Radio Archives! Talking about Nothing on CKUT 2017-18

From September 2017 through to February 2018, I joined the inimitable Vince Tinguely in a guest spot on his radio show, The Kitchen Bang Bang Law. This monthly check-in, that took place the last Tuesday of each month on CKUT, 90.3 FM (McGill’s radio station), was a time when Vince and I chatted, interview-style, about my residency experience at McGill University in the Faculty of Education, reflecting on the developments and discoveries as they unfolded over the year.

You can listen to our archived radio spots here:

Sept 26, 2017 (cue to 9:19 on the timeline)

Oct 31, 2017 (cue to 10:35 on the timeline)

Nov 28, 2017 (cue to 15:00 on the timeline)

Jan 30, 2018 (cue to 5:45 on the timeline)

Feb 27, 2018 (cue to 7:30 on the timeline)

Residue of Resting – Saying Goodbye to McGill

Closure on the current cycle of this project has not been so pat, as we had a series of “final” events in the Faculty of Education that dovetailed more closely with the end of the school semester. March was the big hurrah! And April, May, saw quieter times at McGill (notably in our home-base, the Art Hive).

Which honestly, I did not mind. It gave me time to sit back and take in the events of the year, and think about how this project will continue. So although I feel like things more-or-less wrapped up some weeks ago, in addition to the reflections that were posted last month I wanted to say a few parting words, before I officially head into the next cycle. In particular, I’m curious to observe how my process in residence also ended up producing objects (you heard me!) – something that my work tends to not do very often. This was in the form of the Lobby Oasis (a moveable installation)

Translating hard surfaces into friendly soft ones, these Giant Pillows were my attempt to create an interruption; periodically placed in the lobby of the Education Building (otherwise living in the Art Hive), they offered the possibility for an unexpected moment of pause – in the middle of a busy lobby (and probably an equally busy schedule).

Three pillows were made, using the precise textures of the building’s interior and surrounding surfaces: the centre column, the walls and the ceiling. This resulted in “The Concrete Pillar Pillow,” “The Pliant Part of Brick” and “The Spongy Waffle.”

And so, these parting words are also parting gifts, as a physicalized embodiment of my projects’ intentions now remain (forever! Or as long they pillows will hold up) in the Education Building. A prolonged, and ongoing invitation to members of the community at McGill to slow down, even lie down, and rest.

Resting, Walking, Place-Making: Reflecting on a Day of Reflection

How do we in fact talk about invisible, liminal spaces in art?

Right around the time of the day of reflections, I gave a workshop in an intro performance studies class called The Poetics of Performance. Elisha Conway, PhD candidate and instructor for this course at McGill assigned a reading from Erika Fischer-Lichte’s The Transformative Power of Performance: a new aesthetics.

In revisiting the notion of the “performative turn” via Fischer-Lichte’s text – the intersubjectivity of the artist-audience, and simultaneous production (by the artist, in a redefined relationship with the audience) and reception (by a spectator who is now a crucial element in completing a work) – I was reminded that the project of underscoring process is also a strategy for highlighting the “already there.”

She cites John Cage’s 4’33” – the iconic performance in which a musician sits at a piano before an audience not playing for a full four minutes and thirty three seconds – as one (historical and sufficiently examined) example of this new aesthetic. In so doing she effectively directs my focus to this very space of the “already there.”

A work like Cage’s is the perfect culmination, for my purposes here, of Fischer-Lichte’s proposition, drawing together the conceptual, critical, temporal, spatial, embodied and affective components that infuse a performative art-moment – one that demonstrates what happens when the work itself brings attention to our attention – to what we notice and how, and to the very environment in which a work unfolds.

“There no longer exists a work of art, independent of its creator and recipient,” writes Fischer-Lichte, “instead, we are dealing with an event that involves everybody – albeit to different degrees and in different capacities.”

The artwork as event that she points to – very specifically as a moment to be experienced rather than interpreted (across the visual arts, literature, music and theatre) – means the calling of attention to how we come into contact not only with a work but the environment surrounding that work (i.e.: the others and the location). Suddenly the work is not just about an idea presented by an artist but our manner of observing it (as connected to personal histories, memories, emotions, etc.). The experience that we potentially become aware of then, along with affective responses to what is being witnessed, is related to how we respond. How we receive what is there and how this reception mixes with our sense of “self,” “here,” “now,” “place.” The meaning we make from the experience combines our particular “identity fragments” (to borrow a term from Sylvie Tourangeau) with a collective encounter (the group with the artist/work). Our relationship (even tenuous) to these “others,” and by extension our sense of the larger container that holds our experience, shapes our very perception – and reception – of a work. A manifestation, through a performative situation, of an “already there.”

