[Guest post] Two tales of a city: converging realities of culture in Toronto

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This blog post was written by Kelsey Spitz, a Senior Associate at Social Innovation Generation. It has been reproduced with the author's permission.

Before the real city could be seen it had to be imagined, the way rumours and tall tales were a kind of charting – Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of the Lion

How do we imagine this city?
What are the rumours and tall tales charting…?
Tale One: The Soho Effect

Artists bring vibrancy, cohesion and activity into our neighborhoods – Yorkville (1960s); West Queen West (1990s); Regent Park (2000s). Real estate prices go up. Artists – often renters – get priced out, along with other low-income residents. Artists drive the yuppification of our communities, inspiring demonic growth and displacement, the hapless victims of their own success. We are more shallow, disconnected, and cold for the loss.

 Here’s where the wrecking crew tore out the heart of the ward
No street signs remind you that a neighborhood died here before 
But things are working out well
Don’t believe what you see on the streets
No threadbare armies of men broken and dead on their feet 
No more bending your back to the weight of the world
No more sorrows, no setbacks, and no more diving for pearls in the ditches and drains
All our history’s remade and no memory remains of us now
- “History Remade” by The FemBots (2005)

“Evolution of Graffiti and Revolt” by EGR

Tale Two: Artistic Antidote

Artists are the antidotes to the homogenization of place. We have the knowledge and practice to leverage the power of the arts to both help artists and inclusively build the city. We can leverage ‘growth’ – the dynamism of a growing city – to counteract the displacement of artists and low-income Torontonians. We can not only creatively ‘make place,’ we can creatively keep what artists and neighbours have already made, through a combination of tenacity, collaboration and strange bedfellows, charting a real city imagined over time through deep connection and relationships.

Talking about a new way
Talking about changes and names
Talking about building the land of our dreams
His tightrope’s gotta learn how to bend
We’re makin’ new plans
We’re gonna start it again

(Rise up rise up) Oh rise and show your power

(Rise up)
Time for you and me
- “Rise Up” by The Parachute Club (1983)

ᐱᓕᕆᖃᑎᒋᓐᓂᖅ - Piliriqatigiingniq Mural Project (Follow on Instagram @thepasystem)

On November 26th, Tim Jones, CEO of Artscape, shared both of these tales of Toronto during his MaRS Global Leadership and SiG Inspiring Action for Social Impact talk.

The first tale is a story that happens to us. The power to shape the city lies with amorphous forces of real estate, gentrification, homogeneity and private profit. The city grows itself mysteriously around us, burying the sincerity of neighourhoods with ever-rising towers of glass and concrete, enriched by the cultural roots that others – now displaced – nurtured.

The second is a story that we co-author, where the tools of the arts empower us to be savvy, thoughtful brokers of the value that rich artistic communities create; we know, appreciate and foresee the value of deep, cohesive place-based culture and leverage it to creatively, deliberately and inclusively ‘keep place’ as the dynamism of city-building introduces new energy, offers, interests and investments into neighborhoods.

Both tales are true. Because these stories not only reflect what is happening, they actively generate and construct reality by shaping what we believe to be true and therefore, how we act in response.

Through the experiences of Artscape, a broker in the manner of the second tale, we learn about practical, actionable approaches and prototypes to inch away from lamenting the Soho Effect to embracing and reclaiming the artistic antidote.

While there is nothing simple about the Artscape model, in its simplest form it honours artists’ natural tendencies – to cluster, to collaborate, to invest locally and in each other, and to engage as changemakers – as a critical city-building asset and community development force.

It stands to reason that when a critical mass of people come together in a neighbourhood, everyone is drawn to this, creating a strong, powerful push for residential development – Tim Jones (in presentation)

This powerful push for residential development that follows where artists thrive is the carrot for development deals to accommodate artists, make space for low-income residents and accommodate urban growth at the same time.

In other words, it is an opportunity to innovate urban growth that Artscape first began playing with in the 1990s. Their innovation: work with the city, community members, and developers together to manifest prototypes of creative place-keeping into public-private development deals. How? By taking advantage of a little extra density, inclusive zoning and a new tale about the imperative role of cultural value-creators –artists – to ensure they and other low-income community members remain in community.

You can build all kinds of social capital and social infrastructure, because in part together we are creating a multibillion-dollar market for residential development – Tim Jones (in presentation)

If we understand how culture creates value for urban development (and if we know that the value is predictable, as it has been throughout Toronto), we can shift from advocating for creative place-making as an endangered need to deliberately and effectively appreciating culture as a critical lever for creative place-keeping – a fundamental case for more community and artistic ownership in public-private development deals.

Tim calls this engaging in culture as a form of “urban acupuncture” – engaging in small- scale, neighbourhood-level innovation to have a city-wide (city-building) impact.

There can be healing in cities by stimulating ‘nerves’ (creative, original expression) and ‘releasing pressure’ (through unusual partnership or collaboration) to create transformation…charting a new reality where self-interest compels policymakers, developers, community activists and artists to put culture at the heart of city building.

Let the beat of the drums harmonize with the beat of your soul
And let it travel miles.
Even if you are spiritually drained as you dance, as you dance, just smile.
Smile until you forget sadness and laugh at anger.
Until you can look into the eyes of anyone as a future brother
And not a stranger.
To invest in relationships you don’t need to be a banker.
- “Spectrum of Hope” by Mustafa Ahmed

Art – music, poetry, installations, painting, craft, writing – is “the quickest and easiest way to get back to something that makes you feel tied to where you are, and who’s around you, and who came before you, what they were doing” (Philip Churchill, The Once). It is how we imagine the city, how we engage in it, understand it and connect to a through-line of histories woven into this place.

