Community Engagement

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In March I attended a talk by Justin Langlois, and it was extremely timely and just what I needed.

The talk was fairly short, but I came away inspired and with some clarity about my own art practice.

With his art work, Justin uses text “as a way to engage people in an idea before the realize it is art”. LOVE this concept, a bridge and entry point for people to connect with art before they put up their filters about ‘art’. Using text and reading as the medium of engagement. YES.

More fascinating to me is that the majority of his art practice is about community engagement in public spaces. My interest in this is deep, in fact it could be said that this is the basis of my art practice and what inspires me the most about making artwork.

Justin’s main practice involves getting into a small community and creating ways for the public to engage and invested through making and generosity. Through this form of art making, he “wants them to feel like something is different in their lives because they got involved”.

HOLY SHIT (said me upon hearing this).

The artwork that I have always been most drawn to has been public and experiential artwork that causes people to understand things differently. Subway drawings (and pretty much everything) by Keith Haring, Interior Scroll by Carolee Schneemann, Speaking to Their Mother by Rebecca Belmore, Liquid Shard by Patrick Shearn, The Blue Trees by Konstantin Dimopoulos just to name a few…there are SO MANY.

I think back to my childhood and how I spent much of my summer trying to create experiences for others to partake in: whether it be building an awesome space for frogs to live in, weird walk through spaces for my friends to walk through behind the shed, or in high school when I often drew up experiential art projects. For example, had I the skills, equipment and endless funds, a viewer would walk into and experience the sensation of being INSIDE of a huge school of circling fish. I think back to all the times I created activities or set up outdoor ‘experiences’ for my younger sister and her friends; I was trying to give them an experience they would remember.

I think back to art school, where I (unintentionally) explored the concept of experiential art: I drew but it was dark subject matter, things that were disturbing. I didn’t want my profs to say ‘that’s nice’ or ‘skillful’, I wanted there to be a discussion about why the piece was impacting them. I created an installation at the Alternator Gallery and the room was small and I used it to create a sort of cave where one would enter and feel immersed and either at peace or total anxiety. I think back to the photography I did back then, largely disturbing images but the basis of it was to create a dialogue or at least to have the viewer feel something uneasy in themselves. I think back to a video installation I created where the viewer would stand in front of a sheet and a projection from the other side was simply a shadow of a person running towards the sheet, causing the viewer to get out of the way for fear of being run into. I think to an (unsuccessful!) installation project I did with a thousand matches lighting up a ladder to cause a rope to burn and a pumpkin to drop into a pool of water at a Halloween party. Why didn’t I keep going with this work? Also, why didn’t I recognize that this is what I was doing (and why didn’t any of my profs see this light?) After art school I got too caught up with trying to pay debt, be responsible, and conform to adulting I guess.

Next I think back to the days in my mid twenties when I was not in love with the way my art practice was going. I was making art that was pretty. After spending years trying to pay off student loans, taking on more responsibility than a person should for her age, and ultimately falling into customer service mode in all areas of my life, I lost my way and found myself selling photos of pretty things, making art about things that were easily sold and I totally hated it despite decent financial success. Somehow I felt out of guilt that I had to do all this in order to gain the approval of those around me - those who had no concept of the power of art, they have never studied the artists that used their power to change things. I let others’ limited views of what art should be guide me, surely out of lack of confidence in myself.

I remember sitting down one day and figuring out that the reason I felt indifferent about that work was because it had no substance, it had no purpose other than being pretty and fulfilling some notion that I wasn’t worthy enough to make work that could be something more important.

So I gave myself the tiniest freedom to examine art in the bigger scope of my life and asked myself what is truly important to me? If all those around me were gone, and I got the chance to start fresh with art making, what would I do? If I hated just making things for people’s approval, then I couldn’t keep making art. If I was going to move forward it HAD to be valuable to me or there is simply no point and I should just sit in a day job until retirement.

When I thought deeply about the most important things in my life, it became so clear: animals and art are the only two things that have mattered in every segment of my life. This realization changed my art outlook immediately, and put me back on track. It gave me some of my power back.

It wasn’t going to be about pets though, (again, pretty…customer service based), it had to be about something important that related to animals… and with that it was even clearer, wild animals surviving in suburban environments is very important and it is a regular part of my daily life. Side note: I didn’t fully realize it at the time but I identify with wild animals because their lives are significantly impacted by the decisions of other species; they are constantly having their power taken away. Through my art I am endeavouring to give them (and me) their power back.

I think of the opportunities I had to create public art projects when I worked at the City of Port Moody. These projects weren’t just little colouring projects (although I could have just done that if I wanted), these projects were designed so that community members could experience contributing to a larger piece of art, adding to a structure, enjoying the process and experience of making something together. Sure these were only 5 or 6 hours long and usually had zero supply budget, but it was the engagement that mattered. While working there I often proposed generating a series of artist talks and discussions for artists at the City so to expose more people to the realm of social arts…of course, no budget. It’s still in the back of my mind though for future projects.

I think back to my solo show at Seymour Art Gallery, all those works were about prompting questions about how we treat wild animals - essentially, how we treat those that we do not know, self reflection, social reflection, possible ownership of the matter instead of sideline observations.

Now, with my upcoming Artist in Residence at the Roundhouse in Vancouver I am again thinking a lot about how to generate experiences for/with people. This time I have a material budget and longer term opportunity to stay in the project and I am really excited to dive into this realm of a more socially engaged art practice. The amazing thing about this residency is that isn’t about the end product - it is about the engagement and community building. It’s just perfect for where I am at this year and such a fantastic opportunity to focus on developing this part of my practice, especially now that I am cognizant of it.

In fact, as I am heading into this exciting next phase of my life, I am realizing that there are actually just a few key areas that I need to sort out and juggle as an artist: sales (outlets & markets); growth & exploration (exhibitions & new artwork); and inspiration (community engagement)).

All of these are part of the recipe of my art career.

Published March 18, 2019