Todd Gilens has spent the better part of a decade learning about how water can define a landscape. His new outdoor art piece, “Confluence: Stream Science, Handwriting, and Urban Curbs,” consists of nearly a mile of “handwritten” poetry affixed to sidewalks and curbs in neighborhoods near downtown Reno. It starts near the Truckee River in Idlewild Park, terminates outside of City Hall, and contains an original, 6,000-word poem.
“The big idea behind the project was the Sierra Nevada,” Gilens said. “It’s a sort of a portrait of this mountain range. Although, I’m just doing one facet of that portrait, which is the northeastern watershed where water flows out of Lake Tahoe to the Truckee and collects in all of the watersheds and flows through Reno.”
While the project may appear simple in its execution, “Confluence” is the result of years of meticulous research and testing. It contains oblique references to generations of science, art, and the history of water management.
Wandering the wilderness
Gilens grew up in Los Angeles and received a master’s degree in landscape architecture from Harvard University. He now lives in Richmond, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work often focuses on the intersection of art and science, and he often explores ways of using the former to communicate about the latter.
“Science is a really important language,” he said. “[I don’t just] want to be a translator of science, but more putting science in a personal context for me, not being a scientist, and in a context of all of culture. I think we tend to forget that science is culture. It’s a human invention that evolves along with the arts.”
In 2014, Gilens started working with stream ecologists stationed around different parts of the Sierra, accompanying them into the field to help with observations and incorporating their findings and references into his work.
The inspiration for “Confluence” came from his time with the University of California, Berkeley’s Sagehen Creek Field Station outside of Truckee. When he mentioned to the directors his interest in “bringing a scientific perspective from the mountains into an urban context,” they advised him to look at Reno.
“It was really a kind of a perfect situation for the project because the city is organized around a river that is water from the Sierra,” Gilens said.
From there, Gilens began work on the logistics of the piece. He chose the locations for the 20 individual sections of text that would flow together, disconnect, and rejoin over the concrete curbs of several downtown streets. Each section, he said, falls under a different theme or simple prompt, such as “pebble,” “channel shapes,” or “seasons.”
Next, he chose a suitable material in which to print the poem. It needed to be durable enough to withstand Reno’s drastic seasonal temperature swings without peeling, and non-toxic, as not to degrade the water systems the work is meant to pay homage to. After a year-long materials test, he chose a vinyl-based adhesive and had dozens of individual “stickers” manufactured.
Perhaps one of the most involved steps in the production of Confluence, however, was deciding what the actual words would look like. Gilens wanted the font to be handwritten, a choice meant to reflect the flow of water and the human experience behind our interaction with it.
“In 2015, I had a residency at Digital Arts Studios in Belfast, U.K., to try out this idea that I could take the letters from a deceased person’s handwriting and assign them to the keys on a keyboard, and type on a keyboard, and it would come out as their handwriting,” Gilens said.
With this practical knowledge base, Gilens went on the hunt for a candidate to “write” his poem in their own hand. He wanted something legible, beautiful, and belonging to someone with a historical connection to the local ecology.
“I went to a lot of libraries and called a lot of librarians and looked at a lot of different sort of candidates for the handwriting, and wound up with this fellow Claude Dukes, who was the federal water master and died in 1984,” Gilens said. I had scans of his handwritings—the papers are at the University of Nevada Special Collections.”
With Dukes’ posthumous contribution, “Confluence” could officially take shape. With a spreadsheet organizing the exact character count of each of the 20 sections, measured to the inch, Gilens and his team worked for several weeks throughout September to install the semi-continuous sections of text.
The result is a mile-long poem only legible to pedestrians who trace it from its source.
“I wanted something that really reflected my understanding of streams in the landscape, which is that they start way further away than we even realize,” Gilens said. “And they they don’t really ever end. They evaporate into the sky, they seep down into the groundwater, there’s really no boundary to a stream.”
Around the bend
“Confluence” will stay in place for the next 12-18 months, during which time Gilens will perform necessary maintenance to the vinyl lettering. He’s planning a related project: a potential book version of “Confluence” to serve as a permanent record of the project and provide further commentary on the themes of the piece.
“We’re hoping we can raise the money to do a book version, which will have photographs of the installation and the installation process, and it’ll have the whole text in the book [of the poem] with essays that sort of put the project in the context of environmental art, and public water policy,” Gilens said.
Gilens is also considering the idea of a separate publication related to the “Confluence” project, although different in its subject matter. In the years that he sought funding for “Confluence,” Gilens published a series of newsletters related to his fieldwork in the Sierra, describing his interaction with ecologists, meditations on the landscape, and other observations. These newsletters were made as personal reminders for Gilens about his excursions into nature, but also to keep interested parties and potential patrons abreast of the project’s developments.
“The newsletters do have their own life,” he said. “And apparently the Nevada Museum of Art, the Art and Environment Program, is collecting the newsletters—they print them out every time I send one and put it in a file. There’s a lot of the history of the project in those letters.”
In time, Gilens may also publish an expanded collection of his newsletter series, but for now, he is content to let Confluence live out its lifetime in public.
“I kind of want to see let the dust settle a bit on this one and see where it’s pointing and what more I can learn from it,” he said. “What have I really done? What did I set out to do? And I think technically, I accomplished what I said I would accomplish. And artistically, it’s a much richer thing that happened, that I don’t actually know quite what it is. So those are the conversations I really look forward to having.”
A reception for “Confluence” is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 21 from 4:30-6 pm at West Street Market, 148 West St., in downtown Reno. At 5 pm, Gilens will read selected sections of the poem that were not installed in the main work.
Photos: Eric Marks