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Making With Place: Community arts as critical pedagogies of place

Making With Place: Community arts as critical pedagogies of place

by Phyllis Novak and Charlotte Lombardo, with contributions from Making With Place artists and support from Sarah Flicker and Lisa Myers


Creative leads, Naty Tremblay and Ty Sloane, Artists-in-residence: Madeleine Lychek, Em Dial, Bert Whitecrow, Zephyr McKenna, Pogi The Artist and The Noise Witch, Elder and Mentor, Blu Waters and Curatorial Mentor, Lisa Myers collaborate with more-than-human elements to create space for artful inQueery & queer convenings that radiate around a medicine wheel garden. Honouring the cardinal directions, natural elements & our wild relatives, this installation amplifies the indigi-queer Force Field exhibition curated by Logan MacDonald for Contact Festival at the Garrison Commons of Fort York. Photography by Jahmal Nugent (@ninjahmal).

Making With Place is a participatory arts initiative exploring the relationship between community, culture, place and public space from the perspective of diverse young artist-researchers. With the mentorship of adult artists, QT/BIPOC (Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) youth explored and created place-based activations, and collectively made meaning from these experiences. This work began in spring 2020, as a SSHRC funded study co-designed by EUC graduate students Phyllis Novak and Charlotte Lombardo, with support from respective supervisors Lisa Myers and Sarah Flicker. The project is a community-based research collaboration with SKETCH Working Arts, a Toronto-based community arts enterprise for diverse young people which harnesses the transformative power of the arts to build leadership, support self-sufficiency, and cultivate social and environmental change.

Utilizing performance, sculpture, video and online production, the artists explored ideas around making with re-presentations of space and place. Through participatory arts research their animations revealed multi-dimensional critical pedagogies of place (Gruenewald, 2003) including and beyond physical geography, articulating systems of inequity, internal landscapes of isolation and trauma, and possibilities of regenerative relationships of resilience and mutual aid. See our “journal-zine” documenting and disseminating the artworks and discoveries. Making With Place began in 2020 unfolded during the radical transformation of personal and public space mandated by public health orders to contain Covid-19. These changes were felt acutely by all, but differentially impacted vulnerable peoples navigating marginality and precarity. This time also collided with a period of growing attention, awareness, activism and organising to address anti-Black racism. These global shifts were highlighted by the artist-researchers as they collectively and creatively responded to their personal experiences during a time of significant public and social upheaval. The experimental presentations of artistic work also, largely, took place at The Bentway, a unique public arts and cultural space located underneath Toronto's Gardiner Expressway. This place under the "bridge" of the highway presented a relevant and interesting animation site for the project given current and historical realities of this and similar locations being utilised by disenfranchised people for alternative housing.

The research project of 2020 evolved into a suite of community-engaged public art projects produced by SKETCH for ArtworxTO: Toronto’s Year of Public Art, exhibited in both 2021 and 2022. A key Making With Place public artwork, Reconstructions of Home, animated The Bentway via a series of audio and visual installations expressing lived experiences of houselessness, honouring experiences of joy, community, challenge, and displacement of those who have survived living under bridges in Toronto. The digital stories tell of displaced young people inhabiting alternative, liminal spaces in acts of collective and creative care and collective survival. They center not just experiences of erasure and grief, but also of celebration and joy. Reconstructions of Home expresses a theory of change grounded in radical placemaking for community building and resistance. The area under the “bridge” of the expressway serves as location and metaphor for a place that both harbors and conceals. In one multimedia digital story, a scene of revelry is recreated featuring high energy music and dancing bodies in communal connection. In another part of the exhibit, tiny dioramas depict whimsical scenes of “home” that can be read in diverse ways - desired, remembered, romanticized, problematized. The installations speak to structural violences of houselessness, while firmly and proudly proclaiming the radical acts of care and community inherent to the reconstructing of these spaces for home-making.

Safe Landing by Lisa Petrunia (2022). [Three-dimensional mixed media diorama 16’x16’].

I imagine alternate ways of inhabiting space in solidarity with those who live outside of conventions.

