The Okanagan Aesthetic Initiative


The research question of the Okanagan Aesthetics Project is:  “Can artists, in collaboration with the community, identify an Okanagan aesthetic and can this aesthetic be articulated powerfully enough for such a vision to drive sustainable and environmentally sensitive development?”   A group of researchers at UBC who are members of the Okanagan Sustainability Institute  are exploring place and aesthetic values.  It is difficult to define a sense of place, and even more difficult to attempt to capture that sense of place in built environments, in art, in landscapes, in lifestyle choices of all kinds.  Our projects focus on the bioregion of the Okanagan to research how we can deeply explore ideas of a local aesthetic, and generate a process that can begin to define it.  Like all bioregions, the Okanagan is both a “geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness” (Berg and Dasmann, as qtd. in Buell 83); thus, the valley is an ideal place for artists (explorers of the terrain of consciousness) and geographers (investigators of geographical terrain) to engage in a deep discovery of sense of place.

Using our expertise as artists, we intend to tap into the senses of diverse stakeholders of this region, specifically non-design expert community members and winery owners.  The first group is rarely consulted about aesthetic choices of their environment; the second group has taken on the challenge of generating a locale aesthetic with little meaningful engagement with the actual place.  These wineries are proliferating and, in a sense, “colonizing.’  In marketing campaigns for the area, the geography itself becomes the commodity in the case of the fetishisation and marketing of wine production (Aguiar, Tomic, Trumper 133).

Yellow School House-Edit

The Okanagan Aesthetic project proceeds various converging paths with  different methodologies and resources.  The Yellow Schoolhouse Project, for example, consists of artist-run interactive installations designed to generate discussion, visions, manifestos, and artworks from the grassroots of our many valley communities.  The Winery Aesthetics Project is a visual analysis and interview process with winery designers.  The analysis of these constructed and designed vineyard aesthetics provides the “flip side” to the visions and views of the larger valley community elicited by a group of local artists.

A bioregion, as Michael Vincent McGinnis defines it, “represents the intersection of vernacular culture, place- based behavior, and community” (3).   We do not think of community as an existing social relation, but as a call or appeal to a collective praxis.

Community based art then can be approached as a projective enterprise, rather than a descriptive enterprise, wherein a provisional community can be produced within the specific context instigated, either by an artist or a cultural institution (Kwon 159).

We are, in essence, instigating this provisional community in order to gather locally generated perceptions of aesthetic value in a way that bypasses the usual methods of community consultation.  Rarely do people living in a place get to express feelings about what they love and dislike about their home in a joyful, curious, and visceral exercise of discovery.

Our methods for the series of artist-run interactive installations are what Grant Kester calls “dialogic” or conversational works of art that emphasize process rather than product, relationship rather than authorship.  The Yellow Schoolhouse interactive projects, for example, suggests the participant create a smelling installation using mason jars; other prompts incorporate walking, soundscapes, recipes, collecting and observing.   Loccal artists in each community coordinates local events, works with community groups, and invites specific cohorts and demographics.

  • Aguiar, Luis, Tomic, Patricia, and Trumper, Ricardo. “Work Hard, Play Hard: Selling Kelowna, BC, As Year-round Playground.”  The Canadian Geographer 49.2 (2005): 123-139.
  • Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Maldon MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
  • Kwon, Miwon. One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.
  • McGinnis, Michael Vincent, Ed. Biorgionalism.  NY:  Routledge, 1998.

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