By Kim Lenters . . .
In this photo essay, I invite you to accompany me, as I revisit Prince’s Island in Calgary, Alberta, Canada with photos collected on daily walks in May through July, 2020, during the unfolding, early days the Covid-19 pandemic. As an educational researcher interested in the socio-material practice of literacy, such murmurations are of great interest to me. The photos animate my rendering of the systemic flux experienced in one Canadian city. The very media of the chalk and paint images animating a particular kind of messaging from Calgary’s municipal government and people of the city during a time of great local and global uncertainty.
Come Wayfare with Me
In his 2007 book, Lines: A brief history, cultural anthropologist, Tim Ingold, identifies two primary modes of travel: wayfaring and transport. Ingold argues that modern societies have adopted transport as primary mode of movement—that is, we tend to be destination-focused as we move from point A to point B.
However, for those who have always been wayfarers, and those, like me, who (re)discover it, paraphrasing Ingold (p. 80), wayfaring offers the opportunity for continual responsiveness to our perceptual monitoring of the environment as it is revealed along the way. In short, the lingering made available by wayfaring allows us to be present with—to think, feel, and interact with—all we encounter as we move through a particular space.
Situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Bow and the Elbow, Calgary, is Canada’s 3rd most populous city. It has been called Mohkinstsis for centuries by the Blackfoot First Nation to designate it as a meeting place—both for the rivers and the three tribes that continue to comprise the Blackfoot Confederacy. Prince’s Island, an urban jewel, provides respite and play space for inner-city Calgarians and wildlife such as beavers, rabbits, ducks, geese, herons and pelicans. As it crowns the city’s downtown region, it draws both wayfaring and transporting travellers. In this photo essay, Prince’s Island provides the assemblage of space and place (Massey, 2005) for my Covid wayfaring.
In the early days of the pandemic, which for Canada fell during the latter months of winter, in spite of encouragement from local authorities to spend time outdoors in their own neighbourhoods, it seemed to me that Calgarians mostly stayed indoors. My walks through Prince’s Island and its adjoining river pathway system were largely solitary. As Spring, with its warmer temperatures, began to emerge, cabin-fever magnified and inhabitants within the inner-city area (and likely many from without) descended in droves on the Prince’s Island parklands.
Soon city employees began to circulate in the park, wearing sandwich-board signs that reminded park users to physically distance—no speaking or calling out, just words on bodies. A short time later, messages, written in chalk by city employees, began to appear. In the photos to follow, I trace the evolution of these messages and ponder the meanings the media used evoked within me.
Kindness. Safety. 2 metre physical distancing. The softness of chalk on asphalt and concrete, the poems, puns, and illustrations, all seemed to mirror the gentle but firm message earlier put forward by Calgary’s mayor.
As time went by, wayfarers and commuters increased in the downtown parklands. And the messages became more blunt: this is what we mean by 2 metres.
While some city workers softened their communication and others did not, for a time the message carried the connotation of “friendly reminder” and “helpful hint”— just in case anyone was unsure of just what comprises 2 metres distance.
When the Paint Arrived
The day chalk was replaced by paint, something seemed to shift. The here today, gone tomorrow-ness of chalk, now supplanted by the permanence of paint. And what we all had hoped was temporary, now seemed here to stay—smiley faces notwithstanding.
Along with physical distancing communiques, city workers began to provide other kinds of chalk messages to the throngs now enjoying Prince’s Island.
Riding Covid’s “Stay safe” mantra, gently phrased informative messages soon yielded to the strategically placed imperative, as watchful city workers responded to the general public’s propensity for feeding the island’s resident populations of geese and ducks.
Others soon ceased on the opportunity provided by the city’s chalk art messaging. Some with slogans and some with commentary on the city’s plans to expand the rapid transit system with a bridge that will run over Prince’s Island’s eastern wetland.
On the narrow path that loops through the wetland area, physical distancing is challenging. “One way” messages appear, along with the other chalked physical distancing reminders, directing those wishing to circle the wetland to do so in one direction.
On the day in early July, when I dutifully entered the wetland at the “proper” entrance point, my earlier sense of dread was once again aroused as I noted chalk giving way to paint.
Why the shift? Was this path somehow a confirmed site of transmission? Something was off.
Looping around on the path, it became apparent: the wetland too had become a place for political messaging. The bridge now sporting a new message, “This way to hell,” when followed as a directive, lead to a vista of nearby corporate Calgary. Message received.
When the Prince’s Island chalk messaging first began to appear, the serenity of its impermanence soothed me. We as a city, a province, a nation, were part of much larger world, simultaneously gripped by the fear attendant to living in unprecedented times. Pandemic was real. The stuff of sci-fi was upon us. Yet, echoing Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, we were all in this together (Trudeau, March 30, 2020). For me, these conflicting sentiments were somehow expressed in those chalk messages, before paint entered the picture.
Now, just a few weeks later, chalk art, authored by city workers and others following in stride, is no longer found on the Prince’s Island pathways. It has been replaced with permanent signs. Perhaps the chalk was simply stop-gap messaging until signs could be produced. I don’t know. However, for this wayfarer, making her way through uncharted territory of an uncertain world now turned topsy-turvy and playing with McLuhan’s long famous words, the impermanence of chalk and the here-to-stay paint, indeed was the message.
“The medium is the message.”
~ Marshall McLuhan, Canadian media theorist, 1964.
Ingold, T. (2007). Lines: A brief history. New York: Routledge.
Massey, D. (2005). For space. London: Sage.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding media. The extensions of man. New York: Mentor Press.
Trudeau, J. (March 30, 2020). Daily Covid-19 pandemic update speech. See https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-pandemic-covid-coronavirus-media-1.5516383
All photos © Kim Lenters