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This project was successfully funded on July 2, 2015

Confluence: streamwater, handwriting and urban curbs

by Todd Gilens


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In my artworks, I borrow lecture halls, public transit vehicles, nursery propagation houses and other existing structures, adding images that make their meanings more legible. This new project emerged from visits to ecological field stations, where I compared my methods to those of field scientists’ and considered how both could inform our understanding of critical urban systems.

“Confluence” will use the tops of urban curbs as a space to communicate with pedestrians about flowing water, stream science and the urbanization of landscapes. Using script fonts derived from local historical people’s handwriting, texts will be cut from bright yellow reflective traffic-marking tape and laid down along a mile of curbs, zigzagging from block to block on routes that follow the street grid overlay of former stream channels.

Tributaries at the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountains join and gather to provide the water we use throughout the state. I’ll be writing the texts using scientific descriptions and interview quotations about these streams, but speaking in a familiar voice to engage readers in short passages and build a story through the full length. Urban curbs are a way to bring research on alpine streams together with pedestrians in public space where storm water is now conducted into pipes and disappears underground. Installations are being developed for Reno, the Town of Mammoth Lakes and San Francisco – representing the three main directions of water flow from the Sierras and addressing distinct urban cultures.

The first phase of research will take place June and July at Digital Arts Studios in Belfast, Northern Ireland where I’ll develop the process of turning handwriting into digital fonts, using local authors’ hands and writing my own reflections on land-water relationships in Belfast. This work has been funded through a UK arts grant and Digital Arts Studios.

In August I hope to focus on the Sierras, working alongside field scientists out of two University of California ecological field stations – Sagehen Meadows near Truckee, and Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Laboratory near Mammoth Lakes. My time will include literature reviews, interviews and field work with researchers to understand the language, methods and motivations of stream science, as well as how streams are responding to climate changes.

I will also survey pathways for the installations in Mammoth Lakes and Reno and meet with regulatory agencies, with whom I have had encouraging conversations already. Local archives will also be identified where I can find historical handwriting samples: the running hand of script is a corollary to water flow and puts an individual voice into the communication of ideas. Research, then writing, then installations, which will happen as permits and foundation funding allow in 2016 and 2017. The approach could then be carried to other cities.

Though there are many messages and sub-messages to the work, it should be surprising, unlikely, informative and beautiful. This effort is also meant to encourage connections between the arts and natural sciences as well as between artists and civic agencies. But critical to the installations is the planning and research of this summer.

Please help me if you can. I need to get to the research this August during the field season of the scientists, and so I can prepare materials and permits for the following spring. My minimum goal will cover the costs of travel, time in Mammoth Lakes and Reno, and fees for staying at the research stations. The stretch goal will allow me to pay myself an honorarium and support the archive research, writing and permitting phase of the project.

Thank you for your interest and support!

    • December 28, 2015 Todd Gilens Artist

      A Project Newsletter is now being sent out every month or so. To view past or request future issues, please go to

    • June 25, 2015 Sharona Tsubota Community Member

      Todd, this is great! Thanks for the updates. I'm curious to see the "compressed energy" of Rodgers' original handwriting, to compare it with your test. Can you please show us both? Maybe you could copy a sentance in the new font. I look forward to the next update!

    • June 07, 2015 Todd Gilens Artist

      An extra wonderful thank you to everyone who has contributed or commented: the minimum goal has been passed so the project will be funded! If you use Facebook or know of others who might find the project of interest, please let them know. Additional funding will support the writing, permitting and technical work this fall. I have been setting up my plans for field work in the Sierras now, reserving time at Sagehen Creek Field Station by Truckee and Reno, and SNARL (Sierra Nevada Aquatic Research Lab) near Mammoth Lakes. I'll post here again on the details when I'm there in August. But tomorrow morning I leave to get the work started in Belfast. Very warmly, thanks again for helping me realize this remarkable opportunity.