Swimming in the Gorge, SKAMpede Festival 2017, Victoria, BC (site-specific performance)
Performance: July 14-16, 2017
Swimming in the Gorge
There was once a time when the clean waters of the Gorge sparkled like a summer jewel in the minds of Victoria’s residents. Somewhere along the way this affection was lost in shadows of neglect. Will we ever swim in it again?
In this performance, the local history of a precious waterway is reimagined and recast under the Gorge Road bridge, encouraging viewers to open their hearts to these gorgeous waters and celebrate old swimming and leisure traditions.
After the establishment of Fort Victoria in 1843, the Gorge Waterway soon became a treasured recreation destination for swimming, camping, boating regattas, and many more summer delights. During the same period, the Gorge began transforming into the site of many industrial activities. Years later, after decades of unregulated pollution from industrial buildings, sewage, boating, and urban sources, the once-popular swimming and recreation site became a dumping ground. The residential areas surrounding the Gorge discharged their sewage directly into the waterway until 1955. Despite over a decade of successful cleanup efforts, the Gorge is still perceived as unsafe and polluted by the residents of Victoria. Few enjoy its pristine waters, and fewer still are aware of the Gorge’s spectacular history, both as a traditional food-gathering and spiritual place for Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations peoples, and as a swimming site in colonial times.
In 2017 at Victoria’s SKAMpede Festival, I decided to bring a forgotten story about the Gorge to life with shadow puppets. Swimming in the Gorge is about memory and how we reimagine local histories. My intention with this performance was to engage people’s historical imagination and stimulate discussion about the Gorge and the way it is perceived. The performance reinterprets the story of John Rowe and his son, Wesley. In 1994, the father and son initiated a heroic cleanup of the Gorge Waterway. The performance takes the form of a disgruntled father-son lecture. The father reminisces to his son about the good old days of the Gorge at the turn of the century. He explains the legend of Camosung and its significance for local Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations, and the importance of the Gorge as a spiritual and a historical food gathering site. He goes on tirades about the dwindling ecosystem and how it came to be neglected.
The performance took place beside the Gorge. On one side of the shadow tent, nestled just along the formerly contaminated Cecelia Creek, was the site of a major cleanup effort of the Veins of Life Watershed Society initiated by Rowe. On the other side, located right next to Selkirk Water, was the site of an old sawmill harking back to times when heavy industry was once the norm around Victoria’s waterways. Shadow set backgrounds were comprised of archival images of the Gorge courtesy of the Esquimalt Municipal Archives, among others. Throughout each day of the festival I ran the performance about seven to ten times, concluding each performance with health board statistics demonstrating that the Gorge is swimmable. I also displayed a projected poster invitation to join me for a swim at the 2017 Gorge Swim Fest.