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Did people really show up, and what happened?

July 3, 2011

Yes, and it was quite exciting! Over the course of four weeks, a range of citizens representing different ages and backgrounds collaborated with professional artists to develop projects responding to an array of civic issues; these included recreation, housing and poverty, accessibility, diversity, and the systemic problem of violence against Aboriginal women. True, some days were a little quieter than others: toward the end of the project, there were a few occasions when a couple of visitors stopped in to see what was going on, but didn’t have time to co-develop a project with us. There were, however, many other instances when we had a packed house with over 40 people working together to plan and deliver actions in public space. Ultimately, what mattered more than the quantity of participants was the quality of the experiences generated.

The diverse array of experiences generated through the project was reflective of the personalities and interests of those involved. Some people worked very fast and wanted to produce or perform something immediately, in keeping with the ‘flash community’ spirit of the project, while others preferred to think about potential actions over a longer period of time. With everything happening so quickly and in such a compressed period of time, one of the most interesting overall features of the project is that it created a number of new and perhaps lasting relationships between community members, and between individuals and community service groups. Stronger ideas and interpersonal bonds are more likely to organically develop over a longer period of time, so sessions conducted on a weekly basis (instead of daily ones) probably could have laid the foundation for a stronger long-term effect. Still, there is something to be said for people letting down their guard and getting into things right away, so to speak.

This often worked in interesting ways, as there appears to be evidence of rich interaction initiated and enhanced through personal engagement during the course of the project, as well as thanks to media coverage and social networking (i.e. Twitter and Facebook). These relationships developed primarily between individual community members, but also between community members and representatives of service organizations previously unknown to them, as well as community members and local and visiting artists. For example, it was exciting to receive informal and spontaneous promotional support from United Way Winnipeg, and to discover interest from other types of organizations concerned with equity and social justice, such as unions and advocacy groups. Some spin-off projects have grown out of this process, which I will further outline below.

All in all, the project was realized as expected insofar as the logistical aspects were concerned. The only notable difference from the original proposal concerns the amount of work realized outdoors. As alluded to above, participants who were very involved in conversation did not always wish to translate that into a project realized in public space. As I discovered, this was due in part to the unfamiliar nature of the experience, and potentially to a degree of hesitation about whether we really could just go outside and ‘do stuff’. Of course, practical considerations were also a factor, as several ideas were too ambitious to be realized within the time available. Where possible, the artists, Matthew Koop-Pearce (a volunteer with the project), and I worked to realize projects on behalf of participants who were unable to do so personally. This seemed fair enough, as it was still a group effort to decide what the project would be and how it would take shape.

A wide range of interesting things occurred during the four weeks of SUSO, outlined as follows:

Inge Hoonte’s visit to Art City introduced the concept of public libraries in a unique way. Many participants began the week with only a marginal interest in books and rather little experience with the idea of libraries, but over the course of the week demonstrated great interest in making their own books and reading books created by their peers. They identified books as both repositories for information, and as vehicles for stories to be created and shared. Libraries, by extension, were appreciated not only as quiet spaces for resting, thinking and enjoying ideas, but as places where books can be shared, and information across a wide range of topics can be accessed. The participants were also interested in gardens as another type of public good, and were keen to add handmade flowers to the Art City library façade that divided the general work area from the newly created space.

Art City staff and volunteers noted significant differences in the way participants interacted during the installation of, and following the dismantling of the ‘Art City Library,’ and realized that participants were proactively using the library as a space to find calm when they felt overstimulated. Given the success of the temporary library, staff have considered how they might be able to create another do-it-yourself library on a longer-term basis. A summary of the activities undertaken in the sessions on recreation were as follows:

  • Art City Library and book-making project (x 5 days)
  • A session on recreation hosted at aceartinc. in which people in the streets were interviewed about their favourite places in Winnipeg, following which the data was collected and presented in the gallery. An interesting map was produced that categorized the spaces as either public, private or in-between. Participants considered further analyzing the data and making it available through a poster or flyer for circulation outside of the gallery, but this did not materialize due to a lack of time.
  • Inspired by the Art City Library, a bookshelf was made from scrap wood and used as an outdoor lending library, stacked with books from a second hand shop that were packed in resealable bags to protect them from rain. The bookcase was left outside in West Broadway with the statement: “Need a book? Take a book, but don’t forget to leave a book.”

Calgary-based artist, Tomas Jonsson, spent a week in Winnipeg facilitating conversation between a wide array of community members, including citizens, students, anti-poverty advocates, city planners, architects, and even real estate agents. Together, they addressed the topics of housing and poverty, and the intersecting issue of gentrification. Tomas sparked dialogue with a number of groups in the city, including Social Planning Council of Winnipeg, and he’s eager to return and follow up on this dialogue with a more long-term contribution. We are in the process of working something out, and if an initiative materializes, it will be announced here. The activities undertaken during the sessions on poverty and housing included:

  • A self-guided psychogeographic tour titled Home is Where the ___ is, that was created with contributions from multiple groups over the course of five days. Hard copies were distributed throughout downtown Winnipeg, and in classified ads in the real estate sections of various newspapers. URLs linking to an online .pdf were also submitted to real estate websites
  • Notes to neighbourhoods walking tours (x 2 days)
  • A map outlining suggested expansion for the community garden program (contributed by a participating community member)
  • A City Hall vegetable garden action (a planned contribution from two participating community members that was unrealized)
  • Critical home marketing campaign billboards (planned but unrealized)
  • A community housing performance action (planned but unrealized)
  • An interview with Ed Ackerman concerning his fight to maintain rights over his home under renovation at 89 Gertie Ave. (as yet incomplete)