Converge the realities.
Ice, wind, pain
Love, sun and rain.
Converge the realities.
Past, present and future.
- “Converge the Realities” by Charmie Deller

Watch Tim’s Talk: Culture as Urban Acupuncture (Full Video)

MaRS Global Leadership: Culture as Urban Acupuncture from MaRS Discovery District on Vimeo.

More Precisely

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by cheyanne turions

Born in Harlem, James Baldwin was 63 years old when he died in 1987, his life bearing witness to significant social upheavals including the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, the gay liberation movement, and the emergence of AIDS. Just eight months before his death, British television host Mavis Nicholson interviewed Baldwin as part of her afternoon show Mavis on Four. A novelist, essayist, playwright, poet, and social critic, Baldwin is perhaps best known for his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and his essay collection The Fire Next Time (1963). In London for a remounting of his play The Amen Corner (1954), Baldwin joined Nicholson amongst a set of empty theatre seats. The footage is raw: a time code ticks the seconds away, noting that the edit begins eight minutes into recording. The conversation shows Baldwin ruminating on shifting distributions of social power and those that remain entrenched. He is irreverent, refusing to be sated by the revolutions he has witnessed for the deliverance he imagines. I cannot be sure why this interview, nearly 30 years old, re-entered circulation in November 2014, but with the title “Civil Rights” it is easy to register its resonance with contemporary events in the United States such as waves of protest against a racist, and specifically anti-Black, police state or the then-anticipated release of Ava Duvernay’s Selma (2014). It seems that Baldwin’s ideas again aggravate, push, and prod: this is not yet the world we dream of.

Nicholson is a provocative if somewhat naïve interlocutor, asking frank questions about racialization, religion, and sexuality, and Baldwin is an affable subject. And yet, the interview comes to be characterized by his consistent reframing of the assumptions embedded in her prompts. For instance, when Nicholson suggests that the terror Baldwin felt as a young man was because he is Black, he resists: it was because he was despised. The fear he felt was not properly related to the colour of his skin, but to the base reactions it elicited from peers who did not look like him. Baldwin’s point is that the pathology of racism belongs to the inner life of each of us, not to the observable facts of the world. And, while he never says this explicitly, it’s not a generalized racism but white supremacy in particular that allows for the social legibility of such hate, then and now.

This point is taken further when Nicholson tells a story about watching Baldwin’s play the week before the interview was taped and witnessing an interaction between two families. The patriarch of one family she describes as looking “intelligent…well-off…liberal” and the other family she describes as having a crying child and being Black. Nicholson suggests that the inherited history of “racial prejudice” prohibits the man whom she implies is white from telling off the Black family for bringing their child to the theatre. But again Baldwin stops her: “Why don’t you examine what does the word ‘racial’ mean. After all, everybody is a race of one kind or another. We’re not talking about racial prejudice; we talking about the structure of power. The structure of power that has the right and the duty to tell other people who they are for very dubious reasons. After all, one of the reasons I am Black is because I had to be Black in order to justify my slavery. That’s a part of my heritage and a part of yours too. It has nothing to do with race; it’s a way of avoiding history.” Against Nicholson’s proposal that this nearly missed confrontation between families is a moment of post-racial neutering, Baldwin insists that the white man will simply find another way to punish the Black family, a worse way. Perhaps Baldwin meant to imply a direct reaction—an admonishment of parenting capability or a slashed tire—though more likely he was invoking systemic distributions of power—higher rates of incarceration, widespread poverty, obstructed access to education. Seeming to function without leadership, these ongoing phenomena are actually the perfect manifestation of a white supremacist fear of difference. Baldwin knows he is being provocative when he says that “the hardest thing for any human being to do is to forgive someone they know they’ve wronged… [and so] white people live with the nightmare of the nigger they’ve invented.” Patterns of racial discrimination are not ever the proper consequences of whiteness or blackness, but rather a product of social conditioning, where white people are unjustifiably understood as superior to others, and where this unfounded belief then maintains systems of inequality that effect the social, economic, and political lives of all other people.

Baldwin refuses what Nicholson calls “racial prejudice.” On his terms, racial prejudice is nothing more than “the most abject cowardice” of those who occupy positions of power—politicians, citizens, the bourgeoisie—to self-reflexively understand their standing as historically informed and arising through subjugation. To the extent that material and political equality is possible, it will involve a recognition of how fear shapes every member of a society, and to address shifting political subjectivities through some kind of embodied relationship to this complex truth. Race is absolutely a lived reality despite the fact that it is not real, at least not biologically as is now generally accepted in scientific fields. And yet, there are countless social consequences tied to our differing historical, linguistic, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. Racism has become shorthand for acts of fear or hate that unfairly cast their provocation upon the body of the person who must bear their cruelty. Baldwin’s tactic refocuses agency upon the perpetrator. He doesn’t say it, but in his persistent refusal of Nicholson’s terms I read a refusal of racism. Racism is a way of describing structures of power, but it is not a thing unto itself, not the way the word is commonly used. More precisely, it is a system predicated upon an insidious kind of make-believe.

In this precision, the complexities between the “you” of Mavis Nicholson and the “I” of James Baldwin (and vice versa) are drawn out, placing the capacity for great social change upon them both as social actors capable of responses based in sentiments other than abject cowardice. However, that this nearly 30-year-old interview still so urgently resonates points to the fact that any real confrontation of racism will require systemic dismantling of white supremacist power structures. We can begin (one place amongst so many) by following Baldwin’s lead and engaging with the repercussions of language. We can consider, at the urging of poet and scholar Jackie Wang in her text Against Innocence, that “social, political, cultural and legal recognition [of Black people in North America] only happens when a person is thoroughly whitewashed, neutralized and made unthreatening…[and that] using ‘innocence’ as the foundation to address anti-Black violence is an appeal to the white imaginary.” We can refuse a rhetoric of innocence that serves to distance the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Pearlie Golden and Kathryn Johnston and Aiyanna Jones and Trayvon Martin and Nizah Morris from the murders of hundreds and hundreds of Black people each year by police officers in the USA. We can map how language works to obscure and deflect systemic exercises of power. We can use language more precisely, in order to reveal. And dismantle.

