Water Witching with Hold Fast Artist in Residence Alana Bartol

Eastern Edge Gallery’s Hold Fast Contemporary Art Festival runs from August 8-12 in St. John’s.

Calgary-based Alana Bartol is this year’s Hold Fast Artist in Residence; her six-week stay in St. John’s will culminate in a performance of new work during the Hold Fast Contemporary Art Festival’s Art Crawl. She will also be offering a water witching workshop during the Festival.

In her work, Bartol uses dowsing (also called water witching) to provoke both personal and political questions about our relationship to the environment. She uses water witching to talk about how we move through spaces, arguing the practice can cause people to slow down and become attuned to their surroundings in a new way. She also uses it to think about broader questions having to do with land-remediation and contamination from the oil and gas industry.

“Water witching is also referred to as dowsing or divining, it’s a practice of divination where the dowser or the water-witch uses a tool (usually a divining rod) that responds – there are questions around how that response happens and who is giving that response – but I like to say unseen forces provide a response to the dowser through the dowsing rod which lets them know where to drill for water,” Bartol said.

Bartol explained that divination can also be a daily practice where a pendulum is used to ask the divining forces a wide range of questions. For her, a large part of divination is carefully considering what questions need to be asked.

Bartol first became fascinated with water witching and divination after receiving an email from her aunt, describing a childhood memory of correctly predicting where a well should be drilled on someone’s property. Her aunt went on to say that the women in Bartol’s family were known for water witching.

This information inspired a number of questions for Bartol, “I loved the idea of asking: Is this ability inherited? Do I have this ability? How can I think about [water-witching] within the context of my art practice which talks a lot about knowledge of our bodies and relationship to technology and intuition and environmental issues?”

In Alberta, Bartol has been making work that focuses on the social and environmental impact of orphaned oil wells. She has been working with a metal fabrication company to create machined aluminum pendulums shaped like an upside down teardrop. These pendulums open up and Bartol places test tubes of contaminated soil inside. In some cases she uses the pendulum in performance pieces where she dowses in a contaminated area. For other projects she has created meditative video pieces that focus on a pendulum hung in a contaminated area.

At Hold Fast’s Art Crawl, Bartol will present “We Cannot Fathom the Depth of our Shadows,” a piece based in part on research she has been doing about Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil and gas industry. For this piece she will use a smaller version of the pendulums she has been working with in Alberta. It will be an intimate performance where audience members will be invited to ask questions of the pendulum.

“It’ll just be a one-on-one moment where people can ask a number questions of the pendulum within about five minutes and we will divine the answers together. People will have to come participate to find out how we’ll do that,” Bartol said.

Eastern Edge Gallery’s Hold Fast Contemporary Art Festival runs from August 8-12 in St. John’s. All regular Hold Fast events are free and open to the public, visit www.easternedge.ca for more information.  

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