Intersections: A Conversation with Dr. Cameron Cartiere about Public Art, Environmentalism, and Community Engagement

By Lori Goldstein and Sara Weintraub

Recently, we have witnessed a significant rise in the attention given to public art projects that focus on global environmental issues. While the intersection between public art and the environment is not necessarily new, the methodologies for bringing the environment to the forefront of both mainstream culture and local communities is a phenomenon that deserves special attention. Dr. Cameron Cartiere is a Professor of Public Art and Social Practice at Emily Carr University of Art + Design in Vancouver, BC and a practicing artist who engages directly with this discourse. She also serves as the co-editor-in-chief of the international peer-reviewed journal Public Art Dialogue. The following interview asks Dr. Cartiere to share her insight into the evolution of the field and her own work exploring environmentalism. As both a scholar and a practitioner, Cartiere discusses the methodologies that support her current public art projects, Border Free Bees, As the Crow Flies, and a new, as-yet untitled work that focuses on mining.

Border Free Bees is an arts-led research project collaborating with municipal governments, artists, writers, ecologists, and scientists to convert neglected greenways into pollinator pastures using public art as the driving force for sustainable ecological change. The research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHR), is based in the British Columbia cities of Richmond and Kelowna. In addition to the creation of pollinator pastures, the project includes workshops on how to identify types of bees, gallery installations of paper bumblebees, and public conversations.

As the Crow Flies is a public art project that brings creative connections to urban birds directly into the hands of the citizens of Vancouver. The community-engaged initiative consists of diverse artworks designed to engage and educate the public about what they can do to reverse environmental problems facing bird populations that include loss of biodiversity, climate change, and species decline. The projects, including Fledglings, Nesting Nests, and On the Wing, are hands-on temporary artworks that bring together and empower local communities to enact positive environmental changes on personal, community, and even national levels. Fledglings, discussed in this interview, invited community engagement in the creation of 6,000 ceramic baby crows, which represents the actual number of crows that migrate daily across Vancouver. Fledgings were numbered and then gifted to community members as part of the project.*

Sara Weintraub: We wanted to talk to you about this trend that we’re seeing of public art projects related to the environment. What is your take on the Venice Biennale and why are so many artists attempting to tackle climate change this year? Is it a response to the political climate or a mechanism for highlighting the urgency of global environmental issues?

Cameron Cartiere: I think that events like the Biennale are touch points for the larger arts community, but really this type of work has been happening in the public realm for quite a long time. You can look back on large-scale projects like Betsy Damon’s long-term Keepers of the Waters or Helen and Newton Harrison doing large-scale conceptual public projects since the late 1970s and into the 1980s. I think, in some ways, the larger art world has different trends and movements and it’s the culmination of so many environmental issues coming to the attention of those outside of the art world – it’s at this moment where all of these things are coming together. But the work has been going on for quite a long time.

SW: How do you think the work has changed? If it’s been coming out for quite some time, what’s new about the type of work that’s coming out now?

CC: I think in some ways it’s evolved with technology. We’re seeing works that are much more expansive in their technological presentation, but they’re not necessarily more expansive beyond what were already deep and embedded concepts that artists have been struggling with. It’s the form of the presentation [that has changed] – there are not necessarily any changes in what are the fundamental and hugely important topics that we have been grappling with.

While all of this technology can make the work more spectacular from the viewer’s perspective, and maybe by that extension more impactful or memorable, what is actually being talked about is something that’s so fundamental and deep-seated: a call back. A call back to respecting nature, a call back to a more egocentric perspective. It is an interesting connection but also a skewing of how we’re dealing with these topics.

I am working on a project now, as yet untitled, that involves mining in Canada. In British Columbia, where I am now, there is a lot happening around the extraction industries that is dividing people. People are passionately writing protest letters and things like that. They’re writing them on their Macbooks, but we’re not having that discussion about the technology – that the technology is dependent on mining, for example. And so it’s layered, it’s complex, and the work that I’m trying to do is to uncover those stories and those personal connections and how it’s not an “us versus them.”

It’s not black and white. We all have responsibility. We all absolutely should be out there doing our civic responsibility, and that looks different for different people. We can’t just set up these systems where we’re one against the other. I think that environmental projects particularly are best situated in this place, where people can view these projects sometimes at a distance, but they are still present [in that same space]. It is a public or an engaged setting that’s much more complex. They’re experiencing it physically – when you’re standing beside somebody else a conversation could happen. That’s not the same situation as a Twitter feud or letters to the editor. When visitors are standing there in the presence of the work among other people, a different type of conversation happens.

