16 March 2009

Living History

Being involved with the arts can have a lasting and transforming effect on many aspects of people’s lives. This is true not just for individuals, but also for neighbourhoods, communities, regions and entire generations, whose sense of identity and purpose can be changed through art.

spmb projects: Eduardo Aquino and Karen Shanski
Monuments, including the ones in Vimy Ridge Park, commemorate heroic past moments. Even though Vimy Ridge represented a victory towards freedom and democracy, creating a hopeful path for generations to come, maybe, after these 88 years, we are on a historical threshold where the notion of celebration will also shift, promoting and celebrating peace and communication among people. Public art challenges the traditional notion of monument by reinventing public space, unfolding new modes of celebration, placing the public at the centre. Our notion of a living history addresses qualities of the present, to remember the present as it is lived, about and for the people that are alive and participating in the life of a community.

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT Art that is rooted in a “listening” self, that cultivates the intertwining of self and Other, suggests a flow-through experience which is not delimited by the self but extends into the community through modes of reciprocal empathy. The audience becomes an active component of the work and is part of the process.

If the project is not about other heroes from other times but it is about the people, everyday heroes of the present, then it is about the people of Wolseley, the primary users of the park. The first character of public space is the public. For this project we have proposed an engagement strategy to create an opportunity for direct participation of the community. If public space is about the people, then the people should participate in the process.

PROCESS: PARTICIPATIVE DESIGN But a central objective of community-based site specificity is the creation of a work in which members of a community – as simultaneously viewer/spectator, audience, public, and referential subject – will see and recognized themselves in the work, not so much in the sense of being critically implicated but of being affirmatively pictured or validated.

The engagement strategy created a dialogue around the project, establishing a link between the people of Wolseley and the artists. If there is something in common with all Wolseley neighbours it is language. Through language we establish relationships and build community. Words become the link between people, private and public, past and future. We invited the people of Wolseley to contribute WORDS to the project. Each household were asked to donate 5-word phrases that represented a sentiment about the place; a desire or a dream; or the memory of an event that took place in the neighbourhood. With all the collected phrases we composed a narrative, a story, a history of Wolseley – a landscape of language.

The dinner table is the centre for the teaching and practicing ...of conversation, consideration, tolerance, family feeling, and just about all the other accomplishments of society...

Traditional monuments in public space have, for most of the time, glorified a moment or an individual. This glorification has lent the convention obelisk-like objects and statues: frontally presented, privileged siting, usually taller than the people, placed straight up, installed on a base. These overpowering features have unconsciously distanced the people and altered their interaction with public space. We take an opposite position by inverting these features in order to bring the people to the project, and to develop a situation where interaction is valued – the return of the public. We considered the project to be horizontal, close to the ground, harmonious with the existing landscape, accessible and appealing to the most diverse activities. When getting together around the TABLE, participants engage physically, socially and emotionally as ideas, inspiration and a sense of community occur. A TABLE can make a family of strangers connect through sharing, talking, watching and listening. The unpredictable nature of what happens around a TABLE sets the stage for an event to occur – not prescribing the event, but allowing the community to establish it. The WORDS donated by the community, imprinted on the TABLE, make the people recognize themselves around the TABLE by being affirmatively pictured and validated. The TABLE and collection of WORDS become not the main subject but the canvas that creates the space of happening.

The designated site for this public art project plays an adjacent role to the whole park’s program. It moves away from the primary vocation as a playground for kids, as we see along Home Street, to a more isolated, quiet zone along Canora Street. The path network present on the site privileges the orientation north-south, servicing pedestrians moving in and out of the neighbourhood via Portage Avenue. This elongated disposition clarifies the vocation of the site as a passage. The project preserves this function adding to a group of specific spaces along the proposed table to respond to the diverse set of activities that may take place. In this manner the project is responsive to the site by creating these spaces without restricting the existing uses. The table assumes the size of the community, carefully observed during the community consultation process.

spmb projects. 'Living History' On Site review, no. 16 Winter 2006
©Eduardo Aquino, Karen Shanski and On Site review

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