Posted on 3/20/2008 by Amy Fung
The Community Arts Celebration was an apt end for Edmonton’s year as Cultural Capital of Canada. Apt in its sense and standard of community art as the benchmark for what constitutes as culture in this city. Edmonton very much favours the community spirit of artistic excellence, often conflating the two into one, and the weekend revealed many new questions into our city’s identity.
In Paula Jardine’s presentation as part of Saturday’s morning symposium, the ex-Edmontonian showed slides from her heyday during the glory years of creating civic art. Rice Howard Way filled with 20 ft puppets created by Peter Field surrounded by towers of backlit dancers in office windows during an era of extravagant parades, alley art bombs, and fire sculptures against the city skyline. This was nearly 25 years ago, and yet, the Edmonton in those slides is almost unrecognizable to anyone who has ever tried to do anything publically artistic for a civic audience. The freedom, support, and creativity initial to those late 70s-early 80s projects were rooted in a community spirit, a spirit that has been quickly weighed down with a funnel bureaucracy and stayed down.
In comparing the era in those slides with present day, it becomes obvious that all existing artistic projects have come into existence by trying to fit into a system that once set up, has not been updated. All day Saturday, I felt the fatigue and exhaustion of drifting from one project to the next, wondering where this was all leading and why these are individual projects happening within set time frames and what or if these cultural projects will even leave a legacy. To get some fresh air, I ended up taking a bus tour that went from point A to B to C as a prepackaged tourist would instead of an active citizen, culminating in the five person audience for “Words of Exposure,” a sample of readings from Edmonton’s first ever queer arts festival. At that point, I wondered if this umbrella of community arts wasn’t segregating communities in the long run. The artists performing within Exposure’s showcase were by far the most professional artists I had seen all day, yet their audience was one of the smallest turn outs. Perhaps the ideal would have been a huge turnout coming out for each community, and in so doing each community would have seen each other’s communities, and it would really have been a celebration of each other, only then it wasn’t until Sunday evening where snippets of each group were offered did this point almost realize itself.
Sunday in general was far more energetic than sleepy Saturday. The morning symposium on how outreach with non-mainstream communities can propel social change was a blunt dose of reality starting with Wallis Kendal of Edmonton’s ihuman, the uplifting and eye opening changes of art’s empowerment with UK based Michael Etherton, and the spiritual journey and congregation of Xstine Cook and Stephanie Hawking’s White Buffalo project with inmates from a Southern Alberta correctional facility. The transformative power of art was the basic thread, and in the context of marginalized groups such as incarcerated individuals and oppressed youths, the healing power of art and culture shines a little brighter.
The next bright moment came during Linda Goyette’s “The Story that Brought Me Here,” where women writers and poets read aloud their first generational Canadian stories in several languages. The brightness was not just in their readings and their shared experiences, but in the interruptive flow of other communities and cultures wafting through the Winspear Centre. From below the third floor of the Winspear, Cree drumming and chanting echoed up; on the other side of the room African drumming drowned everything else out as we before and behind the podium all waited obligingly for their song to subside; and the overall commotion of the building and people within the cluster of community arts shined through crystal clear.
Mention must also be given to Old Earth Production’s “A Must-Be: Maskihkly Maskwa Iskwew.” Putting forth the harsh reality of the institutionalization and its affects on Aboriginal women handed down from residential schools to the cycle of the penal system, the hurt that continues was felt strongly with the presence of one and others who is living and being within the damaged cycle. As the entire audience began in a communal prayer ceremony, and the off-mic performance/story telling began, the trauma of our collectivity, afflicting one, afflicted all.
The one question that consistently came up over the weekend, often posed by the same person, was the aesthetic standard of community art. True, community art differs in aesthetic and presentation from institutional art, often for a certain lack of professional polish, but the Community Arts Celebration presented a mixed bag of professional and community artists. At the end of the weekend, the overarching theme seemed to override the artistic merit or professionalism of any of the artists, but the connection and impact arts and culture has on our lives and communities. Our culture will go on as the legacy and memory of our times, and a city’s cultural output is its greatest achievement to the outside world. This point has been hammered home many times, but we seem to suffer from a reoccuring short term memory. With the new hype of Richard Florida’s latest book, “Who’s Your City?” buzzing through the lips of all urbanites, the argument that a city’s cultural diversity and open-mindedness is not just why people drift to certain cities, but why they stay and live and produce in those cities.