If we can imagine possibilities, we can create them. I create an offering of safety, comfort, community,
and home in a space where people’s efforts to do so for themselves have historically been criminalized.

The Gardiner Expressway has been home to hundreds of houseless people over many years.

We live in a society where the most vulnerable are repeatedly displaced from spaces where they attempt to create a sense of home.

Where they are all too often abruptly and sometimes violently awakened by police.

Where eviction notices are taped to tents, and bulldozers flatten possessions.

Making With Place centers art as a process of exploration and expression through practice that is defined by the artists - research creation. Here art is not a tool, but rather a process for exploring meanings, or “for laying bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers” (Baldwin, 1962) . The projects are enacted through iterative, nonlinear and generative participatory research cycles of: i) individual and collaborative creative sharing and meaning making through artistic and narrative activities exploring expressions of place; ii) art production and activation through design and development of art outreach experiments; and iii) reflection and theorizing through discussion, analysis and , theory building and knowledge mobilization in creative iterations of collective works.

Working with broadly defined creative prompts of place, each Making With Place young artist-researcher identified their own artistic mediums and creative directions, and artist-facilitators sought to locate the shape of the inquiry within these processes and uncoverings. This process revealed collaboration with place as an emergent paradigm of “following the art” in deep listening and dialogue with arts forms and arts practice. Artist-researchers moved from a place of internal meaning and solo practice, to sharing work with others for collective interpretation and placing, into ideas of production and activation as spheres of relationality and collective care. The process also displayed a continued folding back into practice and then expanding back outwards, a following of the art that does not cease. This required a significant degree of openness and flexibility. We intentionally planned for the unexpected, and trusted in the aesthetic as a form of knowledge-making process as well as communication.

Through publicly engaged artworks, the Making With Place artists express places as both spatially and socially embedded contexts to be perceived and acted on (Pain et al, 2007). As situated experiments in public art and discourse, they creatively surface tensions and critiques of "participation" and “community" (Ford-Smith, 2011). In these ways, they also speak to recent trends in participatory research exploring relationality and materiality. They capture the movement away from the rational and disembodied towards emotion and affect, emphasizing the power of non-verbal and pre-cognitive knowledge (Ahmed, 2014; Davidson et al, 2005; Thrift, 1997; Sonn & Baker, 2016). Here the aesthetics of community arts are central to the participatory processes of both art and knowledge creation including that of social interaction also being considered art or at least part of it (Rasmussen, 2017). Making With Place speaks to calls for methods of (re)search that draw on our range of senses, and that reach beyond the limits of text to the material and embodied (Absolon, 2022; Whatmore, 2006). Creative arts methodologies constitute dynamic strategies that can bring into view new social realities which are often marginalized or not yet recognized in established social practices and discourses (Badham, 2013; Barrett & Bolt, 2010; Carter et al, 2020; Sepala et al, 2016; Wright, 2020).

Our Making With Place praxis also illustrates limitations of participatory processes. While the projects succeed in creating a “language of possibility” for addressing and transforming relations of power (Giroux, 1988), the artists also called out the as yet untransformed spaces surrounding them (Lombardo et al, 2023). Understanding participatory research processes as embedded in place can help us ask and acknowledge how far participation truly extends. A critical participatory action, and a critical community arts, compels continued problematizations of “bounded empowerment” (Felner, 2020). To move beyond “isolated islands of empowerment” (Kesby et al, 2007 p.25), we need to identify how resources and processes can successfully be sustained over time and space, to other domains - in particular those that govern social trajectories and mobilities. For artists navigating marginality this requires a focus on questions of employment and development, not just in traditional areas of work and education, but also in domains of cultural production including artistic mentorship, more "formal" arts opportunities, and cultural policy. Through a new SSHRC Race, Gender and Diversity Grant, in partnership with OCADU, we are working to action these learnings to inform the broader processes and systems that structure and govern how community arts are understood, resourced and actualized.

One of the Making with Place installation projects, Queering Place, is installed at the Maloca Community Gardens, York University’s Keele Campus. 


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