Liminal Spaces: Dirt City and Making Art

Edmonton has a nickname of fairly recent creation: Dirt City. The resonances are multiple, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons the name has gained a fair bit of traction in local circles, including the arts community here. Edmonton is Dirt City in many ways – the moniker speaks to the history of farming in the area to be sure, but also to the blue collar/industrial/oil patch foundation of the boom-town economy. It also, less metaphorically, addresses the locally infamous ‘annual reveal’ of the detritus temporarily concealed by the (seemingly) endless winters: the dirt and garbage left behind  by careless people, crews of sanders and graders on the streets. The flip side of this view of Edmonton is the notion that it is a place of potential and growth – a place that can foster change and creativity, and the dreams that go with that kind of vision. A place that perhaps has ‘gritty’ aspects to its history, but is in transition, has the ‘dirt’ from which things can grow; a place actively engaged in the process of reinventing itself… Including the eastern portion of the downtown core, now dubbed ‘The Quarters’ as the city begins a several-years-long attempt to redevelop and revitalize what has become over the last 40 years an economically and socially depressed area.

From the tensions and contradictions inherent in these competing views came Dirt City-Dream City, a transitory public art project supported by the Public Art program of the Edmonton Arts Council. The EAC brought in Kendal Henry as curator for this project (more info on Kendal here and here), and the and the artists selected for the project spent the first week of May in workshops, walking tours, and discussions, gathering information from various sources about the area, and developing their work around these resources. The art projects in Dirt City-Dream City will be presented in various locations in The Quarters/Downtown East section of Edmonton this July.

I had the pleasure of speaking on May 4th to this group, as part of the information-workshop portion of the project. Chelsea Boos from the EAC asked me to discuss the  photoshoot my colleague Marian Switzer and I did September 2011 at the now-demolished York Hotel. In the earlier history of the area, the York was a bustling place, host to travelers and weddings, like most any other hotel in a busy, growing urban downtown. Over time however, downtown Edmonton was economically gutted by suburban sprawl – much like virtually every city in North America – and although the western portion of the city’s core saw business development and construction, Downtown East (and the York along with it) continued to slide economically, and increasingly suffer from the social ills that plague such depressed urban areas.

When Marian and I shot the rooms at the York, the place had been closed for a bit over a year; the City had first revoked the tavern’s license to stem the rash of alcohol and drug-fueled incidents at the place, and then finally purchased the property and closed it in April of 2010. I had seen the interior in August 2010, when I was on staff at Latitude 53, and was instantly struck by the sense that the place was somehow frozen in time – in a state of suspended animation as though the inhabitants and patrons had just left, or could return at any moment. I wanted to explore that tension, the simultaneity of presence and absence, the way the place continued to hold fragmentary and disrupted narratives. The place and its strange intimacy haunted me for a year, but for several reasons, I wasn’t able to follow up on that first visit. Finally, in September of 2011, I had the time and opportunity to see about getting back into the space to see if I could capture some of what I experienced there over a year before. While there were some practical and logistic complications to working in the space, including some issues regarding personal safety, and a tight deadline to meet before the property was demolished – I wouldn’t have missed this opportunity, not for a moment. I think that the work Marian and I did there is solid, and we are starting to develop it into a really interesting body of work for exhibition.

What we found there was quite arresting, on a number of levels. The City had been unable to entirely secure the building after the hotel’s closure, so there had been considerable vandalism, principally to the walls in the hallways.

People who had no other option had also used some of the rooms as safe(r) spaces to bunk down at night (the merits of a locking door , a roof, and a bed cannot be underestimated when life is being lived on the street). In many ways (as squats go) it was a pretty good place. But what I found deeply interesting – and quite eerie – was the fact that a large number of the rooms in the York had remained virtually untouched since I’d last seen them in August 2010.

August 2010

… and in September 2011.

This was a liminal space on a number of levels: it hovered between being and non-being (in the sense that it was slated for demolition at the time we were working there); it was once a place some people called home (sometimes for years), but was also a place people often stayed for one night (or less); it was once a perfectly respectable hotel, that had become a haven for drug dealers and a site of prostitution and violent crime; what remained in many of the rooms spoke to both the ‘public’ and ‘private’ simultaneously (personal objects within the context of the nondescript and anonymous). These relationships are of course fluid, tenuous at best … but regardless of the shifting boundaries inherent in each room, each encounter with the space, Marian and I were faced with a consistent set of problems/questions:  how to work in and with what we found there with respect? These rooms were peoples’ homes; we felt there was a responsibility to honour that fact, and try our best to document the space without being voyeuristic. We were conscious of the difference between our reality and the reality of the people who lived there before we came. We were also very aware of both the real loss that some of the residents felt with the hotel’s closing. And there was the fact that we ‘didn’t belong’ there – we weren’t part of that community, and so had to negotiate our place (and any right we had to be) there at that time – through the intersecting and contested narratives of race, gender, economics, and history. There are some excellent commentaries on some of the ideas and issues we confronted in working in this place  – and with regard to DirtCity-Dream City as a whole  here and here.

I encourage anyone reading this to investigate further  – and tell me what you think about the artist’s role in such a place/space, and the artist’s responsibility   to the larger community surrounding such a place.  I leave you with hard questions (none of which have hard and fast answers that I have found yet – and all questions which the artists creating work for DirtCity-DreamCity face as well):

– what role does the artist play in creating work in and from such a space, when that artist is from ‘outside’?

– what responsibility doe the artist have to the inhabitants of such a place? to the people living in the vicinity? to the community as a whole?

– are there best practices that can be employed in approaching projects like this now and in the future?

– what is the purpose of art-making in such spaces – public or otherwise?

I look forward to comments, questions, challenges … and I leave you for tonight with two more images from the now demolished York; food for thought, I hope:

1 Comment

  1. hey Sydney, interesting project! regarding your question… JUst recently I tried explaining to my non-art-background nephew, (a man in his mid 20’s) who artists where in society and the role they play in a contemporary culture- that of the questioners, almost likened to the fool in the kings court- able to say what no one else can/will- and ask those tough questions, seek answers in non-traditional ways, from all sources- able to look from outside with impartialty, yet enter into communities/places in a sensitive way, find the poetry and create outlets for expression.. not saying anything new here- but always good to attempt to rearticulate what role we do have as artists- and to try and find a best practices model. my goal is to leave what is behind me in better or the same condition as when it lay in front of me….best regards, Sharon

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