Saturday, February 9, 2013

Walking in Windsor for Homework

In October 2011, I attended Homework: Infrastructures & Collaboration in Social Practices, a two-day multidisciplinary conference organized by the Broken City Lab. An essay I wrote about my experience at the conference has been published in the latest issue of Syphon, Modern Fuel's Arts Newspaper. Look for it at the finest artist-run centre near you, or become a Modern Fuel member to get a free subscription. My essay appears as follows:

The train pulled into the Windsor station late in the evening on Thursday, October 20, 2011. It was the end of an eight hour journey for me. I was traveling from Kingston to Windsor for the two-day conference entitled Homework: Infrastructures & Collaboration in Social Practices. Organized by Windsor’s own collaborative social practice collective, Broken City Lab, the conference was to begin early the next morning at nine o’ clock, necessitating my arrival the night before. It was cold and dark as I exited the station into what felt like a dusty dirt alley behind a factory. It seemed that the alley served as a parking lot for the train station and it was at this instant rapidly emptying of the few vehicles there to pick up the expected arrivals. I had entertained the thought of walking to my hotel from the station because the map I consulted made it seem possible, but now I was tired and disoriented and discouraged by my situation: a chill had taken hold of me. I brightened when the light of an unoccupied taxi cab appeared.  Walking could wait for daylight. 

Nevertheless, I was excited about what lay before me. The conference had an ambitious scope and I hoped to gain a better appreciation of collaborative social practices through my attendance: not only through the scheduled panel presentations, but also by being introduced to the artists who were selected for a residency running concurrently with the conference. I also wanted to take the advertised opportunity to contribute to a collectively authored publication that was going to be produced after the conference. And finally, I wanted to have the opportunity to spend some time in Windsor and its border city Detroit, to walk around the core of the two cities and get a feel for them. Also, could it be possible that Duran Duran was playing at the Windsor casino that weekend? I glimpsed the announcement on the marquee as the taxi sped along, transporting me to my hotel.

The next morning I walked a short distance along sunny streets to get to the Art Gallery of Windsor where the conference was just getting started. A long day of concentrated discussion passed, with four intensive panels each featuring a range from three to five speakers, artists’ performances throughout the day and then a presentation by the 20-odd artists participating in the residency that had begun earlier in the week; all of the preceding was topped off by not one but three keynote speakers. I overheard another attendee say, at the end of the day, “Wow. That was like summer school in one sitting.” Later, as I was decompressing, I began to gather some of the threads together and I singled out one of the many recurring themes in the various presentations, which was “Walking as an Artistic Practice.”

On the first panel that morning, focusing on the artist’s role in education, Stephanie Springgay, (Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto) spoke of the pedagogical turn in recent contemporary art, and cited projects such as Diane Borsato’s The Chinatown Foray (2008-2010), where artists and non-artists produced lateral learning through a serendipitous expedition in an unconventional locale, and the Mammalian Diving Reflex’s Night Walks with Teenagers in Inverness, Cape Breton (2011), which took Parkdale kids from urban Toronto for nocturnal adventures on the East Coast.  Springgay is working with the artists mentioned as part of a research project entitled “The Institute of Walking.” The study examines the ways artistic practices reflect the inventive processes at work within everyday life and proposes that walking can enact a number of interesting inter-personal, social, and pedagogic relationships. By mindfully walking together, it seems, participants can realize the Beuysian motto “Everyone is an artist” and minimize the distinction between artists and non-artists.

The second panel of the day focused on collaboration, and again walking or hiking was a privileged mode of engaging with the environment and learning. Laura Mendes and John Loerchner (who work collaboratively under the name Labspace Studio) spoke about the East-End Expeditions Series that they ran in 2010. The series featured a number of artist-led projects and research-based expeditions that undertook the investigation, navigation and re-contextualization of natural spaces in the east-end of Toronto. For example, their Hydro Hike led 15 artists from various disciplines through a green corridor of trails, tracks and hydro fields that began in Scarborough and finished 26.5 kilometres later at the corner of Yonge and Bloor. Exhibitions featuring materials gathered during or inspired by these expeditions were then organized after the event in order to build meaningful narratives from their experiences and create common bonds between the participants. According to Loerchner and Mendes, their most successful exhibitions are built around conversations as opposed to objects. Their main goal is to create dialogue and share experiences, and these adventures provided an effective fulcrum for the realization of that goal.

The artist Catherine Campbell spoke most explicitly about walking as an artistic practice on the fourth panel presentation that day, the theme of which was “Cities and Space.” For Campbell, both walking art and storytelling are empowering activities that help one to find a sense of place and establish a connection to the land where one lives. A storyteller and artist engaging in walking as an artistic practice herself, Campbell often includes environmental teaching as a part of the process of her practice. Campbell is a teacher whose aim is to enable her students to find their own voices and articulate their own stories. During her presentation, she quoted Thomas King: “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.”  Finding stories to tell that are linked to place, the landscape and walking, Campbell helps her audiences/participants establish a connection to a place in order to feel fully alive there. People’s physical connections to a place, as much as their psychological connections, play a strong part in their sense of engagement, ownership, and citizenship.

