If a community is a safe haven from a world where people are ordinarily crushed and diminished into spectators as Paulo Freire wrote in Education for Critical Consciousness (1973),[i] then I have a story to tell. It will be awkward and imperfect, without beginning, middle and end. But what else is to be expected of a story told from the eyes and ears of someone new to Guelph’s cultural scene at an annual arts and music festival? After all, it is still a voice among the many needed to make the safe haven of a community.
All Over the Map was a one-day travelling music tour where people came together to explore Guelph’s neighbourhoods in 2013 as part of the Musagetes Guelph Café. Residents and newcomers all gathered with their own stories and voices to co-create and be part of the community. While I missed the music line up by two years, the All Over the Map spirit is still here.
Silence was humming. People who all knew one other chatted around me. How are you enjoying Kazoo! Fest? Did you go see Deerhoof? Is this soup from Rowe Farms? They were all here to listen to the cassette, all excited for the panel discussion on how cities impact a creative practice. They smiled and listened to the moderator Ben Grossman, CFRU’s station manager Vish Khanna, musician Casey Mecija, hip-hop star Noah23 and artist and musician Jenn E. Norton. They were all there. I sat alone in the audience curiously waiting.
Community – or should I say community with a small c – is what moves artists and creatives, they said. Community, it was agreed, was too overused as a catch all for human interaction. Jenn E. Norton talked about how community is the material that is transformed into art and music – you can’t make something out of nothing. Even in Norton’s alone time with the computer screen and the content she is editing in her videos has to do with community. While community is source material for artists, the relationship between community and art is mutually reciprocal because socially engaged art can create “emancipated” communities as discussed by Pablo Helguera in Education for Socially Engaged Art (2011).[ii] Helguera’s “emancipated” community is one where participants can “extract enough critical and experiential wealth to walk away feeling enriched [and] even claiming some ownership of the experience.” This collaborative relationship exists when artists transform community into art and when art returns to the community and enriches its members. In many ways, All Over the Map embodies this relationship because Guelph’s neighbourhoods helped create a music tour that was for the exploration of new sounds in their very own community.
The reciprocity and collaboration extends to the dynamic between artists and participants. Helguera talks about how artists “build because audiences exist” yet participants “come initially because they recognize themselves in what [is] built.” Art and community impact each other and form a dialogue because even artists who produce for themselves have a sense of self that’s influenced by the community.
Noah23 said that a kid contacted him online about his music only to find out that the kid lived down the street from him. Community lives on even in the age of internet. Nowadays, socially engaged art is responding to both increased interconnectivity and virtual disconnection according to Helguera. Art’s new ‘online’ status can create a time and space for different people to find commonalities and develop relationships like Noah23 and the kid next door.
They questioned what it is about a community that keeps an individual there. I wondered: How does time spent in communities translate into art? Helguera has found that artists who remain in a community for a long time gain a deeper understanding of its participants and create more engaging projects.
They talked about how creatives choose to stay in Guelph because of the people and the relationships. Casey Mecija said that Brantford doesn’t have the DIY spaces that Guelph has. Vish Khanna remembered his first time in the basement of a house listening to local bands play. I will remember sitting in Silence listening to a panel discussion. It was agreed that Guelph has an organizing spirit. And while I didn’t know anyone there, I knew that this spirit is Guelph. In this moment, I became part of the they and together we became an us.
Mecija said that as DIY spaces become harder to come by in the age of condo developments, we must be more creative. We still have our organizing spirit, we still plan festivals, we are still involved. I thought back to yesterday…
I looked at the address again in the Kazoo! book: 117 Wyndham Street North. I looked for 117 on the storefront but the signs for ice cream and lotto tickets were distracting and I decided to just walk in.
The space was a thriving convenience store but in the back of it was an art space. The yellow lighting was familiar but the way that the space was arranged was not. I saw rolls of tape, shopping bags, spools of thread and a cement block and I knew them, but I dared not touch them. The opening of Making Do (Or, How to Turn Lead Into Gold) was the in-between of the familiar and of the unknown. The configuration of every day odds and ends made these inanimate objects into something more than the purpose they serve.
In my mind, that’s what DIY spaces in Guelph look like. Guelph’s organizing spirit is about making things, places and people more than the purpose we serve – that is creativity.
The exchange of words at the panel had somehow led to the consensus of Guelph’s organizing spirit. Afterall, we organized this panel discussion that developed into a critical conversation. In Helguera’s view, conversations are central for individuals to “engage with others, create community, learn together and simply share experiences.” I realized that that is exactly what we did at the All Over the Map zine launch. Amidst the tangents about Khanna’s love life and the shock of Norton’s art needing security protection, the conversation garnered the insight on community and art that it sought.
Sitting there as an ordinary person in my ordinary chair, I felt my mind open up a bit and the world get a little bit bigger – it was an extraordinary sense of enrichment that would make even Helguera proud! I sat there, in the audience but this time in the community with a small c – the spirit of All Over the Map.
[i]Freire, Paulo. Education for Critical Consciousness. New York: Seabury Press, 1973.
[ii]Helguera, Pablo. Education for Socially Engaged Art. New York: Jorge Pinto Books, 2011.
Hilary Hung is an emerging artist exploring philosophical and psychological conditions through materiality. Her projects often start with a fascination for materiality and continue as experiments on revealing the life and meaning of a material. She works on a large scale in sculpture and installation because the perception and navigation of space is an important consideration in the experience of her work. Hilary’s process is rhizomatic in nature and she draws from different disciplines, cultures and industries to discover new ways of seeing and thinking.