works by Koroleva, Long, Luekefield and Capper all, in different ways, making reference to bodies of water.

Radiating out from this central circle and dotted in the four corners are 16 small observational drawings of the surrounding area by Yacoob. These snapshots make me think that every map is necessarily a highly edited representation of a location. Cartographers have to decide what’s useful and what’s not, what’s beautiful and what’s fussy, what’s truthful and what’s unnecessary. In a similar way, Canalology presented, for one day only, a highly subjective and time-specific response to a particular location, and an expanded idea of what one particular canal can offer or signify. A different set of artists working at a different point in history would have selected other landmarks, other features of the environment, other stories, mapping the area in a different way.

Emma Leach is a freelance project manager, curator and London-based artist working primarily with text. Her works include observational writing about real events and short fiction. Previous works have been shown in galleries, distributed in newspapers and transmitted by radio.

1. A note about the language I’ll be using to describe this waterway. The River Lea can be spelled either ‘Lea’ or ‘Lee’. It is one of the largest rivers in London, flowing from Luton to the River Thames. Parts of the river have been canalised, including a section called the River Lee Navigation. The Canalology festival site ran alongside both the River Lea and the River Lee Navigation a river and a canal.  

Image:  Untitled concept drawing, The Unasked-for Pubic Art Agency (Pippa Koszerek, Marco Cali, Aliki Kylika).