The Art of Reframing: The Social Life of Water exhibition




“In the beginning, there is nothing but water and darkness”

       - Harry Robinson, syilx creation story


The universe is made of stories, not atoms.”

       - Muriel Rukeyser


A series of deep blue lakes line the valley floor of the Okanagan region in British Columbia. The lakes lend the appearance of a water wealthy environment. They also allure many tourists and newcomers alike to the region, for both their beauty and recreational value. Beachgoers, boaters and anglers flock to the shores of the Okanagan’s lakes, especially in the summer months. And who can blame them? For months, I’ve been dreaming of the day it will be warm enough to paddle board on Okanagan Lake.




The lakes, in addition to the warm, sunny environment in summertime, is certainly a draw to the many people who visit and move to the area. Tourism is a growing industry. In 2016 over 2,000,000 tourists visited the Okanagan. The general population is also on the incline. Kelowna --the largest city in the Okanagan--is one of the fastest growing population centres in the country. I myself am one of these recent migrants--a former Ontarian, I now call Kelowna home.


Although the lakes lead many to believe the Okanagan has an abundance of water, looks are deceiving. In fact, the Okanagan is one of the most water scarce regions in the country. Situated in the rain shadow of the Coast and Cascade mountain ranges, the area is considered semi-arid. It receives about a quarter of the annual average precipitation as the Lower Mainland, and some 80% of what does fall is lost to evapotranspiration.


This story--the one about the Okanagan as a strained and delicate ecosystem, a place that needs care and guardianship--is not one that is engrained in the collective consciousness of most residents and visitors. The dominant narrative, reinforced through tourism marketing, is that the Okanagan is a lush (read: heavily irrigated) orchard and an abundant playground.  


As permanent and transient populations in the the Okanagan continue to grow, the way we understand and interact with our water will have important implications for sustainability.


Frames and Reframing


Here at the Freshwater Alliance, we like to talk about how stories--and the ways in which we frame them--are are pretty important in shaping our perceptions. The way we perceive the world determines not just how we feel but also how we act within it. If our overarching frame of the natural world is that it is an instrument of convenience or leisure, then it’s more likely we will use it in utilitarian, self-interested ways. If, rather, our frame is that the natural world is a treasure, sacred, giving, alive, then we are much more likely to live in ways which are ecologically respectful and responsible.


Frame: A wide-angle lens that captures a landscape within one shot

Story: A zoom lens that captures a specific scene within that landscape


Our frames are pretty deeply ingrained and we don’t just change them because someone tells us to. In previous blog posts, we’ve discussed how facts alone do not often sway people. Rather, stories that tap into our values and our emotional sensibilities are more powerful tools. Good stories told within the context of compelling frames can sway our perceptions and understanding of phenomena.


Stories and frames can be presented in different ways. Although we often think about storytelling as a domain of the spoken or written word, combining words with art (like images, design and interactive media), can be a powerful force for sustainability, as art taps into our intuitive and aesthetic, as well as emotional, sensibilities.


The Social Life of Water in the Okanagan


Last year, I had the pleasure of working with an interdisciplinary team to develop a project that used art and storytelling to (re)frame the human relationship with water in the Okanagan. The idea was inspired by a book chapter I read by two Okanagan indigenous elders on the social and ecological impacts that resulted from the channelization of the Okanagan River. Later that year, I participated in the Rivershed Society’s Sustainable Living Leadership Program, which required me to complete a community action project. I knew that my project would be to bring together stories about the Okanagan’s people and waters, and to present them in an engaging and interesting way.



With a team of artists and researchers from the University of British Columbia, the Okanagan Nation Alliance, the Kelowna Museums Society, and the Sncewips Heritage Museum, we designed an exhibition that framed the story of people and water in the Okanagan as dynamic, multifaceted, and interdependent. In this frame, water isn’t just something that we use to irrigate our lawns or boat upon, but it is something that shapes our shared histories, presents and futures.


The content of the exhibition was informed by the knowledge of Okanagan community members and groups. Several meetings, consultation sessions, interviews and surveys provided context for us to collect and curate material. Importantly, Indigenous knowledge and stories of the syilx provided a strong frame for the exhibition, as the syilx worldview intrinsically understands water as a part of all aspects of life--a necessary element of our spiritual, social, cultural and physical lives. Throughout the display, stories and images from the past and present are woven together through design, and visitors are invited to reflect about what the future of water might look like.


          A great sheet of ice once covered the Okanagan Valley. Slowly it began to melt, and by 10,000 years ago it was   

          gone. Way back then, the syilx (Okanagan) people were already living here. The syilx people have lived in the  

          Okanagan since time immemorial [...]


          Today, many people live in the Okanagan Valley, from all different backgrounds. Some of us have lived here for a

          while. Some are pretty new. Regardless of when we came, every one of us drinks Okanagan water. Every one of us

          bathes in Okanagan water [...]. We know a thing or two about our water. We have some great stories!

                   - Excerpt from the Social Life of Water exhibition




The Social Life of Water exhibition was an opportunity to frame our relationship with water in way that offer a counter narrative to the mainstream. Although an exhibition alone is certainly unlikely to cause a paradigmatic shift in the ways in which the Okanagan’s watershed is widely perceived and interacted with, it is a modest contribution to (re)framing our relationship to water in way that engenders respect and reciprocity for our most vital asset. This frame, as we’ve seen, is a necessary precursor to shifting social ideas and practices along a more sustainable trajectory.  



The Social Life of Water exhibition is on display at the Okanagan Heritage Museum in Kelowna until May 22nd, 2017. For more information about the project, see: