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Looking Down

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

By Heather Leier

Bouquet, photopolymer intaglio on recycled Basler Papiermuhle paper, 12”x16.5”, 2019

Over the course of the last decade, my post-secondary trajectory has brought me across Canada, from British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, to Amiskwaciwâskahikan/Edmonton, Alberta, followed by the West Coast of Ktaqmkuk/Newfoundland, before settling most recently back in Alberta. This time, in 2018, I moved to Mohkínstsis/Calgary, where the longstanding influence of the agricultural and extractive industries permeate everyday life. I quickly became re-acquainted with associated inflated stereotypes of male behaviour and experienced their effects on my female body as I moved through the city where settler narratives of agricultural expansion and resource extraction continue to prevail. There was an air of discomfort here more significant than that which I had experienced living elsewhere across Canada.

For a number of years, I have been studying the emotional, psychological, and physical effects of public gender-based violence on women through a creation practice where I document the ways that I position myself, direct my attention, and navigate space while enduring with experiences of gender-based violence. Now, through my research-creation practice, I am considering how the prevalence of hypermasculinity affects the ways that women move through public space in Mohkínstsis/Calgary whilst exploring certain environmental relationships that hypermasculinity can reinforce.

Though hypermasculinity and environmental concern may appear to be disparate concepts, they are in fact deeply intertwined. More specifically, hypermasculinity is strongly connected to climate change denial. When we glorify the lifestyles that extractive economies perpetuate, there is an inclination to refuse climate change and the disruption of hierarchies that could occur should we agree that it is not only real but that we can also work to address it.

Political scientist Cara Daggat, who works at the interface of energy politics, environmentalism and human well-being, suggests in her 2018 article, Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire, that “an attachment to the righteousness of fossil fuel lifestyles, and to all the hierarchies that depend upon fossil fuel, produces a desire to not just deny, but to refuse climate change.” Following this provocation, through my creative practice, I look closely at discarded objects as both an embodiment of neglect in relation to climate change but also as representations of, and reflections on, gender-based violence and trauma.

XL2, photopolymer intaglio and screenprint, 7.5”x7.5”, 2020

As a research method for creative production and knowledge-making, I embody the coping mechanism of looking down which has become a consistent way that I move through space, both consciously and subconsciously. Stemming from my experiences with violence, I have learned to rely on looking down in order to move through public spaces alone. As I negotiate my daily life and site-specific routes, often looking down, I collect images, make notes, and collect objects that garner my attention. These objects, notes, and images are then used to produce print works, whether they are photographed, inked and printed, or otherwise rearticulated.

Often, my images, such as those presented here, as well as books and installations, are composed of printed discarded objects, plastics, and paper which point to the correlation between the production of waste and a predisposition towards care. Not only am I noticing waste, but I am carefully documenting it and collecting it in order to eventually dispose of it more responsibly. The act of looking down, as a response to trauma, has created an intimacy between me and the surfaces on which I walk, including the items strewn across them. While I have, at times, lost the minor privilege of engaging with the world above eye level while moving through space, I have come to understand more closely the relationship between my body and the land as both impacted by the violence present in sites where hypermasculinity dominates. While looking closely at unattended objects and rubbish, I see the physical violence to the environment that emanates from throwaway attitudes, and I have come to understand some of these objects as specific remnants of violent interactions between the people who move through the same spaces as me. Through my collection practice and my production of primarily hand-printed images of these items, I am able to be attentive to them and create an intimacy, ideally, between these objects and those who view this work.

Moisturized, photopolymer intaglio and screenprint, 22”x 30 ”, 2020

The surfaces of my work are often dotted with celebratory imagery such as hearts, confetti, and streamers to represent an outward projection of joy, which is another coping mechanism that I habitually employ. Simultaneously, these celebratory visual languages highlight the fact that the effects of gender-based violence that I endure - my pain and sense of imperfection - cannot and will not be excuses to avoid participating in joy.

Untitled (Broken Pot), mounted inkjet print with screenprint and gold-leaf, 22”x 30 ”, 2019

Each of the prints presented here is derived from photographs I have taken of objects while looking down. Bouquet is an image of a bundle of flowers that, considering its disarray of crushed petals and leaves, was forcibly discarded on the pavement. To me, this bouquet embodies the narrative of its demise, perhaps a violent interaction between people, or at minimum the lost grasp on affection returned.

XL 2 depicts a fragment of a Styrofoam drink container laying across a paved surface. When considering narratives sustained by hypermasculinity, “bigger is better” certainly comes to mind. For me, this miniature print undermines this narrative by drawing attention to how this single-use container has been disregarded, while the white confetti dancing across the paper surface reveals the emergent joy of rejecting these prevailing narratives.

The lotion container and smear across the surface of the ground in Moisturized visually epitomizes the aggressive act of discarding the object and constitutes violence to the land. Through the carnal destruction of this lotion material that is designed for the nourishment and care of our bodies, this scenario emphasizes the interconnection between violence against women and the land.

Similar to Bouquet and Moisturized, I see Untitled (Broken Pot) as documentation of the aftermath of a violent incident, however this time, the violence has been enacted, in part, on the living entities within the soil. Perhaps, too, this piece more than others represents a failed attempt to care for non-human lifeforms.

As a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, settler artist, I consider my production of this artwork to be a minor contribution to the work being done to question and problematize power dynamics within public space. While violence against women continues to be a significant issue globally, violence against marginalized communities including black, indigenous, and people of colour, is experienced in different and compounding ways and is inextricably and profoundly linked to environmental injustice. I recognize the privilege it is to be able to create this work and acknowledge that so many more people continually face the very real and life-threatening impacts of interpersonal, systemic, and environmental violence in physical, emotional, and psychological ways far more destructive than what I experience.

Ultimately, this art project draws on my experiences in order to reflect the necessity to foster and maintain empathy towards endangered and threatened groups of human and nonhumans, and to take actions to combat ecological destruction, all while negotiating and enduring with the precariousness of being a woman in spaces dominated by hypermasculinity. Through the production of this work I continue to postulate on how joy and care can be coping strategies that when personally exercised, can allow for survival through our individual traumas. Further, when applied to the environment, joy and care can be frameworks to, at best, aid in the environmental crisis we are in and at worst, cope with living in what are increasingly being known as the end times.


Heather Leier is an interdisciplinary artist who specializes in photo-based printmaking processes. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art at the University of Calgary.


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