1] I am unable to find a more complete version of the interview.
2] From what I can tell, the footage was not available online until 01 November 2014, published on Youtube by ThamesTv and then circulated amongst aggregation sites. However, the footage remains relatively unseen, registering just over 4500 views as of 24 February 2015.
3] For discussions on the persistent myth of biological race see Merlin Chowkwanyun’s 2013 article “Race Is Not Biology,” published by The Atlantic here; Agustin Fuentes’s 2012 article “Race Is Real, but not the way Many People Think,” published by Psychology Today here; or UNESCO’s 1950 document “Statement by Experts on Race Problems,” found here.
4] Jackie Wang, Against Innocence (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2014), 7-8. The text is also available online here.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes are from the video Civil Rights—James Baldwin—Interview—Mavis on Four (1987), found here.

Thanks to Gina Badger and Pip Day for editorial support.

Culture Days Congress: Putting art at the centre (May 7-8)

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As part of the Culture Days Congress being held in Calgary May 7 and 8, 2015, Arts & Soicety Curator Shawn Van Sluys will host a conversation on Putting art at the centre, based on his experience with the SenseLabs project in Lethbridge. Shawn, who is one of the congress committee members, will also present the Cities for People Award.

Culture Days 2015


Cities For People: Putting Art At The Centre

A conversation hosted by Shawn Van Sluys, executive director, Musagetes & co-curator, Cities for People

Friday, May 8 at 10:40 MST / 12:40 EST

Cities for People is a national initiative that explores the question: How can we enhance social, ecological and economic well-being and help civic cultures thrive? Of the various themes that are considering this question, the Art & Society team has been developing a number of experimental projects that aim to transform public narratives through socially engaged art and education. In this workshop we will describe the broader initiative of Cities for People with a particular focus on SenseLabs which were piloted in Lethbridge, Alberta in 2014. We invite you to join us with your stories about city-based artistic initiatives.

The goal of these Interactive breakout workshops is to offer registered delegates the opportunity to learn directly from leading experts and practitioners in specific topics related to the Congress theme. See the full program of breakout workshops here.

Can't make it to the Congress but interested in listening in? You can access the Culture Days Congress livestream here.

Green Dream screening (Wed, 8 April)

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What are the relationships between natural spaces and urban areas? How do we as city-dwellers experience nature within the city? This Wednesday at 7pm, Maia Iotzova's new film Green Dream will show for the first time in Montreal at the Cinémathèque québécoise.

"Green Dream is a personal documentary that contemplates nature's place within the city.

Maia Iotzova takes the viewer on a poetic journey from the wild fields of Sofia, Bulgaria to the manicured parks of Vancouver, Canada and, finally, to a community-managed park (Le Champ des Possibles) in Montreal. The documentary is a reflection on the way wild green spaces have been cared for in the cities where she has lived.

Green Dream is also a film about maturing as a person and living with one's roots spread between different cultures. The film takes some surprising turns as the author questions her own relationship with nature and tries to reconcile the conflicting cultural approaches that people have towards the green spaces around her."

Read more here.


Wednesday, April 8th, 7pm
Cinémathèque québécoise, SALLE FERNAND-SEGUIN
335, boul. De Maisonneuve Est, Montreal, Quebec H2X 1K1

The view from São Paulo: Art & Urban Foodways

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Through the lens of a new location  (1 of 2)

By Todd Lester

I have just moved from Brooklyn, New York City to the Center (Centro) of São Paulo in order to realize the next stage of Lanchonete.org, a project I initiated that focuses on daily life in the city’s center and takes the form of a traditional lunch counter (or lanchonete). While the project is a lot about ‘looking’ and observing the ways people join together to claim their rights to a city, there are also the more basic reflections one has when they change their location and start to see things through the perspectives of a new city … and its citizens.

_MG_8878_2-166 Rocha

Image of a São Paulo lanchonete by Pedro Marques

As you might imagine, I’ve been thinking about food systems a lot since starting the Lanchonete.org project in São Paolo these past years. In the same period, a steady stream of stimuli started coming my way. A friend recently told me about the international peasants’ movement La Via Campesina and its Food Sovereignty Principles. And more than a year ago, the Vera List Center for Art & Politics presented programming entitled Your Food Is On Its Way. The project focused—in part—on food delivery workers in New York City and how online aggregating services, such as Seamless, can result in longer delivery routes by offering the customer more options yet do not encourage higher tips to the delivery person. So whereas the customer perceives improved services, the delivery people, often informal, immigrant laborers, suffer lower earnings. At the end of this blog, you’ll find a list of resources related to food systems that includes many more projects, organizations, and articles that I’ve come across over the past few years.

One of my first observations from the past few weeks in São Paulo is how active citizen groups, artists, and independent journalists are on issues ranging from the future of the Presidente Costa e Silva Viaduct to the Augusta Park battle to the broad issues of urban development and rights to the city through initiatives such as Arquitetura da Gentrificação and Cidades para Pessoas (Cities for People). The scene that this article, titled Reclaiming the Jungle, attempts to capture is the community setting in which our collective project begins to materialize. Lanchonete.org is the evolving result of both my artistic practice—one that is research-based and curious about organizational form—and a process of community organizing by a group of diverse stakeholders, that includes artists yet not as a majority. This dual persona is what makes Lanchonete.org such a dynamic process, and I actually love how it doesn’t have to be understood as art by everyone who encounters it.

