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Dowsing and Digging: What is Dowsing?

I come from a long line of water-witches. In 2013, I learned that my mother’s family has long been regarded for their water-witching abilities. Using a forked branch, they would locate where to dig (or rather drill) for water without the use of scientific technology.


Alana Bartol, reading wild lands (still), 2018. Full HD video, 22 min, 31 sec.
How is remediation understood in Alberta in this moment of ecological crisis and within the context of environmental care and repair? How do artists counter colonial-capitalist perspectives that support exploitation and extractivism?

Dowsing, also known as water-witching, is a form of divination traditionally used to locate groundwater, oil, and mineral ores. It has also been used to locate lost objects and hidden information. While the practice of dowsing is often discredited and dismissed, the use of this technology still persists.


Dowsing tools come in many forms: the most recognized divining tools are Y rods, often a forked tree branch (willows or water-loving trees are best), L shaped rods (often made of copper), and handheld pendulums, a weight suspended by a pivot, which can come in many materials and forms. While these tools and others, such as bobbers, can be purchased, a resourceful dowser can easily transform everyday household items into tools for dowsing. For example, in my dowsing workshops, metal hangers become l-rods and dangling drain plugs become pendulums. For a pendulum, tea bags, necklaces, and any small object tied to a string would suffice.


Dowsing asks us to engage in a process of listening through our bodies, to attune oneself to the energies, echoes, and reverberations of one’s environment. In doing so, one might communicate with unseen forces that provide responses to questions and offer direction through the movements of tools and materials. Though it has often been associated with witchcraft and the occult, dowsing has also been used for prospecting ores and water in Northern Europe and elsewhere since the 15th century.


Alana Bartol, Dowser, 2016. archival inkjet print, 39.5 x 26.33 cm. Photo: Karin McGinn.

Asking Better Questions

Dowsing is inquiry; it involves asking questions. The dowsing tool’s ensemble of responses is limited to “yes,” “no,” or “unclear,” but its responses arouse another set of questions in its user: what is this “yes,” what is my “no”? Learning how and when to ask questions is integral and so is learning how to understand the responses given. Which questions are important to us? What do we do when the answer is unclear? Dowsing involves asking questions, and through the process one learns how to ask better questions.


In my artwork, dowsing becomes a way to examine our consumption-driven relationship to Mother Earth and what are known as natural resources, a term that exemplifies a capitalist mindset: that all that is naturally occurring within Mother Earth’s ecosystem from forests and minerals to her elements and atmosphere, can be viewed as materials or components for human exploitation, use, cultivation, production, and consumption. How can a more reciprocal relationship with Mother Earth be developed? Can dowsing, a method once used for prospecting, become a technology for remediation?


In past works, I have conducted performative dowsing readings at sites in Alberta contaminated by the oil and gas industry as a way to draw attention to the health of damaged sites and examine so-called remediation practices of industry. Orphan Well Adoption Agency (OWAA) is an ongoing project that exists as a fictional non-profit organization dedicated to finding caretakers for orphan wells in Alberta. Through symbolic adoptions, members of the public are asked to consider their role as well caretakers. OWAA re-imagines dowsing as a technology for environmental remediation, one that asks how dowsing might shift our relationships to the earth while examining the lack of responsibility, accountability, and transparency in the Alberta oil and gas industry. The OWAA has created custom dowsing tools including pendulums. The tools and materials often become characters in the artwork, developing their own agency. Dowsing becomes an act of listening, allowing contaminated sites (including orphan wells) to speak through various tools and materials.


Alana Bartol, Orphan Well Portrait 05-17-21-33 W4 (Three Hills, AB), 2017. Archival inkjet print, 63.5 x 43.18 cm.
Alana Bartol, reading wild lands (still), 2018. Full HD video, 22 min, 31 sec.

Understanding my relationship to and dowsing abilities has been part of my ongoing work to develop a connection to a family lineage and ancestry, which is linked to the violent historical and ongoing white settler colonization on Turtle Island. Through this work, I reflect on how I and other white settler Canadians are implicated in systems of oppression – organized around white settler colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism – that are intertwined with environmental degradation, indigenous dispossession, and ongoing colonial violence.


Dowsing as a technology for remediation


Remediation can be understood as remedying something, usually in the context of environmental repair to damaged or contaminated land. The Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries defines remediation as “the process of improving something or correcting something that is wrong, especially changing or stopping damage to the environment.” When we consider environmental remediation in the context of health for both the human and more-than-human worlds, as well as socio-economic, cultural, and political contexts, it becomes much more complicated to understand and address.


How is remediation understood in Alberta in this moment of ecological crisis and within the context of environmental care and repair? How do artists counter colonial-capitalist perspectives that support exploitation and extractivism? How do we work towards a future that sees artists are recognized and supported in their roles envisioning and creating a just, equitable, and sustainable world? How do we understand Indigenous sovereignty and do the work of decolonization required to create ways of living that allow all of us, including our more-than-human world, to thrive? How is difference understood and negotiated within this work?


These are some of the questions I have been grappling with throughout my career but they have become even more urgent in the past 5-years since moving to Mohkínstsis (Calgary), Alberta. I will speak more in future posts about how I have and continue to examine concepts of remediation in my artwork before and since becoming a visitor to Treaty 7 territory where I currently live and work.


Much has changed since I began thinking about this project last year. We are not only living in a time of climate crisis but also a worldwide pandemic that continues to lay bare the inequities in our political, economic, and social systems. Across Turtle Island and the world, people are organizing and mobilizing for Black liberation through the Black Lives Matter movement. Indigenous nations across Canada continue to fight for sovereignty and protect their lands from the Canadian government and industries.


Located in Treaty 7 territory, uLethbridge Art Gallery will support me in making use of resources on-campus (while working remotely). When and if possible, I will be travelling to various locations throughout Treaty 7 territory in Alberta including Lethbridge, as well the Crowsnest Pass to do residencies at the Gushul Residency Program and in Nanton at the Coutts Centre. Through uLethbridge Art Gallery I will connect with geographers and hydrologists who study climate change, biologists and horticulturalists who study prairie plants and maintain a herbarium at the Coutts Centre, the Agility Program (with a focus on emerging technologies), and Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) Elders from Kainai and Piikani that work with uLethbridge Art Gallery.


On this website, I will be sharing videos, photographs, writing, research, and resources that I am learning about and developing along the way. I will also be sharing public programs I participate in and develop and introduce you to the incredible emerging artists I am mentoring and learning from. Thank you for visiting and please continue to check back through to January 2021, when an exhibition of artworks resulting from this process will be presented at uLethbridge Art Gallery.

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