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Although Daan Roosegaarde’s studio tailors Waterlicht to its specific site – the installation in Toronto will run along the city's original lakefront – the basic ingredients of the work are beams of blue light and humidity in the air.

Chris Foster

When the water rises, how will our cities survive? As the effects of climate change become more visible, this is a serious challenge for seacoasts and lake cities, too. As a society, we’ve barely framed the question, never mind answered it.

But Dutch artist Daan Roosegaarde wants us to be overrun by blue waves and have a good time doing it. Waterlicht (“Waterlight”), an installation by Roosegaarde that will run this weekend at the Bentway in Toronto, promises a poetic manifestation of rising seas, through the use of light and fog.

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“It’s an immersive landscape where I hope people will think about the future,” Roosegaarde says. “It’s beautiful, but I hope it will also stir people to taking action.”

Waterlicht is the sort of grand public art spectacle that draws a crowd. Roosegaarde, who trained as an architect but calls himself a “social designer,” specializes in such things: elegant interventions that span art and design to address big challenges. Waterlicht debuted in Amsterdam’s Museumplein and Roosegaarde has taken the installation to London, Paris and New York, among other cities. The basic ingredients are beams of blue light and the humidity in the air. Roosegaarde’s studio tailors the work to its specific site.

In this case, that will be the Bentway, the public space that opened last year under the elevated Gardiner Expressway in downtown Toronto. It is a leftover place, long overlooked, that holds much significance beyond the expressway: It runs alongside historic Fort York, tracing the course of what was originally Toronto’s lakefront. “The work looks back and forward,” Roosegaarde says. “There once was water here and there may be water again.”

Again, because of climate change. Even in Toronto, a long way from any ocean, climate change is generating an uncommon frequency of extreme weather events. Flooding along the city’s rivers and a higher water level in Lake Ontario threaten parts of the city. Fittingly, Waterlicht “demonstrates the beauty of the resource but also its power and its potential danger,” says Ilana Altman, the Bentway’s director of programming.

That’s a very Dutch message. Waterlicht was originally created in the Netherlands, commissioned by one of the country’s water boards – public bodies, centuries old, that oversee the management of water. In the famously low-lying Netherlands, that question is central not just to agriculture, but to the very survival of the country. “The Netherlands, most of it is below sea level, so without design we would literally all die a horrible death,” Roosegaarde says.

To Roosegaarde, design in one form or another is what will allow us to adapt to the effects of climate change – and art has a crucial role in framing the problem. “The first job of art is to fire the imagination,” he says. And the news about a changing climate “is often very abstract,” he argues. “Here, people will in a sense be able to see it.”

Waterlicht is the centrepiece of the Bentway’s fall art exhibition, If, But, What If? The other works – photography, sculpture and installation – each respond to the continuing evolution of the city; among them is Michael Awad’s 75-metre-long photographic portrait of the Gardiner Expressway itself and Wally Dion’s 8-Bit Wampum, which alludes to the Toronto Purchase with which the British Crown assumed ownership of the area from the Mississaugas of the New Credit. Then there is the very presence of the Bentway itself, which Altman sees “as a way of reconnecting the city to its waterfront,” she says. “What had been a barrier is now a point of connection.

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This weekend’s event should focus public attention on that site and the theme of water. And what if it rains? “I hope it does,” Roosegaarde says. “The [worse] the weather, the better the art looks.”

Waterlicht runs Friday through Sunday (Oct. 12-14) at the Bentway, 250 Fort York Blvd. thebentway.ca

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