Lori Goldstein: A lot of the projects that you’ve been involved with, like the Crow Project, Border Free Bees, and potentially this mining project, are designed to prompt community participation as part of the actual artwork. We want to learn more about the choice to employ this strategy. What are your thoughts on projects that are focused on the environment? Are they better suited to be potentially impactful in both the outcome and the environmental footprint or sustained engagement over long periods of times if they provide this platform for engagement? You spoke before about the act of discussion and interaction with the work rather than just sort of seeing or reading and moving along…

CC: The first thing that I would say is we need to be careful when we talk about different approaches and different models because it’s too easy to be like, “oh, this is the way we do it.” Or, “that’s the way we do it.” I’m always going back to Harriet Senie’s wonderful piece that she wrote for Sculpture Magazine about evaluating public art, so to paraphrase, “What do you want the public art to do?” That fundamental question informs everything as I move forward. It informs the process that I want to use and how I’m thinking about how the project changes and evolves.

To me, that is the nature of public art and arts research. You don’t always know where you’re going to end up; you have to be open to how things can shift and move and to the opportunities that come along the way. But you still need to be constantly asking, what is it you want the public art to do? And maybe, what do you want the public art to do as it moves and evolves and changes? I spent five years working on Border Free Bees, beginning in 2015, with Nancy Holmes, an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Okanagan. Nancy is an amazing, award-winning poet. I’m an artist and here we are, artist and poet, teaching people about native pollinators.

Of course, we worked with amazing experts who focus on pollinators, including Dr. Elizabeth Elle at Simon Fraser University. As we talked with people and held bee ID workshops, which I never thought I would be doing, I would be able to turn the stereotype of an artist on its head. When participants would say, “This is really complex,” or, “I’m never going to get this.” It becomes, “You know, I never knew that there were so many bees. I just thought there were bumblebees and honeybees. And you’re telling me that there are 20,000 bee species on the planet, and 450 of them live in BC?” I’d say, “Remember, it may be ‘Dr. Cameron Cartiere,’ but I’m not a scientist. I’m an artist and the Nancy is a poet, and we’re teaching you this work. We can all do this work.”

Bridgeport Industrial Park Pollinator Pasture. 2018. Photo by Nick Strauss.


I think that there’s quite a fear around science. And part of that fear is the mystery. And so, part of that approach is being open to what people are saying and how the needs of those people evolve. Part of how both Nancy and I work, which is why our work complements each other’s, is that we’re interested in stories. For instance, with Border Free Bees, when somebody says, “I’m terrified of bees!” Or, “I hate bees.” I ask them, “Tell me your bee sting story.” Then we talk a little bit about it, and now I know enough to be able to go, “That probably wasn’t a bee, that was a wasp.” 

That leads into a conversation where I get to talk to them about why wasps are important, even when they might be annoying at your barbecue at the end of August. That methodology and the way of working, where you’re talking through stories and making it personal, allows you to unpack these larger ecological issues. For example, you’re able to tell somebody that one out of every three bites of food you eat is thanks to a bee. If a scientist tells you the same thing, you might hear it, but it might also be layered in all these other things that you put up your own barriers around.

I went to see Dr. Elle do an amazing talk about why bees are important. She was trying to convince her audience how cute bumblebees were. After the talk I went up and met her, and I said, “Your problem is actually a public relations problem – it’s a design problem, and that’s what I do.” I handed her my card and started the conversation. Dr. Elle has amazing things to say and she says them really well, but there’s a certain place where her expertise ends, and an artist’s or designer’s expertise can take up the cause. Collectively, we can just accomplish so much more.

Part of the work and the methodology is creating access points to this world that is largely based in science and is seemingly prohibitive to people that hear that word “science” or “environment” and think they already don’t know enough. Or they already believe one thing or another and need another methodology to become part of the work and engage with it.

Sometimes the science is just so overwhelming; the bees are dying and they’re taking us with them! That’s one of the brilliant things Dr. Elle did in that introduction. She said, “Basically there are three reasons that we’re losing bees: disease, pesticides, and habitat loss. Here’s the one you can do something about habitat loss…” There was this collective sigh of relief in the room! When I teach environmental ethics in my classroom it can be so overwhelming for students. They think we have to solve all the problems, and I tell them we don’t have to solve all the problems. If one student is passionate about microplastics, another is passionate about bees, and another about migration, each can focus on those individual problems. Collectively we can have an impact in our own fields and collectively we can have a big impact.

The arts can literally show us things that we might not otherwise take in, in the same way. So, when you talk about multiples (I love working in multiples), like, we just lost 10,000 bees! People might think in the size of a hive. It doesn’t seem like that much, but when you walk into a gallery where there are 10,000 bumblebees made from laser cut seed paper, you’re surrounded by this number and you take it in, in a completely different way.

