Transportation has a huge impact on daily life, and yet most people overlook its influence. This, according to Edmonton-born Scott Conarroe, a featured photographer at the annual Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. His photographs have been curated into a stunning exhibition called Scott Conarroe: Canada By Rail and By Sea. Capturing vast stretches of North America, Conarroe travelled the continent to systematically document railways, ports, coastlines, and their immediate environments, and the resulting photos reveal a juxtaposition between industrial structures and sprawling natural horizons. The slideshow above offers a taste of the collection. Below, Conarroe expains his inspiration and thoughts on the project.
Scott Conarroe, Fog, House, Halifax NS, 2005, inkjet print. Courtesy of the artist and the Stephen Bulger Gallery
What inspired you to create Canada By Rail and By Sea?
“Canada By Rail and By Sea” contains selections from two series: By Rail and By Sea. Railways were a defining technology in the way our civilization developed; a study based around them could easily contain, or at least refer to, all the disparate narratives that inform how we function today. On one hand, I thought it was interesting how ubiquitous and loaded railways are in North America. On the other, it's also somehow telling how overlooked they are. I wanted to explore the relationship between how we live and the stories we tell ourselves about how we live. By Sea covers the same basic material, but instead of following lines of infrastructure back and forth across the continent, it traces our coastline perimeter. Instead of looking backwards, it anticipates a nostalgia about this moment when we know the climate is changing and sea levels are rising but we've yet to act on this knowledge.
What did/do you hope to achieve?
I set out hoping to develop a clearer understanding of why North American civilization is the way it is. I don't know if I've achieved that, but I at least have a more nuanced sense of various regional contexts and how they feed into a larger meta-project. The exhibition itself is RIC curator Gaëlle Morel's synthesis of my “research”.
What were the challenges involved in travelling across the country to document the railways/ports/etc?
Mostly it was a real pleasure and a privilege to be able to make these photographs. The challenges -weather, early mornings, feeling conspicuous with my big odd camera in front of strangers- were not unique to this work. I suppose the most difficult aspect of this work had to do with making relevant “Contemporary Art” photographs from two extremely hackneyed tropes. Railways and sunsets at the seaside are both great motifs, but photos of each get generated more or less continuously. The challenge was making pictures with autonomy and their own integrity.
Has this project changed the way you look at the Canadian connection to transportation systems? If so, how?
It has. This work, and subsequent projects about China's high-speed rail expansion and how Europe works, have made me increasingly skeptical about the conventional wisdom that a functioning rail or hybrid system couldn't work for us because of large distances, low population density, etc. I think it's more a matter of the attitudes we hold and what we as a society decide to value. Canada will spend $45.8 billion on fighter jets over the next few decades. In 2013-14 we spent $24 million promoting the tar sands abroad and $16.5 million to tell ourselves about them. We could support a transportation system that functions as a conduit towards all sorts of economic and social enterprises. Other countries do. In Switzerland rather than running fleets of school buses that are separate from other transportation schemes, students simply ride regular transit so that even lightly used rural areas are serviced twice a day. We could be a lot more thoughtful in deciding how to get around.
What's next for you? Any other upcoming projects you're excited about?
Well, By Rail and By Sea was released this year by Black Dog Publishing. It's my first book so I'm excited about that. The work I'm doing these days looks at the moveable borders Alps nations devised in response to glacial melting and watershed drift. It's such an elegant idea, plus the locations are stunning. I'm pretty excited about this project too. Stephen Bulger Gallery will show Frontière, Frontiera, Grenze in 2016.
The exhibit runs from April 29–June 28 at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto, Ontario.