When I’m asked how Lanchonete.org is art by a curator, I often feel like it’s a test to see whether I’ll reference Gordon Matta-Clark’s FOOD, a restaurant the artist/ architect and colleagues started in lower Manhattan in the 1970s. Sometimes I start my response with what differentiates Lanchonete.org from FOOD, or share the variety of influences—from French cooperative bistros to Welsh pubs, from Fast & French in Charleston, South Carolina made by artists JEMAGWGA to the 70s Lanchonarte project by Brazilian collective Equipe 3—that inform and inspire the making of Lanchonete.org. When folks from outside the art world ask the same question, I’m excited … excited to share these examples but also because the project’s personality and aspirations reach into a range of spaces and co-mingle with everyday life. While we are making the container, what happens in that space, and on the broader platform, can be authored by anyone, artist or not.

Given the topic of urban foodways, nature, and green spaces, I immediately think of the city’s urban sprawl and congestion, and how innovation springs from isolation. For example, Cities Without Hunger, an urban gardening initiative situated in the east part of the city, accesses available green space (under the power lines) held by the municipal electric company, EletroPaulo, in order to build stronger livelihoods among the community members. The ‘east zone’, as it is called, is a portion of the city’s periphery where unemployment rates are the highest. Given the reality and perceptions held of this area, it is not a place that many people go if they don’t have to, even if there is a lot to learn from the work of Cities Without Hunger. One of the goals of the Lanchonete.org project is to shine a light on such innovative projects and learn from them simultaneously. Over the first two years of the project, our focus is on developing strong partnerships from key sectors and populations, which we feel are foundational. Another example is GastroMotiva, which trains youth from similar backgrounds as those in the ‘east zone’ to cook and become chefs in professional kitchens.

Cities wo hunger

Image courtesy of Cities Without Hunger







Cities Without Hunger teaches households how to grow produce in urban conditions, providing both a healthy diet and income-generating opportunities. It shares a very similar ethos with GastroMotiva: to improve food preparation and dietary habits at the household level which, in turn, leads to employment opportunities and holistic betterment in families, communities, neighborhoods, business, and the city. We plan to purchase our produce from Cities Without Hunger and hire our restaurant staff from the ranks of GastroMotiva trainees.


Image courtesy of Gastromotiva

The eminent local philosopher and founder of arte/cidade Nelson Brissac Peixoto says that “São Paulo is not anymore a pedestrian city.” However, I believe that mega-cities such as São Paulo are in dialogue with cities in North America—through the human mobility flows that spread families and other relations between different places and offer many lessons from which our cities can learn and benefit.

In Part II of this blog, I’ll show some images of the typical lanchonete (lunch counter) in São Paulo.



Projects by and with Artists
- El Matam El Mish-masery (El restaurante no egipcio) (by Asunción Molinos Gordo).
- Vacant Acres Symposium (Meeting of land transformation advocates from all over the world by 596Acres)
- Taste of Freedom (by Felipe Cidade @ Art in Odd Places)
- El Internacional & Food Cultura Foundation (by Miralda)
- Acarajé + Gravura (by Thiago Goncalves)
- Doris Criolla (by Amilcar Packer)
- Foodshed (by Smack Mellon)
- Eat Art (by Daniel Spoerri)
- Urban Gardening (in Aesthetics of Protest)

Places / Place Concepts
- Bethlehem XXX (Montreal)
- White Dog Café (Philadelphia)
- Nowhere Kitchen (Berlin)
- Conflict Kitchen (Pittsburgh)
- The Sunview (New York City)
- Café Reconcile (New Orleans)

Canada Resource Guide
- Plant Adoption, a project that relocated city plants from areas with a wealth of fauna to poorer neighbourhoods that are often neglected by the city (by Golboo Amani).
- Poster-Pocket Plants, a project that integrates nature into the urban setting by creating pockets in existing posters throughout the city to create spaces for plants to grow (by Shawn Martindale in collaboration with landscape architect named Eric Cheung).
- Outside the Planter Boxes, a project that focuses on transforming crumbling city planter boxes (by Shawn Martindale).
- A Campus Food Revolution at the University of Guelph (in edible TORONTO)
- Cities Feed Cities: Unearthing three unique urban agriculture projects in Montréal, Toronto, and Vancouver (in SPACING)
- Local Food Map – Guelph Wellington (tastereal.ca)

NYC Resource Guide
- Delivery City: New York and its working cyclists (film)
- Chinese Staff and Workers Association
- National Mobilization Against Sweatshops
- New York Communities for Change
- Restaurant Opportunities Center
- Fast Food Forward

Brazil Resource Guide
- Guia san Pablo
- Fechado Para Jantar
- Cidade sem Fome
- GastroMotiva
- Instituto Polis (food security policies)
- Green My Favela
- Cidades para Pessoas
- Cidades para Que(m)? discusses Parque Augusta

Misc / Projects / Organizations / Initiatives / Articles
- Sustainable Food Systems (Topos Partnership)
- Street Vendor Project (Urban Justice Center)
- Pesticide Action Network of North America
- Sustainable Development Institute (Liberia)
- World Botanical Research Associates
- Politics of Food (by Delfina Foundation)
- Organic Consumer’s Association
- SEED: The Untold Story (film)
- Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance
- Hudson Valley Seed Library
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Center for Food Safety
- Iroquois Valley Farm
- Inspiration Kitchens
- Change Food
- Slow Food

Todd Lanier Lester is an artist and cultural producer. He has worked in leadership, advocacy and strategic planning roles at Global Arts Corps, Reporters sans frontiers, and Astraea Lesbian Justice Foundation. He founded freeDimensional and Lanchonete.org—a new project focused on daily life in the center of São Paulo. Todd is a Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute; a co-curator for the Arts & Society Team of Cities for People in Canada; and serves on the board of arts, rights and literary organizations in India, Mexico, Brazil and the US.


