Each year, the Public Art Network (PAN) of Americans for the Arts nominates 50 public artworks as outstanding representations of the genre. When Charles Blanc and Tristan Surtees, collectively known as Sans façon, put a few projects in the hopper for the distinction, they never expected to be chosen; they simply hoped to make a case for the kind of process-driven works they produce.

“We just wanted to talk about the fact that public art can be more than objects,” explains Surtees. “The most important thing, and the most successful thing for us here, is not the outcome but the process and relationships. That’s an important shift in public art practice—of the spectrum of public art and how public
artists work.”

As it turns out, the judges of this year’s nominees agreed. Not one, but three of the Calgary-based collaborative duo’s works were chosen as finalists.

Moreover, those three pieces are remarkably distinct. For one project, Cacher pour mieux montrer (which translates as “Hide to show better”), the duo wrapped iconic public sculptures in the city of Saskatoon in industrial shrink-wrap. The other two projects were contained within Sans façon’s Watershed+ project, which is an ongoing collaboration with the City of Calgary’s Utilities and Environmental Protection department. The city’s project embeds artists in the department with an intention to “build an emotional connection between Calgary’s citizens and their watershed by placing creativity at the heart of projects and initiatives related to Calgary’s watershed.” Included in PAN’s list were Fire Hydrant Fountains, which temporarily repurposes fire hydrants as drinking-water stations, and a 12-month artist residency, facilitated by Sans façon, that embedded UK-based visual artist Rachel Duckhouse in the City of Calgary’s Water Resources, Water Services, and Parks units’ staff. Duckhouse produced a series of water-flow maps as well as podcast-like conversations with city staff.

The wide range of approaches and outcomes represented in these three pieces is a deliberate result of the artists’ process, Surtees says. “We don’t come with a recipe, and we don’t come with a predetermined idea. We’re looking to form a relationship with the situation, the people who live there, the organization, and also the geography and history of the site—with all the given contexts. Our only agenda is to explore those relationships and allow them to be present in the work.”

Of course, that exploration is an evolving, face-to-face process. In order to facilitate it, says Surtees, the artists assemble everyone involved early on in the project. “Even if it’s a chain supplier or a wooden boat maker; if we have just an inkling they’ll be involved, we want to gather their input and insights.”

Unlike a more traditional relationship between artist and fabricator, these conversations are free-flowing. “You don’t draw out the lines and fill in the color; you respond to the work as it evolves,” explains Surtees. “If we go into a situation with ten people in the room, and I ask them to do this or that specific thing, then they are essentially technicians. But if you take the time to open the process to their contributions, we end up being more like a theater director, gently nudging things in one direction or another.”

This method can lead to some complex meetings; 32 different City of Calgary departments participated in Watershed+, for instance. Yet the collaboration among all those people is crucial to the outcome—in a sense, it is the outcome—of any given project. “Not knowing exactly what you’re going to get in the end is vital,” Surtees says. “That’s a level of unknown, of educated risk.”

For Sans façon and a growing number of public artists who adopt similar tactics, that risk and flow lie at the heart of what makes an artist. “Artists are not like designers or architects—they’re not solving some particular problem, like how to design a public square,” says Surtees. “Artists are good at asking questions, and they bring a quality of exploration to any situation. That is what excites us.”

Joe Hart has been a senior editor of Public Art Review, and is a writer, editor, and musician living in rural Wisconsin.

From Public Art Review #51, where this article originally appeared as “More Than an Object: A profile on Sans façon.”