Artists Reflect on Water Scarcity in a Gentrifying Montana Town

Ann Carlson, “Symphonic Body/Water,” Paradise Valley, MT (2018) (photo by Elly Stormer Vadseth)

BOZEMAN, Montana — In the valley town of Bozeman, Montana, home to some 48,000 people, demand for water is set to outstrip supply as soon as 2030. Farmers, landowners, conservationists, and city officials have been working for years to solve the impending water scarcity problem — and now local artists are joining the struggle.

This summer, Mountain Time Arts (MTA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the production of public art in southwest Montana, is staging its second annual Waterworks performance series. Featuring collaborations between artists, ranchers, ecologists, and activists, as well as between indigenous and non-indigenous communities, all of the Waterworks performances address the issue of water as a dwindling resource in a rapidly growing western town. In the wake of political conflicts over water in Flint and Standing Rock — the Lakota phrase “Mní wichóní” (“Water is life”) has become a common refrain at protests nationwide — the series seeks to preemptively draw attention to the area’s water issues before they reach crisis levels.

On August 23 and 24, in the bucolic Missouri Headwaters State Park, at the point where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin rivers merge, MTA will stage 2018’s final Waterworks performance. Called “Cherry River: Where the Rivers Mix,” named after the indigenous place name for the East Gallatin River, it’s a collaboration between the musician and scholar Shane Doyle, a member of the Crow tribe, and Mary Ellen Strom, the creative director of MTA. The event will feature a waterborne concert by the Northern Cree Singers, an acclaimed powwow drum and vocal group from Alberta, Canada, accompanied by Metís fiddlers and the park’s natural soundscape.

Mary Ellen Strom, “Flow,” Old Story Mill, Bozeman, MT (2017) (photo by Mary Ellen Strom)

Unlike Flint or Standing Rock, Bozeman is wealthy and predominately white, rich in financial and natural resources, yet water scarcity is likely to affect the town in the near future. This threat has driven artists to follow the lead of indigenous water protectors by thinking in terms of watershed boundaries rather than city limits. The local population is both growing and transforming, from a predominantly agricultural community to a population of tech-workers, real estate developers, and other free agents, many of whom are drawn to the region’s recreational resources and its relatively low cost of living compared to the Bay Area. Still, the audience for MTA’s Waterworks has been made up predominantly of the former category: old-guard Montanans who have been in the area for decades, if not for generations — or, in the case of Native participants, millennia — and who have a vested interest in maintaining local environmental health and accessibility as populations grow and housing costs skyrocket.

One tactic of MTA has been to highlight how water stands in for the social bonds that make collective survival possible in a region known for its harsh winters and dry summers. Last summer’s culminating Waterworks event, “Gabriel Canal,” took place on a historic ranch and site of a buffalo jump — a land formation used by Native Americans to kill bison by driving limited numbers over a cliff. The piece focused on agricultural irrigation practices, material presented by Strom in her idiosyncratic form, which I have been referring to as the “pioneer-opera/tableau-vivant.” Participants were loaded into school buses and dropped off beside a regulating structure for the canal that irrigates the Kelly ranch, where they were welcomed by the Bear Canyon Drummers, whose traditional drumming transitioned into a multi-group performance using metal pipes and water as percussive surfaces.

Circle dance celebrating the opening of Bently Spang’s War Shirt #6, installed in the Dry Creek Schoolhouse, as part of Mountain Time Arts’ “Wetlands” (2017) (photo by Mary Ellen Strom)

Participants were then divided into tour groups led by community members with different forms of expertise; I had a graduate student in Native American Studies and an environmental scientist as my leaders. These agents shepherded viewers through various tableau based on historic photographs that marked highlights of the site: a lone photographer with vintage camera poised on the edge of the buffalo jump, a trio of men rhythmically mowing a field with scythes while a geologist explains the importance of beavers to drought resistance, and a 19th-century homestead.

All of this led to the dramatic culminating event, featuring a chorus clad in vintage seed bags and two cowpoke dancers performing compositions inspired by interviews with farmers in the area. During this final piece, the dancer Laine Rettmer mouthed comically along with a local rancher explaining how he meets his neighbors at 6am at a café every morning to anticipate and coordinate their water needs. It’s this kind of collaboration — among ranchers, geologists, beavers, and birds — that is invisible to the uninitiated, but crucial to the lives of human and nonhuman Montanans.

Mary Ellen Strom, “Gabriel Canal,” Kelly Ranch, Bozeman, MT (2017) (photo by Jason Burlage)

Mountain Time uses such tours as a means to deliver educational content and build community amongst its participants. A spectacular video sculpture by Bently Spang, “War Shirt #6”, was sited in a lonely one-room schoolhouse in Belgrade, adjacent to a restored wetland at Pheasant Farms. Guided tours of the wetlands preceded a community meal and circle dance celebrating the artist that enlivened this defunct architectural form while drawing attention to its role in the colonization of native peoples.

For a recent Waterworks event, “Symphonic Body/Water,” renowned choreographer Ann Carlson observed the banal movements of various kinds of workers in the Gallatin Valley — including agricultural producers, politicians, anglers, environmentalists, business leaders, and scientists — who then performed movements based their typical workaday gestures in a near-silent “symphony,” as a set of homing doves swooped dramatically around them. The form of the piece drew on a long history of mundane movement in modern dance, but the payoff came after the performance, during individual conversations with the 54 local performers about the origin of their actions and how they fit into their embodied experience of labor. In an area that can be isolating for its heteronormative focus on home life and individual freedom, these kinds of events enable a communitarian experience under the aegis of conservation, agriculture, and decolonization.

There is a certain pastoral romanticism to these performances — the gurgling streams, the birds, the music, the aerial ballet. The MTA’s inaugural event, in 2016, was a video projection, called “Flow,” by Mary Ellen Strom, on the silos of Bozeman’s Old Story Mill, the site of a nineteenth century water-powered mill and former wetland, now slated for restoration as part of a new park. The film combined shots of flowing water and waving native grasses with grainy footage of cowboys and trains. These sorts of events are pitched perfectly to an audience that has little access to contemporary art, but that hungers for the kind of uplifting communal experience that site-specific performance can provide.

Despite the thoroughly local purview of Mountain Time Arts, its name points to the dearth of art infrastructure, including media coverage, in this large swath of the country. With a few notable exceptions, such as The Aspen Institute and the vibrant art community in Denver, the mountain time zone has been less connected to the global contemporary art world than it has to a smaller network of craft producers, especially ceramicists, fostered at residencies like the Archie Bray Foundation, Red Lodge Clay, and Anderson Ranch. The local and handmade, while more recently taken mainstream by the radical craft movement, has enjoyed uninterrupted patronage in a region that often prides itself on its disinterest in the fashion, politics, and lifestyle of the rest of the country.

Nevertheless, there has been a sudden uptick in ambitious art activity in Southwest Montana, driven by development, art tourism, and ecological concerns. Some of this new work is fueled by a desire to preserve the aesthetic character of an endangered agrarian landscape. In 2016, the sculpture center and classical concert venue Tippet Rise was created by Peter and Cathy Halstead, who converted an 11,500-acre working sheep ranch into an attraction for art tourists on the model of Storm King Sculpture Park, but set against the dramatic backdrop of the Absaroka mountain range. The owners’ aesthetic preferences lean toward mid-century abstract art, rather than the more obviously environmentalist work shown by its northern neighbor Sculpture in the Wild. The effect is something like an animal sanctuary for modernist sculpture. Nevertheless, Tippet Rise combines sustainable ranching, sustainable architecture, and landscape design, all of which is made possible by a conservation easement that restricts new construction on the site, protecting the habitats of deer, trout, and waterfowl at a moment when developers are eyeing ecologically and historically significant sites across the state. Appropriately enough, the easement for the Tippet Rise property was initially granted in the 1980s to the local landscape painter Isabelle Johnson.

On the other side of economic spectrum, the scrappy Imagine Butte Resource Center (IBRC), run by the artist Olivia Everett, is a community arts center of the sort common in post-industrial cities but rare in a rural state like Montana. Sited in the artist’s hometown of Butte, the center provides studio and exhibition space and acts as an advocacy organization for environmental justice. A far cry from the untrammeled beauty of Tippet Rise, Butte is a spectacular example of the industrial sublime, a moonscape of strangely colored earth marked with pits and grooves.  Once a booming mining town, the now depopulated city is the home of the nation’s largest superfund site that includes the infamous Berkeley Pit, and its small population struggles with related public health issues and unemployment. The town is peppered with mine tailing sites that threaten to contaminate groundwater to the detriment of the entire Upper Clark Fork watershed, though not, significantly, the Upper Missouri watershed, which feeds Bozeman. The IBRC has provided a space for keeping Butte’s public informed and involved in the negotiations surrounding the cleanup, and for processing the mental and physical toll of extractive industries on the community.

Bently Spang, “War Shirt #6,” installed in the Dry Creek Schoolhouse, Belgrade, MT (2017) (photo by Mary Ellen Strom)

Together with Mountain Time Arts, these organizations attest to the fact that in 2018, environmental endangerment, the perils of post-industrial toxicity, climate change, and population growth are becoming primary movers of artistic production and arts funding in Montana. How Strom’s romantic regionalism will fit into an urban and coastal vision of contemporary performance practice is unclear. But then again, I’m not sure that’s the point. Perhaps the purpose is closer to that of the Northern Cheyenne war shirt, a garment-like object designed to protect the wearer in battle. The artist Bently Spang, who references the war shirt frequently in his sculptures, describes it as such: “They were community-based objects, they encompassed community values, and they acknowledged and tapped into these other realms of our existence that could protect the community as a whole.”

Mary Ellen Strom, “Gabriel Canal”, Kelly Ranch, Bozeman, MT (2017) (photo by Jason Burlage)

Cherry River: Where the Rivers Mix,” part of Mountain Time Arts’ Waterworks performance series, takes place at Missouri Headwaters State Park on August 23 and 24. 

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