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By cheyanne turions

Perhaps counterintuitively, one measure of a system’s resilience is its “redundancy.” Efficiency is dangerous because of the ways it makes a system vulnerable: if there is only one way to accomplish something that needs to get done—even if it is the quickest method or uses the fewest resources or returns the largest profit—any disruption in the process means that the system breaks down. In Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World, Brian Walker and David Salt describe this phenomenon: “Resilient social-ecological systems have many overlapping ways of responding to a changing world. Redundancy in institutions increases the response diversity and flexibility of a system (Ostrom 1999)...Totally top-down governance structures with no redundancy in roles may be efficient (in the short term), but they tend to fail when the circumstances under which they were developed suddenly change. More ‘messy’ structures perform better during such times of change.”[1] With the caveat that I am not a musician, I’d like to propose that practices of improvisation might be a method for generating resilience within social systems. The potential for improvisation to take music, musicians, and audiences to unanticipated, strange, or surprising places is itself a value, aside from the qualities of the sound produced. In the language of resilience theory, we can think of this as generating redundancy, diversity as strength.

Listening builds relationship laterally, tangentially, without regard for divisions of power. In performance, musicians occupy the stage, but the audience is their collaborator as much as the musicians are each other’s. Listening is a movement of the body, a folding of the flesh, not only an aural reception of sound waves. Listening changes you.

At 2014’s Guelph Jazz Festival, the four men of Postcommodity—Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, Kade L. Twist and Nathan Young—performed songs from their LP We Lost Half The Forest, And The Rest Will Burn This Summer (forthcoming). Based in New Mexico, Chacon explained the album’s title in a discussion following their performance: “Where we come from, there is not a lot of rain. There is drought. Constant drought. Every summer, the few forests we have in New Mexico burn and then they grow back eventually. They burn every summer [but] they don’t have an opportunity to grow back to what they once were. This…affects animals, and some of us hunt, so we thought of these songs as hunting songs, songs to call toward animals, or songs you might make up while in the woods hunting. We composed these songs as improvisational frameworks to sing within.” Improvisation builds a way of being in the world, of being in relation.


Postcommodity performs at the Banff Centre. Image courtesy of Postcommodity.

And yet, when asked later about the nature of improvisation in their work, Chacon clarified:

“I don't believe what we are doing is on the side of improvisation, for two reasons. The first is that we each have intentional rigs (setups, systems, signal chains, instruments) that are very limited in what they can do. We have intended this to be the case, so that each member can play a role in the song as well as give each other space when oneself cannot play beyond that role. I believe that this aim toward control cannot truly be improvisation.

“Second, and most important, is that the songs have preplanned structures or instructions. Such as ‘create blasts of loud sound’ or ‘so-and-so starts with a solo then we get quiet’. There is also a set duration. Within a structure, we are free to choose pitches or tones to complete the given duration, but I don't think that free choices necessarily equals improvisation. In other words, we have set up enough preparations that one cannot easily steer the song to a different outcome.”

While the musicians that afternoon did not explicitly engage in improvisation, or at least not simply so, it was a part of the experience for me as a member of the audience. My usual ways of listening would not do. The music wanted something else from me, something agile, tough, and humble. Postcommodity’s Twist suggested that the music itself was action beyond sound: “A lot of the work that we do, a lot of our practice, could be labeled as Indian Futurism, or in Canada, Aboriginal Futurism. A big part of that is imagining a future that is more desirable, and being able to place metaphors, position them, in circumstances of self-determination. Reverse engineering back to the present is what Indian Futurism is about, and what we are doing with our music.” Given the ongoing process of colonization invoked in his comments, and the way that colonization produces the position of settler and Indigenous both, everyone in the room was implicated in this becoming.

In service of this reverse engineering of a cultural self-determination, Martínez articulated a method: “We take these tools that are tied to pervasive media and the rapid changes that are happening in the world and basically we hack them. Noise is a great format for that because noise is already a culture that is about repositioning tools in new and innovative ways. How do we reposition these tools in a way that allows a re-imagination suitable to ritual practice and ceremony? So we can imagine new ways of rationalizing and operationalizing the change for self-determination? Some of the protocols for this music have a lot to do with listening, which is hard. We have been thinking about dialogue and protocols, when it is appropriate to listen and when it is appropriate to speak, realizing it is more about listening than speaking. It’s a lot about relationships and how we encounter one another.”

Protocols of listening get us outside of ourselves, which somehow returns to the ecological idea of a resilient redundancy by prompting new ways of being in relation. And yet, because an ecological notion of resilience obscures the agency of human actors, the term “resilience” is insufficient to describe the work associated with protocols of listening. Postcommodity’s work is about changing the circumstances through which a diversity of cultures are supported and the reciprocal obligation of their audience, of me, is to listen carefully to the tenets of an Aboriginal Futurism. What does support look like? Sound like? Listening is humble, and yet settlers and Indigenous people alike only stand to gain from Aboriginal Futurism and Indigenous self-determination. Perhaps a term like “mutual becoming” better captures the connotations of relation, responsibility, and vulnerability that are so vital to Postcommodity’s project.

Chacon relates a poignant example: “A lot of our work speaks about the future, a possible apocalyptic future that American Indians have already seen in the past. This is history repeating itself. We came together as a response to so many contemporary artists speaking only about the past, and not enough about the future.” Aboriginal Futurism recovers the past in service of an inevitable environmental change—more likely environmental collapse—and what I must imagine to be a social upheaval that will accompany it. Twist suggests that the scale of this cultural self-determination and mutual implication will be both large and small: “There is a lot of pragmatism in the public policy arena, which is about connecting strategies one step at a time. Change comes about through increments. This is the process that Indigenous people go through: consensus building. Though we cannot speak on behalf of 565 Indigenous nations in the United States, but we can speak on behalf of that framework. It is essential. To always exercise self-determination and the sovereignty of context, to expand the context to create space for an Indian future.”

