31 October 2008

On The Road Again

artist-run galleries in disarrayJennifer McVeigh
In Calgary today, whole buildings are demolished overnight, leaving only rubble that will soon be cleared for the next development. Apartment buildings are emptied of their tenants and turned into upmarket condominiums. Homelessness and near-homelessness are at an all time high. Even small businesses and non-profit organisations are displaced as prices continue to increase.
How do we absorb and adapt to this recurring cycle of displacement, erasure and transformation? How do we rebuild our homes, identities and communities when our physical environment is in constant flux? In Hollow City, Rebecca Solnit notes that ‘to have your city dismantled too rapidly around you is to have the relationship between mind and place thrown into disarray’.
This dichotomy has been especially challenging for members of Calgary’s art community. Each of the city’s artist-run centres has a nomadic history, constantly recreating themselves in more affordable locations with the city’s boom and bust cycle. The New Gallery in particular, has taken temporary refuge in a storefront at Eau Claire Market shopping centre (itself slated for demolition) while its former quarters were razed to make room for a new office tower.
On the eve of the building’s destruction, former Gallery director Heather Allen proposed an opportunity for artists to respond to the situation. The result was On the Road Again – a collaborative performance art project conceived by Tomas Jonsson, realised with the support of several community groups, and which took place from September 10 -23, 2007. During a public workshop at Eau Claire Market, wheels from bicycles, strollers and roller blades were installed on furniture purchased through the Calgary Dollars local currency community, along with found and donated pieces. The following weekend, a hardy group of artists and activists gathered with their hybrid vehicles at the top of Centre Street hill, the starting point for an endurance-length procession to commemorate sites of transition throughout the downtown core.
The first site was the former location of the Brick furniture warehouse. After the store’s closure, the building was turned into a temporary winter homeless shelter, then demolished to make way for an additional driving lane for the trans-Canada highway.
Next was Eau Claire, an area on the Bow river. In the 1980s, this older neighbourhood was replaced with a large shop-ping and entertainment complex. Never a commercial success, the complex is now slated for redevelopment as condominium towers.
On 9th Avenue SW, the group stopped to examine what remained of the former New Gallery building. Halfway torn down on the day of the procession, the gallery’s rooms were sliced down the middle and exposed. Strangely, a single wooden chair was still perched in the space.
Finally, a stop was made at the latest artist-run centres to be affected by the boom. The building that houses Quickdraw Animation Society and Emmedia Gallery and Production Society was recently sold to developers, and its tenants given notice to vacate.
The following day, On the Road Again was taken to the launch of Homeless Awareness Week Calgary in Riley Park. The furniture created a social space for conversation facilitated by activists from the Calgary Housing Action Initiative. Citizens recounted their memories of the city and its transformations, as well as ideas for creating stronger, more welcoming communities.
After a week-long exhibition in the centre court of Eau Claire Market, On the Road Again was disassembled and its components donated to city furniture banks. Though temporary, the project was a human-scaled intervention in face of the astounding rate of transformation happening in the city.

McVeigh, Jennifer. 'On the Road Again: artist run galleries in disarray' On Site review, no. 19 Spring/Summer 2008
©Jennifer McVeigh and On Site review

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