In the spring of 2017, the Saddleridge reservoir in northeast Calgary was drained and dried for scheduled maintenance. The immense subterranean chamber, which is one of many reservoirs that supplies Calgary with filtered water originating from the Bow Glacier, had been sealed for forty years. For four decades its full volume— thirty-eight million litres of water—lay still, in complete darkness below two soccer fields. It is part of a largely invisible, complex infrastructure that variously and usually unfailingly shuttles clean water to, and ushers dirty water from, Calgary’s 1.24 million inhabitants.
The Saddleridge reservoir, emptied, is a colossal and alien space. A slight sound within the massive chamber can reverberate for up to 25 seconds, and certain frequencies compound upon themselves, intensifying in resonance. In late May of 2017, Peter von Tiesenhausen commissioned sound artists Jen Reimer and Magnus Tiesenhausen to record an improvised collaborative work within the reservoir, and cinematographer Dave McGregor to capture the visual space. The resulting fleeting images and sounds comprise Reservoir.
Upon completion of the maintenance, the Saddleridge reservoir was resealed and filled, returning to silence for the next anticipated forty years.
Reservoir is presented in collaboration with and was commissioned by The City of Calgary as part of the Watershed+ Dynamic Environment Lab.
Exhibition Essay: Chapter I: A monument to tears
It is such a secret place, the land of tears.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Here too we find a virtue somehow rewarded,
Tears in the nature of things, hearts touched by human transience
Monument (mänyəmən), noun
A lasting evidence, reminder, or example of someone
or something notable or great
She only cried once, but her tears birthed a river. And they stained her face for the rest of time, or at least as long as the particulate matter of a stone stays molecularly bound together. Her river was a tributary to a larger one, and that one: a benefactor to the salty ocean.
She didn’t have a name. Well, at one point she did, but as part and parcel of her sacred obligations, she was required to relinquish it. Thereafter, she was known only as the Oracle. Or sometimes the Sybil, or other times still: the Pythia. Nomenclature in the hands of patriarchy is a science of oppression; those names were only indicative of a category, a box for many—an occupation or a blessing or a curse, depending on how you look at it—and not a particular human with a unique permutation of 20,000 or so combinations of cytosine, guanine, adenine, and thymine, a singular arrangement of seven billion billion billion atoms. There were 100 trillion neural synapses in her brain, greater than the number of galaxies in the universe. Her mind was a cosmos. But she didn’t have a name.
Every day before sunrise, she was awoken by a Keeper, bathed—in the purest of water, of course—and then led down. Down, down, down, down. Into her subterranean throne room: Queen of the foul gases that leaked through the cracks of her cavernous, cold castle, gases that swirled around her face, then her respiratory system. They coursed through her blood—O Negative, O, sweet priestess—creating unusual and novel new highways in her neural circuitry. She had visions. She was the Oracle of Delphi.
She was a canary in a coal mine, or rather, its antithesis. Canaries cease their song in the presence of carbon monoxide (CO) or methane (CH4) or an excess of ethylene (C2H4). When the music ends: time to leave. These alkanes are deadly. But, in that sweet spot of just enough but not too much, they compelled her songs, her sad prophesies. The gaseous plumes? Inhabiting her mind, as a god might. Eddies and she their epicenter.
She had the voice of a ghost, not an angel, emanating from the cave of her chest, out into the cave of her workplace, where it bounced off the wet, cold, stone walls, returning to the caves of her ears as something other than what left her mouth. When she was alone, when she was lost in the damp darkness—the kind that settles into your bones and sinews and becomes part of your anatomy—her voice was her only companion. Although her sounds would run away from her, in the cave, they always returned, wiser, with all manner of textures accrued throughout their journey. She would stop her singing for a time, and wait for her reverberations to come home, back to her. She was never really alone.
Then: another voice, a reverberation from the dark. Sounds mingling with hers. A call back, a response. From who? She would never see. She could only hear their nuclear fusion: a synthesis of the immaterial vibrations into something more dense. A magic. A harmony.
They sang perennially, preternaturally: time ceased to exist. Then a clamor, a crash, which summoned their fleshy bodies back to the cave. But they had one last perfect consonance. With it: her tears.
A smell can conjure a memory, but a sound can excavate something buried deeper in the neural fabric of the brain. Something that arouses every hair follicle, commands trembles down the notches of a spine. Sound is an archeology of feeling.
She only cried once, but she never stopped. Her tears birthed a river, a tributary to a larger one, and that one: a benefactor to the salty ocean. She relinquished every ounce of water, and turned to stone. A reprieve from her nameless fate. Now: she’ll be known forever.
We drink from her reservoir. She sustains us all. A monument to tears.
By Natasha Chaykowski
Natasha Chaykowski is a researcher, writer, and curator, based in Wichispa Oyade (Calgary, Alberta) on Treaty 7 Territory. Currently, she is the Director of Untitled Art Society.
Jen Reimer is a sound artist and musician based in Montréal. Her work explores the resonances of urban environments through in-situ performances, installations and spatial recordings. Since 2009, her projects with media artist Max Stein have been presented in residencies and festivals across North America and Europe. tunnel is a collaborative singing practice she shares with Alberta-based interdisciplinary artist Magnus Tiesenhausen.
Magnus Tiesenhausen is an interdisciplinary artist based in southern Alberta. Tiesenhausen’s work operates within productive disagreements between magic and materiality; structure and indeterminacy; and reverence and punk energy. tunnel is a collaborative singing practice he shares with Montréal-based sound artist Jen Reimer.
Peter von Tiesenhausen
Peter von Tiesenhausen is a multi-media Canadian artist whose work has lead him through journeys both real and imagined. Based in the Alberta Peace country, Demmitt specifically, he has exhibited across Canada, in Europe and the United States in public galleries and throughout the landscape. His practice has grown from landscape painting to installation, sculpture, performance and from simple media to complex combinations of media and multifaceted collaborations. He claims copyright on his land as an artwork. His work often deals with the ideas of time, life, voyage, death, spirit, nature and humanity. There is a strong pursuit of sustainability often evident in the work and an attempt to understand time and substance from a variety of perspectives.