In Guelph, as guests, Postcommodity have put themselves in a position of practicing protocols of listening through their People of Goodwill project. In speaking of what they heard on their previous research visits, Martínez relates that, “one of the things that came up was the need to enhance diversity in the art community and to enhance diversity in the city of Guelph. So much thinking has already happened at the federal, provincial, and city level. We took the plans that have already been developed and are working through them with the community with the specific goal of placemaking for a more diverse population of immigrants and culturally diverse people in the art ecology. The Guelph Black Heritage Society has the heritage hall and they are stewards of the underground railroad experience and the keepers of that history, and it is the goal of that organization to re-imagine and extend that narrative and living history to new immigrants coming to Canada and Guelph as a placemaking strategy. As stewards, they are offering their history, and as artists we are offering our capacity to bring people together, to rationalize that history and to create new narratives.” In supporting these new narratives, no doubt Postcommodity will be the richer for it. And Guelph too. Not that the tactics present themselves pre-formed, but that they too unfold from improvisation, from trying, listening, re-articulating, and trying again.


This piece is informed by a public discussion that followed Postcommodity’s performance at the Guelph Jazz Festival on 04 September 2014.

[1] Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World (United States of America: Island Press),148.

An Appeal to White People: Relearning our Concepts of Good Will, Intention, and Inclusion

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Alissa Firth-Eagland

(This is an abstract. The full essay is available by clicking here.)


Cities need to be created and designed by people of good will. Exercising good will is hopeful. It expresses deep belief in reciprocation, co-intentionality, and a shared design of our future.

Canada has a 400-year history of assimilation and Indigenous resistance, which began with the legislated removal of the human rights of the Indigenous peoples living here and the claiming of their land by our ancestors: colonial settlers. Until Indigenous peoples in Canada can self-determine laws, education, community structure, and governance, the conscious, unconscious, and constructed racism that has subjugated Indigenous peoples will continue. People who self-identify as white can show good will towards groups subjugated by racism, economies, class structures, government policies, and systemic expulsion, but only without expectations for reciprocal gain.

This text is an appeal for self-determined co-intentionality. Co-intentionality is the willful exertion of energy by diverse parties in a shared direction undertaken with the belief that it can result in change: people with autonomy determining common needs. Self-determination is the right to live as one chooses. It is the power of a people to decide its own political status, independent from outside interference. It is not given, artificially assigned, or even offered. Indigenous self-determination is community action driven to respond to community needs and desires.[i] This right has been stolen from Indigenous peoples with deep effects on culture, spirituality, and language.

As white people, our responsibility is to radically restructure our colonial relationships to Indigenous, immigrant, and culturally diverse peoples. Our role is not to speak for others but to speak for ourselves. That can be our contribution to changing the system. The only way I know how to confront racism is to speak for myself, not for others.

I’m a settler and a curator. Settler colonialism is lodged in capitalism’s economic language of exchange. Curatorial practice is entrenched in a history of decision-making. Left unchecked, these histories assimilate collaborative, creative relationships. The word curator means ‘to care for,’ and previously this referred to caring for a collection of works by deceased artists. More recently the definition of curatorship has shifted to mean assembling temporary exhibitions in white cubes. My preferred definition of curators is that we create public dialogues about art and ideas that address the world in all its complexities.[ii]

How does the practice of a curator change when working with artists and communities who value self-determination above all else? To act as a chooser in this case can over-determine potential outcomes, but more seriously, it can verge on the assimilative. This can be a critical moment of learning for a curator because it requires more mediative and meditative skills: negotiation, relationship-building, reflection, embodiment, and presence. In cases like this, working co-intentionally can transform the individuals involved and the commissioning organization. This requires a different kind of care, and that means—in contrast to historical and even many contemporary approaches—that artistic intent supercedes curatorial intent. This co-intentional approach trusts that the intentions of both will be satisfied if the intentions of the artist are satisfied.

Co-intentionality, at its best, is destabilizing, especially to dominant parties. It’s not easily packaged with established processes like proposal-making, consultation, advising, and mentoring, which is typically how inequitable social hierarchies are structured. It requires for all parties to define what is needed for their communities, and then for one to let go. Both as an organization and as individual members of that organization, Musagetes is relearning our responsibilities and role as a cultural broker in Guelph and as an international producer of socially engaged artistic projects.

Because power structures of colonialism reproduce themselves still, our cities are in a state of deep disrepair, socially, economically, politically, and physically. Until we become curious about ourselves and our own subconscious suppressions, we remain part of the problem. For those in positions of power, like white people, we need to acknowledge our own privilege, and more seriously, our complicity. What motivates people to get involved in their cities? How do we co-intentionally define resilience with all voices? How can we not only include people and welcome them in, but co-create our intentions together? This must be done with eyes wide open, humility, and a conscious search for shared intent. We must open our hearts and minds to difficult conversation and we must be ready to change. After all of this, we might be ready to receive an invitation from Indigenous peoples to work co-intentionally towards a mutual objective, such as a more just, healthy, and resilient world. 


Featured image: Underground Railroad Quilt, presented to Guelph Black Heritage Society by Reta and Don Raegele of Guelph. Courtesy of the Guelph Black Heritage Society

[i] My understanding of this concept is informed by dialogue with artist Cristóbal Martinez.

[ii] Karen Love, Curatorial Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Curators, 2010. Accessed online October 24, 2104 at http://mgnsw.org.au/media/uploads/files/Curatorial_Toolkit.pdf

Rearview Mirror ~ Artist Roundtable: GUELPH + SenseLabs: LETHBRIDGE

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by Todd Lester


Has it really been a month? Hey clock, slow down. On September 11th, we piloted (or as my colleagues emphasize, piloted the pilot) of a new model for bridging artistic and scientific methods … with artists at the center. The new process, produced locally by Musagetes for Cities for People, is called simply Artist Roundtable (or A.RT). Here we’re making a playful reference to Robert Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), but also other experiments in embedding artists – e.g. Artist Placement Group – into other sectors and atypical spaces that defy the default to vocational territorialism.