Local artist, Kristin Nelson, worked with a diverse group of community members on the topic of accessibility. Their sessions produced a number of small projects in the city and online, all drawing attention to a range of issues, among them the need to consider barriers to participation in the arts community by artists with disabilities. From what I understand, Kristin was subsequently approached by a group to produce a project inspired by this discussion… again, if it materializes, I’ll be sure to post information here. The activities undertaken in the sessions on accessibility were as follows:

  • Chalking project that re-visioned 280 McDermot Ave. as an accessible site
  • Wheelchair accessibility notice sign for 69 Albert St.
  • Online intervention involving a fictional call for a disability arts coordinator at a fictional arts council
  • Design and construction of a symbolic bench as a gesture for those who need a moment to rest while passing through the city (developed in several phases, with assorted contributors bringing it into fruition)
  • Imagine Your Day If lottery card intervention project, utilizing scratch cards left at lottery kiosks throughout the city that invited participants to contemplate how their day might be different if they needed to navigate the city with differences in ability to walk, see, hear or process information
  • Assorted interviews and questionnaires

Winnipeg-based Stop Violence Against Aboriginal Women Action Group (including collaborating artist, Leah Decter) received comprehensive media coverage for the project they co-developed with community members through SUSO, which took the form of a human billboard where citizens wore t-shirts that spelled the message, No More Stolen Sisters. This phrase was the title of a recent Amnesty International report concerning the shocking number of murdered and missing Aboriginal women in Canada, and the government’s overall lack of action in addressing the situation. Amnesty International endorsed SVAAWAG’s co-authored project and helped promote it online. Human billboard actions were carried out on three separate occasions in public spaces: the second was covered by CBC and APTN, and the third was covered by CTV Manitoba and CTV National. This was a tremendous amount of media coverage that—given the undeniable role of mainstream media in shaping public opinion—is an important part of getting a new dialogue started in the public realm. The project included the co-development of statements written on t-shirts, and written material distributed at action-sites. In addition to raising awareness throughout the city, one of the most important outcomes of this project is that it became a topic of discussion during a recent mayoral debate on human rights. In addition, various groups working to draw attention to the issue are considering building a coalition. SVAAWAG’S work continues: please click here for more information.

Deborah Kelly
, from Sydney, Australia, worked most closely with two groups: PeerProject4Youth (a program organized by Winnipeg’s Rainbow Resource Centre); and FemRev, a group of young feminists. During a brainstorming session on the first day, youth participants brought forward a concern unknown to those of us not currently in high school. The River East Transcona School Division has been systematically censoring discussion about three topics critical to the development of healthy sexual attitudes: homosexuality, abortion, and masturbation (HAM). HAM is a covert policy that has been in effect since 1989; though it was hotly debated at the time of its implementation, it eventually fell out of the spotlight. Since then, Canada has changed tremendously, particularly insofar as gay rights are concerned, and to treat this subject as taboo effectively marginalizes gay youth and perpetuates bigotry and feelings of shame. Kelly worked with the participants to develop understanding about what a public awareness campaign entails, and helped them create visual strategies to communicate their concerns.

By the end of the second session, the participants had created a full-fledged campaign concept called HAM Happens: So Let’s Talk About It, drawing attention to the School Division’s outdated policy. The participants utilized a blog and other social media tools, and created promotional material, a video, and props for a demonstration, (including a HAM mascot costume which didn’t get finished in time, but may well pop up somewhere in the city at some point in the future). They teamed up with the Day of Action Against Homophobic Bullying (October 20) and issued a statement about the ongoing presence of a policy that limits access to unbiased information at a time when youth need it most. Thanks to the participants working with Kelly, the lingering and practically covert HAM policy was exposed in the media through numerous articles, and was featured on CBC Radio in Manitoba and across the country. Art alone isn’t responsible for the River East Transcona School Division’s decision to reconsider its policies, (per their public announcement to that effect on May 13, 2011), but art plus energetic, creative people with good ideas and a desire to make the world a more compassionate and progressive place clearly results in the potential for real change. Congratulations to all the HAMsters for their hard work—it’s really paying off, so stay strong and keep it going!

As mentioned, Deborah also spent time in conversation with FemRev to brainstorm projects that happened in association with the PanCanadian young feminist festival, RebELLEs 2011 which took place in Winnipeg from May 20 – 23, 2011.

While in Winnipeg, Deborah also gave a well-attended talk at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art about activist art practices that inspire her, and projects that she has been involved with personally.

The overall project grew and was documented within the Flux Gallery at aceartinc. Ephemera connected to discussions and brainstorming, paired with contributions from other members of the community, gave the gallery the feeling of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), where anything could be imagined as a possible reality, through dreaming, reflection, discussion, and planning. Additional projects were added to the space by local artists, including Becky Thiessen’s Postcards from North Point Douglas and Elvira Finnigan’s See… hear… say… do (a response to the recent trial of Willie Pickton), September 29, 2010. Community members also left written text and drawings on the walls, and posted messages that included responses on postcards provided by the Winnipeg Citizen’s Coalition. A little video that animates still photos taken during the installation, occupation, and tear down of the TAZ in the Flux Gallery will be available here soon.

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