I brought this idea of the physicality of numbers and the loss of those numbers into the As the Crow Flies project that began in 2018. Depending on the time of year, there can be anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 crows crossing the skies of Vancouver every night. They are flying back to their rookery and, not unlike bees in Vancouver, people are very split about how they feel about crows. Some people love the crows – at one point last year a local crow almost became our unofficial ambassador of the city. We wanted to be able to talk about the fact that we have this crow presence and that we share our city with these creatures. Since a lot of people also hate crows, we would again ask them why.

They usually have the equivalent of a sting story. They’d have a dive bomb story. They’re walking down the street and the crows were dive-bombing them. I would ask, “What time of year was that?” Oftentimes it was spring. I would respond by telling them that young crows, known as fledglings, are learning to fly in the spring. And did they know that the mortality rate of fledglings is around 50%? That suddenly changes the conversation. This is partly why we recreated 6,000 individually numbered ceramic fledglings. Each was created by members of the community. They’re intentionally made of ceramic. They’re fragile. When you gift one to a child and along the way it breaks, that’s, as they say, “a teachable moment.”

Oftentimes large-scale works that you see in the public realm are really technological, or they’re fabricated in some amazing studio somewhere and have significant visual impact when they arrive. That can be an incredibly positive thing, but it’s only one way of working within a whole spectrum. I think the process is really quite key.

We had amazing possibilities to get this [Fledglings project] engaged with the public. We became an incredibly mobile unit. Each of the little crows was made by members of the public from a press mold, and we had a production line system that we could take to community centers located across a 10-kilometer area across the city, an area that the crows would cross every night. However, working with the community in this way didn’t instigate an immediate response. You didn’t have that immediate gratification popping up. You used the press mold to create your raw clay fledgling, but you didn’t get to take it home with you, the project team took it away. We had to think about how we talk to not just children about this, but adults as well – about the fact that they were making a gift (the fledgling) for somebody they never had met, and somebody else was doing the same for them.

All those clay crows came back with me to the university once they were molded. I had stacks and stacks and stacks of them in my office drying. Afterwards, each one was dipped in a black underglaze. We loaded those up, 800 at a time, into one of our massive kilns and fired all of them.

Fledglings (detail). Photo by Geoff Campbell. Courtesy of Cameron Cartiere. 2018.


The labor involved in this process was something [relatable] to the labor of raising a fledgling – the labor that it takes to exist on the planet – all of these layers add up in terms of how people are participating. People became quite attached to “their” crow, which they knew by its individual number. I literally numbered probably 5,492 of those 6,000 birds. People wanted to know what their crow’s number was, even though they knew they probably wouldn’t find that fledgling again. If you were at your community center, you might have come to one of our workshops. You might have made a few fledglings. And then, two months later you come to take your kid to their hockey practice or to go do your gym workout at a local community center, and 800 ceramic fledglings would have landed in the lobby. Basically, you could just take one.

Fledglings Numbered (detail). Photo by Geoff Campbell. Courtesy of Cameron Cartiere.


That was one of three projects we did under the banner of As the Crow Flies. I think it’s important to note there wasn’t just one way to approach the subject, and there wasn’t just one story to tell. It was an opportunity to bring in other practitioners, other ways of working, and other challenges. As a creative team we were able to ask ourselves other questions: How can we teach people about these different complexities of habitat loss or the idea of that fledglings and their nests – that urban crows build their nests much higher than rural crows, so you might not necessarily see them. (That’s related to the dive bombing.) So, we’re unpacking these layers while at the same time seizing opportunities. The International Ornithological Congress was coming to Vancouver. It was only the second time it’s ever been in Canada and the first time it had ever been in Vancouver. We had to ask ourselves, what do we want the public art to do in this case? We also wanted to talk to a very specific audience that was attending, and to grab a moment of their time.
Kerrisdale Community Centre Summer 2018 Recreation Guide (


SW: We want to talk a bit more about the benefits of using public art as a vehicle for environmental education. You’ve just discussed this a little bit, but could you talk about the communal process of making public art that helps make the work somewhat more successful when it deals with the environment and related issues?

CC: I don’t know that we know if it’s more successful or not – say the long-term work I do around bees versus a one-off, large-scale sculpture someone does in the public realm – because in some ways we don’t know the impacts yet. We don’t know how it’s affecting the people who see it. In one instance I worked with the city of Richmond, BC and our projects helped make some policy changes. They’re now building different pollinator corridors and things like that. These are immediate things that I can measure, but maybe a child sees the one large-scale public installation and that child goes on to be the scientist who discovers the cure for eradication of mites that are infecting honeybees.  That would also have a huge impact. You just don’t know.

Again, I would say it’s a way of working. Certainly, this way of working with Border Free Bees has quite a ripple effect. As part of Border Free Bees, Nancy [Holmes] and I planned our own obsolescence from the beginning. This project, which received amazing funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council here in Canada, was a partnership development grant. I wrote the grant and in essence partnered my institution, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, with the city of Richmond, which is just south of Vancouver. At the same time, at the University of British Columbia Okanogan, Nancy partnered her institution with the city of Kelowna, which is where that university is located. From the beginning, to make it a real partnership, the cities had to be on board with the fact that this is a legacy project, meaning that we could start it and work with them to develop it, but then at a certain point it was theirs. That also means that as an artist, I had to let it go.

