Launch of Dirt City Dream City Project

I am really looking forward to the launch of this project – from the looks of what’s been posted in the last while at the project website, there’s some great food for thought and discussion in the work being developed. I’m hoping to be able to catch Kendal Henry’s talk on the Saturday as well, as I think he will have some valuable insights regarding Edmonton as a whole, and ‘The Quarters’/Downtown East as it heads into redevelopment mode in earnest. I think there’s some thoughtful, and thought-provoking work in this public art project, and it will be very interesting indeed to see how the individual works are greeted by the area residents and by the wider population.

I was speaking with a friend about this project yesterday – and the relationship between art making, urban ‘renewal’, and the whole (problematic) notion of the ‘creative class’ as popularized by Richard Florida. The cycle is quite familiar by now: old neighbourhoods in a city’s core are hollowed out by business and residential migration due to suburban sprawl; there’s a rise in crime and social problems in the old neighbourhood, and property values drop; artists and other creatives move in (because they can afford to live and have studio/work space here); moves to revitalize the area begin, since the artists have made the area more viable; development takes over, property values soar … there’s some gentrification that goes on, and the artists move out be cause they can no longer afford space. Lather, rinse, repeat. Some of this has gone on in ‘The Quarters’ over the last few years.

… Not all bad (to my mind, we could do with fewer peep shows and crack houses for sure), but far from ideal in many ways. But that little summary of ‘progress’ leaves many factors out of the picture:

– What about the long-time residents of the area in question? How will they be treated, and what place will they have in the redevelopment? There tends to be a perception of core neighbourhoods that they are wastelands inhabited only by ‘undesirables’ and rife with violence and crime. But these are established neighbourhoods, in which people have lived and raised families … just like their (now) more affluent counterparts farther afield in the same city. It could be argued that these people are the real creative class – they carve out lives and raise families in less than ideal circumstances. What of them? Will development improve their quality of life, or will it make life more difficult financially and socially?

– What about the already marginalized members of the population currently living in the area? How will their needs be properly addressed in the face of profitable, upscale housing and the potential for profit for developers? All well and good to tear down places like the York Hotel – but the people who lived there still need a place to live  – preferably one that’s safe. Erasing spaces in which ‘street people’ of various types congregate and/or stay doesn’t make them  – or the underlying issues they face has humans – go away.

– Who really profits from this type of redevelopment … and who is being exploited in the process? How much do initiatives of this sort reinforce structures of social and economic inequality? Does it really improve the lot of artists in the long run? Who really benefits most from the vanguard of people willing to move into an area because they can’t afford space to do what they do best otherwise?

The work being presented in the Dirt City Dream City project looks at these (and many related) issues, from a variety of perspectives. These are conversations that need to be started, continued, debated … and it is my hope that the work being presented will begin some of that. The many assumptions about race, class, gender, (and on and on) inherent in the push to redevelopment of urban core neighbourhoods need to be made transparent; perhaps some of them could even be set aside in time, if we’re lucky.

It remains to be seen if any of the young artists involved in Dream City Dirt City will be able to afford to live in the area and maintain an active practice once ‘revitalization’ is complete of course … but that’s perhaps a conversation for another day.

Thinking About Art in the Wider World …

I’ve been buried in my studio a good deal lately, and while the focus and discipline that comes with having long and consistent hours making work is fantastic in many ways, it can also lead to losing touch with the wider context of that process: the world behind the studio doors, and how much it is enriched when art of all sorts is presented.

A few things have provoked this consideration of late: anticipating the upcoming installations and performances for Dirt City, Dream Citymaking work for fast & dirty’s Curiosities exhibition – and seeing the response to the work in all three locations over the course of the weekend; getting 21st Century Nesting Practices installed outside and in the stairwell at Harcourt House;  and finally, coming across a delightful piece of work installed on 104 street this past weekend, right in the middle of the bustle of the weekly Farmer’s Market.

I’ll start with the last one first:

The work in question, attached to a tree on 104th Street this past Saturday.
Detail view of the work …

I have to admit total ignorance as to the source of this delightful piece of interactive public art; I don’t know who made it, where it came from, where it went at the end of the day, what will become of all the love notes inserted into it. And for me, that’s a great part of the magic of the work … . I was also really taken with the essence of the work as an open invitation to all comers to stop, step outside the usual protective barriers we all wear for a moment, and take a small risk. I found this gesture refreshing  – a small moment to delight in, and a place to actively respond to the twinned calls of community and compassion that can be so singularly lacking in urban environments.

A little bit of the same thing has been going on with the nests I have installed at Harcourt House … I have seen people stop. Look. Look again. Smile. Point them out to friends or colleagues in their walk past, especially over the usual hours of office lunch times. Just a moment, just a glance, but the work has been offered freely to any individuals coming across it – and it has allowed people (however briefly) to enjoy a moment in the day that is outside of the ordinary. It has created space for  whoever wants it, an opportunity to step away. Interestingly, one of the nests has become part of my studio routine in a very practical way: I’ve taken to putting a large nest out on the Annex sign  when I’m in the studio working … a variety of hanging out my shingle, I suppose. People seem to note when it’s out on the sign – and when it isn’t. Nice to know people notice :).

… outside the Annex …

Curiosities functioned in a similar fashion to the aforementioned work: it presented the unexpected in an unusual way. When art is taken out of a gallery/white cube context and presented in mundane public places like the street, it disrupts a set of conventions and narratives about authority and taste and privilege  – it generates conversations in new ways and makes room for more people to experience art in ways that are much less intimidating than formal, institutional settings often are.

The Curiosities van on Whyte Avenue …
People looking at the work in the Van. Photo: Kyla Tichkowsky.

Dirt City Dream City is, of course, exploring ideas about engagement and community – and the role of art in those processes – on a much larger level. The thing I keep coming back to with the entire project is how diverse the responses to the neighbourhood are – how many ways the artists involved are both engaging with the spaces in ‘The Quarters’ and how those actions (installations, performances, billboards, sculptures, gardens …) offer all kinds f different opportunities for both the residents and the larger community to explore what they think and feel about the  area, and the many changes that are beginning to take place. I am really excited to see all of these projects come together in the next little while – and to walk through the neighbourhood and see what people do with them – how they respond, and to what.

The thread that binds all of these ‘acts of art’ together is their essentially transitory nature. A day, a weekend, a period of weeks or months … all of this work has its time in the public eye, and then it passes into memory for those that saw and experienced it. This brings a vitality and urgency to the experience of viewing public work of this sort, and  – to my mind at least – it is in this vitality and seeming randomness that the real power of presenting work in this general fashion resides. The inherent rejection of authority and permanence seems to afford greater freedom to really engage with the work, and that in turn creates deeper engagement in the environment, in the community as a whole – for at least a little while – but maybe for longer.

In the end, it seems to me that art of this type can do so much on the streets of this city: provoke thought, raise controversy, bring diverse people together in unexpected ways … and there’s value too in simply provoking a smile. Making someone  look up and notice something different. Unexplained. New.