Surfing Underground By Stokley Towles – Dynamic Environment Exhibition

October 31st, 2019

Stokley Towles gives the public a glimpse into the working lives of Calgary’s Water Services employees through his performative piece Surfing Underground. This work was developed while participating in the Watershed+ Dynamic Environment Lab where he was embedded into the UEP Department.

Towles is a storyteller fascinated with the seemingly mundane. For the last decade, the artist has scrutinized various municipal systems that allow a city to thrive while going largely unnoticed by the public. During his time in the UEP Department, Towles’ focused on its employees and wanted to answer the question: What is it like to spend your career working in a hole? Over two years, Towles followed construction crews tasked with repairing water and sewer pipes listening to their stories and insights.  

Surfing Underground combines their anecdotes with images and artifacts in a compelling performance that reveals the hardships and nuances of working underground. Touching on a multitude of issues ranging from personal space: “Working in such close proximity, you get to know the other crew members, the shampoo they use, their deodorant”; to things like safety: “Place a pebble in the crack of a dirt wall. If the pebble moves, the wall is coming down”. Towles’ performance provides an intimate stage for getting to know the people who care for our infrastructure. He prompts audiences to look at the mundane and scratch beneath its surface to see the remarkable.

This work is on view at Contemporary Calgary as part of the Dynamic Environment exhibition until January 5, 2020.

Photographs courtesy Jeffrey Heyden-Kaye.