This inauagural roundtable featured Mark Prier, a Mississauga-based multimedia artist in discussion with an entomologist, historian, and museum director. His ongoing project, Grey County Pastoral: Proton Township Exclosure, is a living installation that attempts the restoration of a historically-documented forest in southern Ontario on one acre of land. He creates miniature, nearly virtual versions of the history of our natural environment, letting us experience what our region was like before settlers colonized the land. Prier has a particular interest in forest ecologies and the dynamic between native and invasive species in Ontario.

mark prierexclosure02

Grey County Pastoral: Proton Township Exclosure, 2012-present Mark Prier

















Taking its cue from from the UN Climate Summit that happened shortly after on September 23 in New York City, the roundtable discussion focused on aspects of climate change, an interest of Mark Prier and the three respondents:

John English is an historian, author, former politician, and expert on international affairs. He recently published Ice and Water, a history of the Arctic Council.

Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate is an entomologist and biocontrol scientist based in Lethbridge, Alberta.

Gordon Knox is the director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, former director of the Stanford Humanities Lab, and an expert on artist residencies internationally.

The event was moderated by Jeanne Wikler, an artist coach and expert on cultural diplomacy.

The essence of the Artist Roundtable concept is building and strengthening connections in a way that adds value to artists’ and other professionals’ work (on the same theme, topic, issue). On the morning of September 12th, all the roundtable participants, including the moderator, artist, organizers and representatives of Musagetes and Cities for People met to evaluate proceedings from the previous night. Our goal is to make sure that the concept is clear enough to be communicated and flexible and open enough to be replicable in a variety of contexts.

The spirit of the idea is that it can be modified for different types of places – urban, rural, university setting, festival setting, organizational setting, thematic, etc. The concept borrows from many projects and events by other conveners as well as widely accepted practices such as university seminars, crits and master classes; studio visits; portfolio reviews; and charrettes (from the urban planning vernacular). The process is careful not to defer to or preference norms of bigger cities or dominant cultures in the process of being tailor made for a location; however if the artist participants are interested in connections with nonprofit organizations working on a particular issue (on one side) or certain attributes of the art market (on the other), it may be necessary to invite representatives from those – typically urban – initiatives as well as local and regional experts and peers. Ultimately, the composition of a roundtable can be organized around project, theme, person, and/or goal.

We are developing a flexible and modifiable approach for artists to share their ideas and innovations beyond the art world, to build a comfort zone in which artists can talk to policymakers, politicians, community organizers, social movement leaders and vice versa. The approach consists of a suite of activities – including preparatory coaching, a public roundtable discussion, documentation and tailored follow-up engagement based on the proceedings of the roundtable – geared to enhance dialogue with representatives from a range of sectors that both need the ideas and solutions that artists generate and yet do not regularly/systematically engage artists working on common issues or have not developed ways to interface with professional artists that do not have a history of working with a specific sector but hold current insights and actionable solutions from a discreet project or period of investigation.


Right after the Roundtable, I traveled to Lethbridge with one of our participants Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate, Musagetes director Shawn Van Sluys, and a guest artist from Montreal, Jean-François Prost for the beginning of SenseLabs. It doesn’t take much to relate the intentions of this project in Lethbridge with those of Artist Roundtables – somehow cut from the same cloth – SenseLabs are a series of four intensive labs for a group of participants over the course of several months. In June the SenseLabs began at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) in Lethbridge; they conclude in November. The labs are designed to be challenging for both the participants, facilitator, (Shawn), and artist (Jean-François), deeply engaging sense-making skills like making, listening, debating, and observing.


SenseLabs, Lethbridge, Alberta











I also really loved getting to know about The Field Notes Collective, a collective of art professionals and scientists working in the Southern Alberta area who are bound by a shared set of social, environmental and cultural concerns. The mandate of the Collective is to foster dialogue and action through the staging of cross-disciplinary events, engaging with matters of local and regional interest. Here’s a radio programme that discusses the September stage of SenseLabs and its collaboration with The Field Notes Collective, a project led by SenseLab participant, Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate.


After all, one of the benefits of being located outside of Canada – where most of the Cities for People work happens – is that I get to visit places, like Guelph and Lethbridge, and experience them for the first times while implementing dynamic projects … and big ideas with local folks. What a pleasure! It’s nice to see a sign, like that for Guelph Neighborhood Support Coalition, and ask ‘what’s that’ to learn that they are involved locally in all manner of citizen (neighbor) –level empowerment, such as participatory budgeting. And to be able to make corollaries in their work and initiatives in my own backyard, such as the Flux Factory and its role in participatory budgeting for Long Island City or the Brooklyn Solidarity Network.

Not to lay on excuses for time getting away from me, but these last weeks were sorta busy with erecting and watching melt, a three ton ice sculpture spelling out The Future – an intervention by artists LigoranoReese – in New York City for the Peoples’ Climate March and UN Climate Summit. Thanks to everyone who tuned in to the live stream!!!


Lead image: SenseLabs, Lethbridge, Alberta


The Walrus Talks Resilience

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How cities and communities build themselves to thrive through difficult times

Art Gallery of Ontario, 317 Dundas St. W, Toronto
Wednesday, October 8, 2014, 6:30 P.M.

Tickets: Members $17 | Public $20 | Students $12
Purchase tickets here

Are you interested in ideas about how cities can not only grow and develop but also flourish? Are you invested in building a more resilient, collaborative, and innovative community?