A citizen’s physical engagement with place through walking as a potentially artistic practice was connected, implicitly if not explicitly, to another recurring thread at the conference: the Occupy Movement, which came up several times during discussions as an example of direct democracy revealing the collaborative nature of politics and consensus-building. Sarah Margolis-Pineo’s presentation on the third panel, themed “Artist-Run Infrastructures,” pointed out the echoes and the continued resonance of artistic practices of the ’60s and ’70s in today’s art, and cited as one example a parallel between the “Occupy Museums” movement and the Art Worker’s Coalition.  The first keynote speaker, Gregory Sholette, embodied the continuum by speaking about his own experience working with the artists’collective PAD/D (or Political Art Documentation and Distribution) throughout the ’80s. As an aside, he related that he had taken a walk earlier through Windsor and noted that, though it was looking pretty empty, it still wasn’t as bad as the Lower East Side in New York in the ‘70s. One of the crucial points he made about his experience with PAD/D was that, generally, one must articulate one’s own position and be vigilant about it so that it is not lost to history. He also spoke for those not as articulate as he: “Not having a discourse doesn’t mean you should be excluded.” Of course, one of the main criticisms of the Occupy Movement has been that it did not have a clear agenda or message to communicate. Conference-goers, clearly sympathetic with the Occupy Movement’s being if not aims, were able to reflect on issues related to collaboration and the socially engaged practices that were highlighted by the conference, and during the next day’s work groups led by the keynote speakers, they were given the opportunity to articulate a future strategy for moving forward. 

After two days of serious debate and discussion, the hundred or so people who had attended the conference had earned a well deserved pint, and so at around five o’ clock on Saturday October 22, a large number of them retired to the Phog lounge to have one.  While there, cogitating on the remnants of the day and mustering up the courage to talk to Salem Collo-Julin of Temporary Services (another one of the keynote speakers), I noticed the bartender turn, and putting down his telephone, call out to his patrons, “Does anyone want two tickets to see Duran Duran tonight?” I lost my train of thought and took him up on it. 

That night on the way to the concert, I kept noticing chalk outlines of bodies on the sidewalks of downtown Windsor, and the message was getting clearer each time I passed one, when, just as I was realizing that it had something to do with women’s victimization by male violence, a small parade of another hundred or so people rounded the corner, taking back the night and chanting “Hey, Hey! Ho, Ho! The Patriarchy has got to go!” Later, when the approximately 5,000 Duran Duran fans were let loose from the casino, I returned to my hotel, passing a tiny encampment I dimly perceived in a dark and quiet corner of Senator David Croll Park.  “Could that be Occupy Windsor?” I wondered, before venturing into the drunken melee of Ouellette Avenue, where a strip filled with nightclubs is closed for pedestrians on weekends.

The next day I caught a bus and headed over to Detroit to walk around for the afternoon.  I had visited Windsor and Detroit on a school trip many years before, but I had been shuttled around from art institution to art institution so I didn’t get the sense of place or scale of the place or orientation in it that I get from walking in a city.  The first thing I encountered when I arrived in Detroit was the much larger Occupy encampment, which took up a whole quadrant of Grand Circus Park.  Occupy Detroit was probably outflanked, however, by the throngs of other people animating the downtown: A Lion’s game had just ended at Comerica Park and there were numerous tail gate parties happening in parking lots throughout the core; A performance of “Carmina Burana” had also taken place at the Detroit Opera House that afternoon, and a wave of fancy-outfitted people had just hit the streets. I made my way over to the Detroit Institute of Arts, where a painting by Philip Guston was on view in a temporary exhibition featuring works donated by a Detroit collector.  In Driver (1975), a lone motorist with a meaty hand on the wheel steers a vehicle on a barren roadway into a bloodstained horizon.  After a weekend of walking in Windsor and Detroit, thinking and talking about social practices and artistic engagement, I felt that this painting summed up my experience.  All the diverse groups I encountered seemed to be pursuing their goals in an autonomous and unconnected manner. 

Leaving Windsor, I did walk back to the train station.  It took longer than I thought it would, but on the way I did discover that, yes, there was indeed an Occupy Windsor encampment in Senator David Croll Park.  Passing a teach-in session there, I overheard a man saying, “The odds are 99:1! Let’s Occupy the Streets!” My feeling is that the odds are going to have to get better than that.  Maybe one to one is more like it.  The last memorable thing I saw in Windsor was a dedication on a park bench overlooking the Detroit River: “Best Friends, Norm + Bev Marshall.” I thought of how, one day during the Homework residency, the participating artists stitched together a number of umbrellas to create an ambulatory canopy for them all to use to walk around Windsor together while it rained. Their canopy is a hopeful rejoinder to the grim outlook of Guston’s Driver. From walking in Windsor and Detroit, I took with me the following lesson: If you want to increase your numbers, and your chances, you’ll have to collaborate.