Art Meets Energy

Positive Energy

By Cameron Cross

Public Artist, Education Consultant and art for social justice advocate

Cameron Cross
It’s been over a year since Dr. Monica Gattinger invited me to join the Positive Energy Team, within the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, at the University of Ottawa. As the team’s art consultant, I’ve learned a lot and contributed a little; my personal growth as an artist and as a thinker has grown exponentially. I’m thankful.

I’ve traveled to Ottawa on multiple occasions to take part in Positive Energy conferences and workshops, learning from Canada’s brightest minds in the academic, Indigenous, NGO, regulatory and energy sectors. On two separate visits, I conducted sessions on the organizational structure of “Mind Mapping” as well as Visual Culture as it relates to the energy landscape in Canada.

To some, there may be a type of disconnect between the arts and the sciences, but nothing could be further from the truth. From the early days of Leonardo Da Vinci’s studies of engineering to unite science and art, to current robust Artist in Residency programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), art and creativity assist learning in the sciences by pushing the boundaries of critical thinking.

We’re all too familiar with left brain and right brain thinkers, but recent research suggests that we use multiple areas of the brain simultaneously. Art and visual thinking provide an opportunity to explore other cognitive pathways.  Creativity flourishes when risks are taken and science, largely, is about taking risks.

Dr. James Peebles, an Albert Einstein Professor of Science at Princeton University and the 2019 Nobel Award Winner in Physics (born in Winnipeg) is quoted as saying: "I throw out an idea, I feel nervous about it, often I'm surprised that the idea was right...ideas lead to tests, then lead to something close to reality." 

Dr. Peebles’ comment reminds me of another role model of mine: Sir Ken Robinson, Professor Emeritus at University of Warwick, and an expert on creativity. An ongoing theme in Sir Ken’s lectures centre on the notion that: "If you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."

Art and science are not merely neighbours, they are relatives.

Inspired by the team at Positive Energy and Dr. Gattinger in particular, I have been on a journey to create a work of public art that speaks to Canada’s energy system and it’s often complicated relationship with Indigenous peoples.

The Indigenous Energy Easel is a work of public sculpture being proposed for the Ottawa region. This work of public art addresses the complicated history between Canada's energy sector and Indigenous communities. The proposed landmark is one way for the public to reflect on past land reclamation for large-scale hydro energy projects. The project also recognizes the importance of future collaboration and consultation. The impetus for the actual structure can be found here.

Quite simply, the plan is to replace an existing hydroelectric tower with a large steel easel, holding an Indigenous work of art on the giant canvas. You can read about the proposal in greater detail here.

My process behind any large scale public project starts with prolonged consultation. I've been quite active these past 20 months making formal presentations to: arts organizations, artists, various branches of the federal government, Indigenous councils and consultants, academic institutions, construction firms and energy councils. The journey will be long but certainly one worth taking. 

In order for large scale public art projects to be successful, collaboration is paramount. The plan is to acquire the expertise and knowledge of various sectors across Canada to see this project to its eventual completion. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission 94 Calls to Action also speaks of the importance of collaboration:

Action #83. We call upon the Canada Council for the Arts to establish, as a funding priority, a strategy for Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists to undertake collaborative projects and produce works that contribute to the reconciliation process.

Public art is not an ends to a means, but rather a powerful, democratic means of communicating a message—to everyone. We're confident the Indigenous Energy Easel can help change the narrative on energy in Canada.

carl beam