Currents - Kelsey Stephenson

February 3 - April 27, 2024
Central Gallery


Kelsey Stephenson

Currents is a large-scale installation that depicts our complex and often conflicted relationship with watersheds within the context of a changing climate. Comprising a grid of 150 individual prints that form a composite image, Kelsey Stephenson’s work focuses on the human impacts to water systems through visual explorations of the ice, snow, and moving water found in glaciers, rivers, and lakes. Focusing specifically on the link between the metro area of the city of Edmonton and the glacial headwaters of the North Saskatchewan River, Currents examines the contrast between urban industrialized river spaces and the policy epicenter of the provincial legislature with the fragile, often unseen glacial source of the river. 

Within the 60-foot-long installation, multiple points of view and times of year are placed together with imagery derived from photos taken from 2019 to 2021. Views of both the North Saskatchewan Glacier and downtown Edmonton are easily seen together along with the span of the river flowing between those two points. These fragments and individual moments taken from disparate times and places are brought together to depict the complexity of the landscape. Taken as a whole, the fragility of the multiple systems brought within the gallery becomes readily apparent through visible linkages between urban industrial land use in Treaty 6 Territory, the more vulnerable headwaters of a glacier fed river, and the seat of the Alberta Provincial Government. With industry at one end and policy making at the other, Stephenson draws attention to the disconnect between how we talk about the land, how we use the land, and the ecological reality of our changing climate, habitat loss, and the destruction of ecosystems.

The grid structure of the piece, both the individual prints arranged in a 5x30 pattern on the wall and the gridlines bisecting each page, references the dominant land feature imposed on the prairies – the square sections created by the Dominion Land Survey of Western Canada in the late 19th century. This notion of an imposed grid on the landscape has been quite literally carved into the landscape by a network of range roads and cutlines. Current perspectives on industrial infrastructure, resource extraction, and property ownership are directly informed by historical mapping and concepts of ‘wilderness’ either as a resource to be developed or an imagined empty landscape to be preserved. Within individual prints, contrasting imagery examines how this notion has changed the landscape, through both industrial development and the establishment of national parks. The Bighorn Dam and its reservoir, Lake Abraham, a hydroelectric project built in the early 1970s with little environmental impact assessment and no indigenous or community involvement is juxtaposed with the more heavily trafficked tourist hotspots within Banff National Park, established in 1885 with a similar of lack of regard. Reflecting these cumulative points of view over a longer period brings into focus how mapping the mountains and the prairies defined which spaces were kept as ‘wilderness’ and which were not. Regardless of whether there is protection or barriers to industry, water by its nature flows, connecting us to the landscape and confounding arbitrary lines on the map.

The translation from real landscape, to photograph, to negatives, and ultimately screen-printed and cyanotype imagery loses information at each step. The images remind us that our glaciers and water systems are not infinite – each action is interconnected. By bringing disparate places or times together to contrast differing views around these central ideas, Stephenson creates a more nuanced picture of shifts in climate and changes across the watershed and downstream. This multifaceted approach allows for multiple perspectives to coexist and speaks to the climate emergency in a more encompassing way – how it impacts us both at home and downstream.

While we are experiencing climate change differently across Canada and globally, this is a reality that each part of the country and beyond must face.