Taking art out: New art series seeks to reclaim the commons

Photo: Emily Neufeld with Cease Wyss, common place (detail), 2018. Huckleberry, little mountain hemlock, salal, licorice, fern, oxalis, nurse log, soil.

In Cathedral Square Park, Vancouver, there is a transient haunting feeling afoot, as the surrounding neighbourhood shifts amid development and other economic pressures. The structural overhang pokes out, no longer protected by plexiglass, perhaps as an effort to make the park and its public space unlivable.

But there, at the east entrance, sits an antique telephone box with a unique display of soil and traditional Indigenous plants such as red huckleberry, salal, licorice fern and oxalis. An ecosystem born out of a time where public space and art for the commons are under threat in urban environments. This is the beginning of a new public art series in Vancouver.

An Initiative of the Or Gallery, What are our Supports is a series of artists' projects in public spaces which aims to ask the difficult questions about the supports necessary to sustain public art and common space.

The projects will be occupying Home Made Home: Boothy, a mobile structure by Germaine Koh, leading up to Koh's solo exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery in June. The series features projects by Emily Neufeld with Cease Wyss, Stacey Ho, DRIL Art Collective, and Khan Lee and Andrew Lee, and will launch monthly in Cathedral Square Park, supported by the City of Vancouver Public Arts Program.

This first in the series by Emily Neufeld and Cease Wyss views the soil as a foundation and basis for life. It "draws upon the fact that dirt and soil are a support for urban life which we rarely consider, often pushing it out of our lives," says Neufeld. The project looks to the traditional Indigenous plants that would have been essential to life on this particular land before colonization and industrialization. It draws attention to the fact that this land is unceded, and much of the swapping of property and implementation of new structures takes place on land where settlers are uninvited guests.

By looking at this history and the roots of Indigenous women's strong relationship with the land, the values of mutual respect and collective order, and admiration for the earth that sustains us sharply contrasts with the current trends towards further privatization and neoliberalism in the places that were once cultural hubs.

The project wields an interconnecting web through its placement in an area which, due to gentrification, is an urban epicentre for so many issues, including food insecurity, loss of public space, colonization, and wealth disparity. 

The artist series, as a whole, draws upon this interconnecting web, and as series curator, Joni Low asks us, "how does art overlap with other horizontal social movements?"

For Low, the impetus for the project began in an increasingly individualized sense, when she was first working at Or Gallery and observing the neighbourhood and community shift around her. She noted her hopes of the project activating the power of the social realm as a material, a medium by which community art space can flourish.

According to Low, art must do more than stay in its own separate enclaves, noting that "art wants out!" She differentiated the project's goals from the current cultural trend of "place-making" which, while well-intended, often works alongside development to help cleanse areas of their former cultural and community vibrancy for the benefit of tourism and other real estate projects.

Instead, the purpose of "what are our supports" is to question the ever-transient mode of our community and social structures for art and public space, and how they may evolve to the economic and cultural agents at play. This includes drawing attention to the way in which people make change and self-organize, and moving art outside the gallery to the community structures that inhabit our urban neighbourhoods.

In this way, Emily Neufed and Cease Wyss' unique structure, wholly alive with timeless knowledge and contemporary necessity, succeeds in taking art outside, where it wants to be.

If you are interested in hearing more from Emily Neufeld and Cease Wyss, come out to their artist talk this Saturday, March 10, onsite at Cathedral Square Park at 2 p.m. The exhibit will continue to be on-site until Saturday, each day from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. 

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