We worked with amazing people. Nancy and I both worked with Public Art Departments in those cities as well as with the Parks, Sustainability, and Engineering Departments. Sometimes we would get people in a room together that didn’t know that they were actually working on similar projects or initiatives.  Again, I think that’s an interesting role that artists can have in this kind of social practice and public engagement. We often can bring people together who have very similar interests but haven’t found each other.

LG: I want to sort of bring it to the personal. Because a lot of the work that you do is for the wider community – the environment – these are really big picture ideas, but you touched on it at the beginning of the interview when you talked about Border Free Bees. You are a doctor, but you’re an artist, right? You’re not approaching these topics with a Ph.D. in biology. So why is it that you decided to tackle issues about the environment with your art practice?

CC: I don’t know that I have an easy answer. I think in part it has to do with my educational journey and some of my early studies while getting my BFA in sculpture. Some of my early influences were the Harrisons and – I don’t think he would ever call himself an environmental artist – but Isamu Noguchi – that quiet reflection and understanding of nature. Of course, when Andy Goldsworthy hit the art world, I thought his work was just so poetic. There’s something about the poetry and the stories about how we connect to nature. I’m really interested in the stories. I think sometimes we look at an artist’s trajectory and we try to understand the logic of it.

With my newest research on mining it’s, “How did she get from bees to birds to mines?” One way is the canary in the coal mine, obviously, but what really interests me is how present the subject really is. We see these historic images of coal miners and it seems so distant, like in the distant past, but I was really intrigued by the fact that the last working canaries in coal mines in England were not decommissioned until 1986. At that time there were about 200 canaries still working in the coal mines. Over that next year, in 1987, I think they just retired them. I don’t think anything really negative happened to the canaries, but it was interesting that they referred to the canaries as a redundancy. The canaries were made redundant. One reason was that they were using more new technologies. They also mentioned cost reasons, but it really did make me wonder about how much it cost to maintain a canary. More deeply interesting, though, was the connection – the strong connection that the miners themselves had to those canaries. The miners would take a canary down into the coal mine, and they’d have these little respirators so that if something happened to the canary, they could resuscitate them.

At the end of every day they would put the canaries into these little oxygen respirators to rejuvenate them. And in some ways, it made me wonder if they were taking better care of the canaries than they actually were of themselves. You see these images from the Smithsonian or from the mining museums where they would have a reliquary of a canary: “The image below is of little Joe who worked for three years in the mine.” He was a colleague, right? I think it’s actually really easy to create those metaphors and do a public artwork like they have for the Mining Memorial in Trinidad, Colorado. Certainly, that really touches people’s hearts.

That would be a really easy metaphor for me to keep going in my own work with birds, but part of what I’m doing is building off those methodologies that I’ve been using, which is to work with other people and to not think that I, as the artist, have the solution or that I, as the artist, can come in and see this in a different way and just fix it. Instead, it’s that I, as an artist, have a role with other people to help unpack these complex questions. How can we move forward together to create solutions that are truly solutions, and are not just raising more questions? I believe that there are solutions that we can come up with together that allow us to, as a society, keep moving forward and growing without sacrificing our planet to do it right.

For the mining project, I’m working with a restoration ecologist, and Nancy Holmes has joined me again, as well as another colleague who is an amazing illustrator. We’re down in the mine. We’re working with a gold mine outside of Kamloops. It’s the really early days where we’re not quite sure what’s going to happen.

One of the amazing things that’s already happened is that we’re working with this wonderful ecologist, Lauchlan Fraser, who is a professor at Thompson Rivers University, and who has been working with this particular mine for over eight years. When we did this tour, we were down in the heart of the mine, and Dr. Fraser said to me, “You know, eight years I’ve been working with this mine and it took the artists to get me actually underground.” Because as a restoration ecologist, he was really dealing with what was happening at the surface.

I remember laughing and thinking, “But you’re a dirt guy?” He just said that it took this project of ours to happen. He’s, of course, been back to the mine and done site visits above ground, but that experience below ground is one you can’t unsee. You can’t un-inform how you move forward. I have no idea where this research is going to go. I’m sure multiples are involved just because we have our ways of working, but that’s also being open to possibilities. We don’t necessarily have the answer. We can’t go in and say, “I know, and you just need to see it my way.” Instead, we say, “I’m going to notice things, and you’re going to notice things.” When we come back together, we share that way of seeing, and out of that we create something different.


*This interview has been lightly edited throughout.

Fall 2019 | Volume 11, Issue 2
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