Exploring the St. Lawrence River through the performing arts

The St. Lawrence River is an immense theater of activity beyond our comprehension. The size of the river does not allow to apprehend it in its entirety. Even if we were to gather all the scientific, economic, historical, cultural, industrial, political and logistical knowledge we have about the river, it would be impossible to understand its dynamics as a whole.

If we cannot grasp the true scope of the St. Lawrence through science, can the performing arts allow us to see the big picture? This article traces the course of the ecH₂osystem project where, through circus arts, I try to express the complexity of what connects us to the ecosystem of the St. Lawrence through the people who work on its waters.

This article is part of our series The St. Lawrence River: In Depth. Do not miss the new articles on this mythical river of remarkable beauty. Our experts look at its fauna, its flora, its history and the challenges it faces. This series is brought to you by The Conversation.

ecH₂osystem is a documentary-type maritime research-creation project. The approach is at the origin of my doctorate in studies and practices of the arts at UQAM and various scientific and artistic projects that combine 20 years in the performing arts with my long-standing fascination for the maritime world.

Research-creation has a dual objective: the production of a work and the knowledge acquired during its creation. ecH₂osystem mobilizes knowledge, facilitates intersectorality, meshes the arts and sciences and questions the arts as a mode of knowledge from an ecosystem of which we are part. From these reflections, I proposed in 2020 to realize maritime research-creation in the sense that the waters themselves would be the engine of creation, unlike a project that starts from a concept, a text, an aesthetic, a performance or a staging.

To change direction

In 2017, I left a career punctuated by various creative projects and travels around the world to turn to the Saint-Laurent.

people in a cage on the end of a crane attached to a ship
Sampling sea ice aboard the CCGS Amundsen, a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.
(Genevieve Dupéré), Provided by the author

Two things motivated my decision. In 2016, following the creation of Luzia, from Cirque du Soleil, I took a break from my theatrical work for a few weeks to cross the Panama Canal to the Equator as a crew member on a ship. One day, during a stopover, Gorgon’s science team invited me into the field. I was swimming towards the island when two jets of water sprang up. I was surprised by two whales and, not wearing a life jacket, I almost drowned. I have never forgotten this immense lesson.

The second element is related to the maritime first stage project on which I worked. Avudo was a large-scale project by the Compagnia Finzi Pasca which was part of the festivities surrounding the 375th anniversary of Montreal. As director of artistic and historical content, I spent three years researching to link my synopsis and the colors of the river.

Throughout this process, I was engrossed in a historical perspective of the river. But what about the St. Lawrence today?

Thousands of memories

Between 2017 and 2022, I set out to explore the river in the Gulf of St. Lawrence aboard various fishing vessels, research vessels, bulk carriers, ferries, tugs, barges and even a tractor operating on part of the coastline. between the extreme limits of high and low tides called the intertidal zone.

Five years of research have allowed me to work with more than 300 partners from marine and freshwater sciences, fisheries and maritime and port industries. They included representatives from different research groups, government departments, corporations, First Nations, harbor authorities, institutes, networks, municipalities and family traditions. They covered all generations, from teachers to students trained in the latest technologies. They contributed to the fabric of the story by passing on their knowledge and experience, as well as by the links forged throughout the project. I literally collected thousands of memories during my interactions with them.

person suspended on a giant wheel at the end of a crane
The O of ecH₂osystem is an innovative maritime acrobatic device.
(Genevieve Dupéré), Provided by the author

I recorded these plots of experience that brought together maritime, scientific and fisheries knowledge in real time. On a soundtrack composed of the voices of my many collaborators, recorded on site, acrobatic maneuvers transport the spectators to a port, a laboratory, a ship’s deck or, for example, to a winter scientific mission of the Réseau maritime de Québec, to edge of the CCGS icebreaker Amundsenthe moment oceanographers discovered a (rare) halibut larva in their sampling net.

The O of ecH₂osystema single device

In order to transport the river to the stage, I came up with the idea of ​​a maritime acrobatic vessel. As a researcher at the Center for Research, Innovation and Transfer in Circus Arts (CRITAC), I designed the O D’ecH₂osystem in 2018. The O is a wheel four meters in diameter that can be placed, using a crane, on the deck of a ship, a wharf or on the banks of large and small municipalities along the shores of the St. Lawrence. The water in the background becomes the heart of the real-time narrative.

In 2020, the creation of the O brought together an intersectoral research team and partners including the Quebec Maritime Network, Doorspec, Multi-Électronique and the Groupe Océan shipyard where this unique device was built. Tests on the O in the summer of 2022 marked the beginning of a new phase of the project, supported by the CALQ, the CAC, the NSERC Innovation Program and others.

people working on the design of a wheel
The creation of the O brought together an intersectoral research team and partners including CRITAC, the Quebec Maritime Network, Doorspec, Multi-Électronique (MTE) and the Ocean Group.
(Genevieve Dupéré), Provided by the author

This new phase allowed a series of collaborative work residencies where scientists became co-choreographers, fishermen co-directors and sailors co-drama writers.

From the river to the spectator and from the spectator to the river

ecH₂osystem does not explain the disproportionate size of the St. Lawrence ecosystem. He seeks to stage it by transferring the know-how of his many actors. If the O is hoisted to the top of a crane, the acrobat becomes tiny. At 20 meters high, the water column becomes vertiginous. We instinctively hold our breath. If the wind picks up, the sensation increases, even if the acrobat is in a harness and all safety measures are taken by the crew of the O.

Drawing on contemporary documentary theories and the writings of director Peter Brook, the performing arts have the ability to intersect with reality and go beyond words, data or representation. In 1989, filmmaker Pierre Perrault searched for a present tense in the river, asking, “Does it even exist? The arts become a lens that allows us to circumscribe life by transposing it to an intelligible scale.

person on a houseboat seen from above in winter
Five years of research have allowed me to work with more than 300 partners from marine and freshwater sciences, fishing and the maritime and port industry.
(Genevieve Dupéré), Provided by the author

My first weeks of marine acrobatic exploration in Sept-Îles, Pointe-aux-Trembles, Rimouski and Rivière-au-Renard showed promising preliminary results. This exploration will continue in the summer of 2023 in different riverside municipalities so that the following year I can mesh the different scenes that have been co-orchestrated with collaborators. The objective of this first show, intended for the general public, will be to reflect the St. Lawrence on a larger scale.

By seeking to highlight the links between the river and the spectator and between the spectator and the river, ecH₂osystem is interested in the way in which research-creation invites us to represent our links with an ecosystem “in which we live, not as spectators, but as participants”.

The waters of the St. Lawrence are home to microscopic shrimp that are gobbled up by the largest giants on the planet. These shrimp flow from melting glaciers into the faucets that millions of us use every day. Over the coming decades, this knowledge will ecH₂osystem from the currents of the Great Lakes to the Arctic, back to the stage, to the spectators who participate in this ecosystem.