Cities for People invites you to an upcoming Talks event produced by the Walrus Foundation. The Walrus Talks Resilience will feature eighty minutes of lively, thought-provoking ideas about how cities and communities can become more resilient in the face of numerous challenges. Eight speakers with diverse backgrounds and interests—from the arts to indigenous rights, entrepreneurship to the environment to technological innovation—will offer new ways of thinking about how our cities can thrive. Speakers will have seven minutes each to discuss their ideas and challenge the audience to see the future of our communities in new ways. While each speaker will reflect on a range of experiences and viewpoints, they all have one thing in common: the desire for real conversation about the issues that affect the future of Canada. The Talks event will be followed by a spirited reception with attendees and participants.

Poet Mustafa Ahmed
University of Guelph’s Ajay Heble
Cisco Canada’s Rick Huijbregts
People for Education’s Annie Kidder
Cisco Canada’s David Miller
Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada’s Gabrielle Scrimshaw
SiG@Waterloo’s Frances Westley

6 p.m. doors open
6:30 p.m. The Walrus Talks
Reception following

(416) 971-5004, ext. 242












Artist Roundtable with Mark Prier

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Mark Prier, artist
John English, historian
Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate, scientist
and Gordon Knox, museum director

Thursday, September 11, 7pm
MusagetesOffice @ 6 Dublin Street South, Guelph
Free admission

Are you curious about what goes on behind the scenes when an artist develops a project? Are you keen to discover how art can connect the dots between many diverse fields? Ever wondered how an artistic project can contribute to social change or how social change can influence art? Perhaps you are an artist who wants to expand the scope of your own practice, an inquisitive soul researching interdisciplinarity, or a creative type who is thinking deeply about resilience. The Artist Roundtable is a new way for folks like you to explore these questions.

On September 11 at 7pm Musagetes is hosting the first of a series of international roundtables in which artists can share their ideas and projects with scientists, historians, Aboriginal leaders, policymakers, politicians, community organizers, and social movement leaders. This inauagural roundtable will feature Mark Prier, a Mississauga-based multimedia artist, who will present his ecological, species-based projects to a panel of respondents. His ongoing project, Grey County Pastoral: Proton Township Exclosure, is a living installation that attempts to restore a historically-documented forest in southern Ontario on one acre of land. Prier creates miniature, nearly virtual versions of the history of our natural environment, letting us experience what our region was like before settlers colonized the land. Prier has a particular interest in forest ecologies and the dynamic between native and invasive species in Ontario. The Artist Roundtable is a chance to dig deeper into this artist’s process and project development.


Grey County Pastoral: Proton Township Exclosure, 2012-present. Image credit: Mark Prier

Taking inspiration from the UN Climate Summit set to begin on September 23 in New York, the roundtable discussion will focus on aspects of climate change, an interest of Mark Prier our three respondents:

  • John English is an historian, author, former politician, and expert on international affairs. He recently published Ice and Water, a history of the Arctic Council.
  • Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate is an entomologist and biocontrol scientist based in Lethbridge, Alberta.
  • Gordon Knox is the director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, former director of the Stanford Humanities Lab, and an expert on artist residencies internationally.

These four roundtable participants will engage in a conversation that takes its cue from a presentation of Prier’s past and ongoing projects. The evening event will be moderated by Jeanne Wikler, a New York-based expert on cultural diplomacy and an artist coach who enables artists to take their work into new and unusual forums. Wikler was recently the Dutch cultural attaché to New York (2001-2007) and to Paris (2009-2013).


Survival Walk (performance), 2008. Photo Credit: Philip Norman Robbins









Musagetes developed this Artist Roundtable approach in collaboration with Todd Lester, a New York and São Paulo-based artist and activist who has dedicated his career to supporting and enabling socially engaged artists around the world. He is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute (where he made the Arts-Policy Nexus) and founder of both freeDimensional and Lanchonete.org, an experimental artist engagement program and cooperative restaurant in São Paulo.

The Artist Roundtable is an experiment of Musagetes and Cities for People. The co-creative team—which includes cheyanne turions, Musagetes, Todd Lester, and Ryan Doherty—is curating a program of activities in Guelph Area and Lethbridge. Cities for People understands each city to be a unique ecosystem, and like any ecosystem, a city’s strength and resilience depends on its ability to nurture the full diversity of its inhabitants and give them what they need not just to survive, but thrive. Cities For People sees every city as an invitation: an invitation for interaction, innovation, change, inclusion, learning, love and growth; an invitation to come up with new ways to make the cities we live in support how we would like to live. We invite you to deepen this conversation about cities and resilience with us at the Artist Roundtable.

Mark Prier’s multimedia art examines the interaction between culture, ecology, and survival. Working from diverse sources, such as folklore, geology, history, and botany, he rearticulates this examination into various media, including installation, new media, performance, sound, and video. His exhibitions include shows in Canada (The Rooms, Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, White Water Gallery, Contemporary Art Forum Kitchener & Area), Mexico (Kunsthaus Santa Fé), United Kingdom (the Lost O), and the United States (City Without Walls, and [Untitled] Artspace). He has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts Council, and the Ontario Arts Council. In 2008, he travelled to Gotland, Sweden for the Brucebo Summer Residency; and, in 2012, he travelled to Crowsnest Pass, Alberta for Trap/door Artist-Run Centre’s Gushul Studio & Collaboration Residency. A 2004 graduate of University of Toronto’s Visual Studies program, Prier also took part in HotBox Riverwood’s mentorship program with Reinhard Reitzenstein in 2011. As half of the electronica duo hellothisisalex, Prier has played the MUTEK Festival in Montreal, done commissions for CBC Radio, and taken part in the National Film Board of Canada’s Minus 40 project.

Musagetes is an international organization that strives to make the arts more central and meaningful in peoples' lives, in our communities, and in our societies. Musagetes works in Guelph, Sudbury, Lecce (Italy), and Rijeka (Croatia) to demonstrate how art can be participatory and socially engaged, to establish a greater sense of belonging in communities.