Mobilizing social imagination: Broken City Lab’s reconstruction of Windsor

0 Posted by - June 16, 2010 - Conversations, Features, Installations, Public art

What do you get when you mix a postindustrial urban mess with a group of artists who want to make it better? In Windsor, the answer is Broken City Lab, a post-avant-garde art project whose object is the city itself and the social relations necessary to transform urban blight into community and prosperity.

Broken City Lab (BCL) is the brainchild of artists Justin Langlois and Danielle Sabelli that quickly attracted the interests of a handful of other artists – Josh Babcock, Michelle Soulliere, Cristina Naccarato, and Rosina Riccardo. The idea was to find a new way – other than protest, that is – to use art for social change. What they came up with is a fascinating series of public interventions rooted in art practices intended to energize and mobilize local interest in reimagining Windsor’s future.

“I wasn’t convinced that protest was a valid model for generating change,” explained Langlois. “Broken City Lab became our way of trying to understand how locality is shaped both officially and unofficially by a city, its histories, its infrastructures, and its communities.”

At the core of transformation lies the bedeviling complexity of communication. Art – as opposed to activism, or public policy, or even managerial concerns – offered interesting and new ways of thinking about how to create dialogue and share ideas.

“Things like housing development and job training are important in their own right,” says Babstock, “but can fail if the people affected don’t have a say in what is developed. We do not claim superiority over these other methods but try to accomplish what they cannot by suggesting a direction rather than a solution.”

No solution?

To political ears, “no solution” must sound at least a little like crazy talk. But locals have warmed to the ideas and approaches of BCL. “Most people we speak with tend to attach to the notion that we care about Windsor’s future and are inspired by this. We’ve received a fair amount of press coverage over the last year and we’d like to think that this coverage can translate into other people in the community feeling engaged to change their surroundings by taking ownership of them.”

One of the group’s creative strengths may be the way it negotiates personal practices and public interest. Their interest is in both, so that alongside their growing visibility and presence in Windsor’s public conversations, as artists they also retain and cultivate personal creative responses to local contexts.

“It’s important to note” Langlois and Babstock both explained, “that while we certainly work within the community, and while we’ve established a certain level of publicly-visible practice, the projects we take on are a response to the things we see in our city that we would like to address. We work to understand the role we can play in taking some responsibility to shaping the place in which we live, and through this, we often realize opportunities to work within the wider community.”

The personal may be political, but in Windsor, the personal becomes political when artists pony up to the table of civic and social responsibility for their share in shaping Windsor’s future.

One of the BCL’s projects is Sites of Apology/Sites of Hope, a living memory work that tries to reimagine urban space and place through remembrance and hope. “The Sites of Apology/Sites of Hope project basically gathered a group of community members in a room to brainstorm what they consider to be the places in Windsor for which we need to apologize and the places in Windsor for which we can retain some hope for their place in the city’s future,” says Babstock.

The community identified over 50 sites that will eventually make up the terrestrial backbone for a walking tour and mapping intervention designed to link past failure with hope through reimagining the present and futures of the spaces and places that make up the communities where people live.

Another intervention is 100 Ways to Save the City, a (quite literally) re-inscription of city space in an attempt to stimulate public imagination and encourage public participation in conversations about how to transform Windsor’s streetscapes. Intentionally incomplete messages (such as “Vacant storefronts are a good ___________” and I would organize ____________ for one night in the city”) were projected using laser-projectors onto buildings and surfaces throughout the city. Residents were encouraged to share their responses through text messaging and Twitter. BCL collated responses and shared them with a wider public.

Their goal, says Langlois, is as much about their own learning, maybe even more so, than about effecting some kind of direct and measurable response to their work. “Attempting to assess the way communities respond suggests that we only engage in these projects to provoke a response, but we’re much more interested in this as research – a way to understand the limits and potentials for changing the ways we interact with (and by extension, change) the places where we live.”

Their projects often emerge from things the artists see and experience as they move through and live in the Windsor area. Sometimes it is a direct response, sometimes more abstract. “Our ideas come from experiences such as riding the bus and seeing outdated advertisements and wondering if we could replace those advertisements with something else. Other times these experiences are much less tangible, and the projects come out of conversations about these experiences and are shaped by the process of uncovering underlying concerns embedded in those conversations.”

A key element of BCL methodology seems to emerge in the transformative links between artistic response and public conversations. It is, in a way, a manifestation of an old problem for Western philosophers: how to reconcile subjective experience with universal (or in this case, social) truths. BCL is very concerned with how problems are defined and who gets to define them. Which aspects of an issue, for example, will be determined by BCL and which through community participation? Creative public intervention often straddles the tension between form and content.

“Depending on the project, participation from the wider community can have a large impact on the direction of the project — in these instances, we attempt to define certain variables, while leaving others open for contribution from others, though we mostly have the presentation of that contribution in mind (a projection, a series of images, a list, a path).”

And within this tension, both processes – contributions and presentations – must encounter the weird and wonderful world where art meets politics. These distinct epistemological approaches can often be entirely dissimilar, if not contradictory. Art’s pleasure in ambiguity, for example, as compared to the often urgent political need for certainty would suggest a difficult mix. But BCL finds it a liberating juxtaposition – freeing public dialogue from the constrains of bureaucracy, for example – and that it is these complications that Langlois thinks gives the BCL project such potential.

On a practical level, the group takes advantage of online communication to achieve many of its goals and objectives. “The website is a vitally important part of our practice as it provides the opportunity for us to not only document our process, but also to locate it within a variety of other sources from other blogs, artists, designers, architects, etc. It also allows for a level of dialogue that we simply can’t get in other ways. In terms of web traffic, we get between 12000 and 15000 visitors a month.”

As for longer term goals, the group has no shortage of project ideas. “Our next big project this summer will be the Storefront Residencies for Social Innovation, where we’ll be renting out some vacant storefronts in downtown Windsor and inviting artists, writers, designers, architects, entrepreneurs, librarians, among others, to do something with a space that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to that could transform the space, and in turn, transform the way that the city and the community thinks about these vacant spaces. The residencies will attempt to intervene with the everyday realities of skyrocketing vacancy rates, failing economic strategies, and a population of people who are continually losing hope for their city.”

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