Friday, April 9, 2010

The Great Divide Between Function and Art

Our blog post discusses the significance of “The Great Divide Waterfall” on Edmonton’s High Level bridge. Built in 1980 by Peter Lewis, the waterfall was created in honor of Alberta’s 75th anniversary. Lewis’ artistic input created a unique way to honor Edmonton’s important events, most notably Canada Day. At 64 m high and 91 m long, the Great Divide pumps 50000 liters of water per minute out of the nozzle over a two-hour time frame.

Originally designed for the 1978 Commonwealth games, the Great Divide Waterfall project was initially rejected due to concerns over its technological needs. Therefore, the project was placed aside until Lewis was able to modify his designs. The cost to build was 500,000, with only 100,000 coming from grants from the government. The “Great Divide Waterfall” finally made its debut after three months of construction, on September 1, 1980.

The High Level bridge was built to destroy the physical divide between the two original cities of Edmonton and Strathcona. The “Great Divide Waterfall’s” importance becomes significant during special events to acknowledge the coming together of two cities.

The primary motive behind the waterfall is one of aesthetic value. This is in contrast with the use-value function of the High Level bridge on a regular day. The bridge is closed off to its usual function as a bridge, and is instead used as a waterfall. Spectators of the waterfall have a momentary renewed sense of the High Level bridge, not as the bridge they know of, but as a scenic piece of art. Their notion of the high level bridge changes into one in which a bridge is identified as a waterfall. Therefore, the waterfall acts as a symbolic sign of Edmontonian and Albertan pride. Its location in the heart of the river valley, adjacent to the legislature building, shows that it is a display of public work, that it is a governmental initiative in times of celebration. When spectators see the waterfall, it evokes a sense of celebration and pride for what the City has to offer.

The bridge may also be described as an indexical sign because the signifier and signified have a physical connection in the sense that the bridge is also just representing a bridge.

The image seen above shows the bridge with the waterfall and contrasts with the image below, showing only the Bridge. Although the same bridge, the one featuring the waterfall creates a different image and feeling, from not only the waterfall alone, but through the colors and tones it presents to the viewers. “The Great Divide Waterfall” creates a much more artistic and beautiful image of the bridge than the bridge on its own. These effects of the waterfall represent how Edmontonians feel during their celebrations. The bright oranges against the black sky exemplifies the allure of the waterfall, which draws people into returning to the site and celebrating as a community. The High Level Bridge on its own does not create as strong an impact as the one presented by the waterfall. The bridge alone has been seen hundreds of times and isn't appreciated as a piece of art on a regular basis. Images presented to us have the ability to change the meaning of how viewers see the image and how viewers interpret the meanings. To use discourse associated with images, we have to see the waterfall as artwork and not just a water pump system. “Images interpellate viewers, as we do, to describe the way that images and media texts seem to call out to us, catching our attention” (Struken and Cartwright, 50). The waterfall interpellates our opinion of the seemingly boring highlevel bridge into a beautiful and socially stimulating art piece. The viewer’s opinion changes to understand the importance of our summer holidays and the glue between Edmontonians.

The idea of the Gaze is one of power. The subject has more power than the viewer, because the viewer is, essentially, giving all of their attention to the subject, allowing the subject to be more powerful. Obviously, in the case of the Great Divide waterfall, the waterfall has the power as the viewer looks at it. This seems to only happen when the waterfall is on, however. While the waterfall is off, the High Level Bridge, to people who live and have lived in this city, is seen in passing. Not much attention is given to the bridge without the waterfall on. Therefore, the waterfall is what gives that bridge all the power it has. The thing that gives the waterfall even more power is the rarity of it. It only comes on for special occasions, and when it does, everyone in the city marvels at the beauty of it.

Aesthetics of The Great Divide

The High Level bridge itself was created to unite Strathcona and Edmonton into one city in 1912. It served a utilitarian function in that it was used to facilitate pedestrian, rail, and automotive traffic. Early understandings of Aesthetics have argued that aesthetic objects were different than utilitarian objects (Sturken and Cartwright, 56). The addition of the Great Divide Waterfall to the High Level bridge is somewhat ironic to these beliefs in that the waterfall serves an aesthetic purpose though it is situated on a utilitarian structure. Its concept is more relevant to contemporary views of aesthetics, in that beauty is not placed upon the object itself, but rather the cultural context of the object. When the waterfall is turned on, people see the beauty of the High Level bridge as a tribute to momentous holidays, thereby inhibiting the utilitarian aspect of the bridge, and highlighting its aesthetical purpose.

Unfortunately the Waterfall for the time being is not operating due to fears from environmentalist that the small amounts of chlorine being added into the Saskatchewan River will damage the ecosystem. A consultant has been hired to weigh the options for the waterfall, but the outcome is still un-decided. A new plan is being developed to hold onto this piece of edmontonian history, without destroying the beauty of Edmonton’s river valley system. For these reasons we must debate what is held more valuable within Edmonton. The aesthetics of the waterfall, while beautiful, may risk our natural environment. The question then becomes: Is something that only occurs a few times a year worth more than a lifetime of Edmonton’s wonderful ecosystem? The river valley is often disregarded as an art form but, “Since an esthetically pleasing environment is to be preffered to one which is not, we should clean up the environment.” (Carlson, 70)

Carlson, Allen. "Environmental Aesthetics and the Dilemma of Aesthetic Education." Journal of Aesthetic Education, 10, no. 2 (April., 1976),

City of Edmonton“The great divide waterfall.” City of Edmonton. (April 8, 2010).

Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of looking: An introduction to visual culture. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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