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Water keeps the conversation flowing at international conference

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This water-based art installation by Calgary’s Dick Averns can be found on Main Street. The fourth iteration of Under Western Skies (2016) will be held at Mount Royal University Sept. 27-30.


Gaia Global Circus. ~Photo provided  

Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink. — The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge

More than 70 per cent of the beautiful blue planet we call home is covered by water. Both sweet and salty, water is the liquid that sustains life on Earth; it is also a precious resource under threat by climate change, mismanagement and pollution.

Water and its challenges and opportunities will draw some of the world’s most dynamic speakers, thinkers and artists to Calgary for Under Western Skies 2016: Water—Events, Trends, Analysis, an esteemed international conference to be held at Mount Royal from Sept. 27 to 30. This innovative, award-winning series pays homage in its name to Donald Worster, the environmental historian whose book by the same title is a landmark in ecocritical studies.

Legendary French academic Bruno Latour, advocate Maude Barlow, environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore and photographer/filmmaker Chris Jordan are but a few of the conference's keynote speakers.
Gathering under Western skies“Under Western Skies was created to help identify, explain, critique and solve some of the complex environmental problems facing North America and the wider world to which it is climatologically connected,” explains Robert Boschman, co-founder. Under Western Skies has been held every two years since 2010.

Maude Barlow. ~Photo provided  

This year’s theme is water — determined after the massive flood that hit Southern Alberta in 2013 — and, fittingly, the conference takes place in the university’s LEED Gold Certified Roderick Mah Centre for Continuous Learning.

Boschman says the conference crosses disciplines and curricula, mixing art and science, business and government, and attracting academics, students, concerned citizens, Indigenous Peoples, environmentalists and non-governmental organizations.

It’s free to all MRU students who register. Several major events are open to the public: six keynote addresses including an evening reception honouring Maude Barlow, a renowned water advocate and author and chair of The Council of Canadians; the Canadian premiere of a dramatic performance by Gaia Global Circus; and a water-based art installation by Calgary’s Dick Averns. (See the preliminary schedule here.)

Under Western Skies 2016 is supported by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and through funding from Mount Royal UniversityAn environmental “circus"

 Bruno Latour ~Photo provided  

Not to be missed is keynote speaker Bruno Latour. Boschman says he’s worked for five years to bring the philosopher, anthropologist and author of numerous books on the sociology of science to Under Western Skies. On Sept. 29, Latour, a professor in Sciences Po Paris and director of its Médialab, will give a talk, Reset Modernity!, which is drawn from the recently released book of essays he edited.

Later that evening, another of Latour’s projects, a theatrical tragicomedy called Gaia Global Circus, will make its Canadian debut at the conference; it was performed only once before in North America, in New York City.

Conceived by Latour, Frédérique Aït-Touati and Chloé Latour and written by Pierre Daubigny, the play tackles the disconnect between the global climate crisis and the lack of feeling humans seem to have for it.

Aït-Touati, the director, says it features four actors enacting a series of scenarios and concepts: a green-washing ad; a climatologist attempting to explain climate change while being ridiculed by a politician; the fear and despair of scientists raising the alarm but going unnoticed; the attempt to define what  “apocalypse” means.

“Theatre is a wonderful tool to experiment with ideas in a comic way,” she says. “Although Gaia Global Circus is about dark and worrying questions, it is above all a comedy. We are playing and laughing about our own dazzlement.”
Midway between horror and beauty

 Chris Jordan ~Photo provided  

Boschman says one of the most compelling talks, also on Sept. 29, will come from Chris Jordan who plans to share his water photographs along with clips of his forthcoming film about Midway Island.

In 2009, the Seattle-based artist visited the tiny atoll in the Pacific Ocean to photograph the bodies of thousands of dead albatrosses, their stomachs filled with bright bits of indestructible plastic (the huge birds mistake the sea-borne garbage for squid, their favourite food). He brought a small crew to film him documenting the environmental tragedy, “so I wouldn’t be accused of faking it.” The result, a short video called Midway: A Message From the Gyre, went viral.

Jordan wound up returning nine times to Midway Island to capture the full life cycle of the elegant albatross and the result is a soon-to-be-released, two-hour feature film.

“The project morphed from walking into horror into a balance of horror and beauty,” he says. “The name of that island, Midway, is where humanity find itself now, midway between horror and beauty.”

Sept. 13, 2016 ― Valerie Berenyi