COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT/ ECO ART
April 2011- Mar 2014 Social Science and Humanities Research Council; Eco Art Incubator; C; $198000CDN; Principal Investigator: Nancy Holmes, Co-investigator Denise Kenney- Three years.
In response to these questions, and drawing on the idea of technology or business incubators, colleague and nature poet Nancy Holmes and I set up the Eco Art Incubator. The project was funded through a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant. The goal of the Eco Art Incubator is to become a creative incubator prototype focused on a particular kind of interventionist, socially-conscious, community and place-based art. It re-configures our desire for an urban context and directs us towards a consideration of our own place, this landscape, and this community. The mandate of the Eco Art Incubator is to engender a multi disciplinary permanent eco art culture in this valley that will bring artistic ways of knowing into the discussion around development and conservation. We are keenly aware of the increasingly subdivided nature of ecological research occurring in other disciplines.
“For example, as marine biology grows in aggregate complexity, individual marine biologists become expert in smaller and smaller areas of ocean ecology. This larger ecological totality always exists as a frame around their individual endeavors, but it can be difficult for them to “come up for air,” so to speak, and to analyze the interactions between their area of specialization and that of the dozens or hundreds of other investigators in a given field. Arts, arguably, have the ability to comprehend and synthesize these broader interrelations because they are not limited by the technical expertise required by each specific area and can thus more easily view them as interrelated parts of a larger whole. Such knowledge is less so concerned with the internal operations of an individual discipline than with the topographic ability to assess interconnections among various disciplines at a given time” (Kester, 66).
It is not so much that we positioned ourselves as artist remediators above the ecological fray, but more that we saw an opportunity to use this structure or process to explore other ways of understanding, and to embrace the complexities and unknowns associated with our relationship to our environment, our home. Indigenous scholar Jack Forbes, in examining why the terms ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ are problematic concepts for North American Aboriginal people, suggests that ‘culture’ and ‘society’ are more verbs than nouns, and that we should replace the words with the concepts ‘together-living’, ‘together-doing’ (Forbes, 117). Essentially, we wanted to begin “doing” more with those people who live together in this place we call home.
We also wanted the processes by which we do our research to be published so that they might be applied elsewhere. We decided this publication would take the form of a website. The website “Recyclopedia,” is an open source digital archive of eco art projects that can be shared, recycled, and re-used for future projects. Ultimately, our goal is to not simply generate a series of works of art, but to create case studies and models that can be repurposed for future groups and art-makers.
We got the idea for the Eco Art Incubator from a year-long art project designed to revitalize the Woodhaven Nature Conservancy in Kelowna, B.C. In 2010, Holmes coordinated an eight-month long eco art project in Kelowna’s Woodhaven Nature Conservancy, a 22-acre park containing four different biogeoclimatic zones and several endangered species, including the Western Screech Owl. Community artists and professors and their students were invited to create work in and for the park in order to raise awareness of its existence and of its ecologically significant features. Because the park had been closed for some years due to tree hazards, and because it is a relatively small piece of land on the edge of urban development, people who lived nearby barely knew it existed and at times it was abused. Evidence at the back of the park indicated that a neighbor on a cliff side above had been emptying a chlorinated swimming pool into the park.
During the eight-month eco art project, hundreds of people attended the events. Sixty-one artworks were created, including live performance, audio guides, community poetry, sculptural installations, three films, and interventions of various kinds. At the end of the project thirty-six artworks were in the park and a large website archived most of the others. The Regional District of the Central Okanagan, which was a partner in the project, assessed the success of the project as phenomenal. The eco art project was instrumental in increasing visits to the park fourfold and the neighborhood’s sense of stewardship has also increased substantially due to a greater sense of pride in the park’s special qualities.
The Woodhaven Project became important for our own work and for that of our students. Over forty undergraduate students in three separate courses, six graduate students, several faculty members and several local artists not affiliated with the university were involved. Two graduate students radically altered their collaborative thesis to make the Woodhaven Project central to their work- a performance-based intervention relevant to any nature preserve defined by borders.
From the Woodhaven experience we learned that by providing funding, site-specific expertise, and a fertile umbrella structure within which to work, artists were able to focus productively on their creative practice. We had become “context providers rather than content providers” (Kester, 1). Artists were surprised to discover that Kelowna, a place many considered a cultural backwater, was an ideal place for them to do exploratory fine arts research and practice.
To date we have supported or organized over one dozen projects: Art Event for RDCO Acquisition Announcement of New Conservation Land (2013); Dig Your Neighbourhood– a project that creates a package of art for newcomers to specific Kelowna neighbourhoods (2012-2013); Turf the Turf, a audio guide bike tour of lawn-free homes in Kelowna (2013); Concrete in the Creek, a school-based project engaged with grade 8 students who are working on daylighting a buried creek on their school- installation, performance-practice interventions (2013); Bee Line, a film about bees (2013); Poets in their Places, a film about poetry and the Okanagan (2013); Social Potluck, a performance (2012); Mount Rose Lookout- a forest gallery (2012); Art Events for Bishop Wild Bird Sanctuary (2012); Scale in Sight, a sculpture and sound experience of Okanagan landscape (2012); Green Space, a play (2012), House at the End of the Road, a play (2011); Three Sheets to the Wind, an installation about ecology and interdependence (2012); several events for the ALECC conference (2012). This project has been extremely successful. It has allowed us to invest heavily in developing artists to work on place-based art; we have facilitated the formation of artist groups, providing training opportunities for many students and local artists.
- Forbes. Jack D.. “Nature and Culture: Problematic Concepts for Native Americans”. In Indigenous traditions and Ecology: The Interbeing of Cosmology and Community. John A. Grim, ed. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press, 2001.
- Kester, Grant. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004.