…The slippery thing about the “already there” is that it is the thing right under our nose. So blatant that is goes unnoticed. It becomes “accepted,” hence invisible.

…This brings me to look at what was uncovered – in the realm of art experience – during the presentations of March 23rd

Delivering a combination of personal stories and historical facts, Lori Beavis (who identifies as part Anishinaabe, part Irish-Welsh settler descent and is a band member of the Hiawatha First Nation at Rice Lake, Ontario) performed a bannock-cooking demonstration, turning the space of the art hive into her kitchen-lab. In recounting anecdotes from her grandmother’s past, her wish to dialogue with this close ancestor became an extended invitation to dialogue with us. Infusing the conversation with distinct moments of contemplation in which we could see Lori reconnecting with these stories – receiving from her own sense of relationship to a past that is both as familial as it was politicized – allowed for our entering into the story as well. Who are we, as settlers in a country on unceded land? How do these stories make space for us to honour and grieve what might have been previously invisible to us (namely the existence of indigenous identities, cultures, histories, and lands – and their violent stripping away)?

Robert Luzar revisited a work that, in its initial conception, aimed to uncover a significant moment in social history – which went by and large, unremarked. Taking the student demonstrations of 1968 as his point of departure, Sanded Steps, Standing Over Stones asked the question: “After the protests, then what? Who deals with the debris?” As if in an elaborate (and never finishing) gesture, 4 people (RL, Julie Laurin, Nick Yeretsian and Frédérique Blanchard) swept a square of sand that never quite disappeared, but was merely displaced over a larger area – an action that became reminiscent of the citywide cleanup that spread across Paris in the post-demos aftermath (a rather commonplace but necessary “performance”). Wishing to give voice to all involved, audience members became part of the performance as well, reading excerpts from left-leaning and emancipatory political texts that themselves vaunted the all-but-forgotten ideals of a previous era.

For its part, Johannes Zits’ Getting Into Nothing did just that: it demonstrated the space of “the stage,” (a room in an annex building of the Faculty of Education) and the presence of the audience, in a prolonged arena of limbo. Exposing the process of “arriving to an action,” many moments verged on being uncomfortable, even awkward. That very space of awkward emerged due to our sense of holding this experience with Johannes, an effort that happened (that had to happen) all together. And this was Johannes’ force, and the power of his piece. The capacity to sit in these extended spaces of time being stretched before our eyes meant that we couldn’t help but notice: the room, our placement in it, Johannes’s body in relation to it, his absence within it (he would occasionally leave)… in other words not just the artist and his “art work” but all the elements surrounding the piece itself.

Shifting gears, we moved from performative presentations to a pairing of group discussions. Led by two Education students, one an undergrad, the other a PhD candidate, both had previously taken part in a series of encounters over the weeks and months leading up to the March 23rd activities.

My regular meetings with Jessica Giambagno and Maren Gube were in large part at the root of my project and process during my residence at McGill. Inviting them to participate in this day of reflections came as a natural extension of our time spent together (walking, talking and brainstorming on ideas for a project Jessica was undertaking; walking, talking and planning a workshop for Maren’s classroom of masters students). In each case I was interested in deliberately framing these experiences to emphasize that the manner and quality of the way we spend time together – while an unquantifiable element – can be an “artful” moment because of the attention brought to the moment, and the surrounding environment.

With both Jessica and Maren, during the time leading up to March 23rd and on the day itself, the “already there” came quite directly in the form of what each of these educators brought to the table from the outset. Our time together wasn’t therefore predicated on my leading or fishing for outcomes, but on what I gleaned could be offered, as a result of the preoccupations, passions and questions that each arrived with.

In a sense these conversations served to wrap up the day. While highlighting the invisible, liminal spaces in art through our collected activities of Resting, Walking and Place-Making, they also connected to what I consider to be specifically at the heart of performance practice, namely the possibility of a “performative consciousness” (a fundamental approach to being in the moment that often creates a heightened capacity to receive from an “already there”). This performative framing of an everyday encounter, as carried out with Jessica and Maren, turned our “ordinary” exchanges into opportunities for heightened reflections.

“As a self-organizing system,” writes Marvin Carlson in the introduction to Erika Fischer-Lichte’s book, “[performance art] continually receives and integrates into that system newly emerging, unplanned, and unpredictable elements from both sides of the [artist/audience] loop.” He goes on to quote scholar Jill Dolan to confirm the incredible potential for this very system to create what Dolan terms a utopian performative, those “small but profound moments in which performance calls the attention of the audience in a way that lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking, and intersubjectively intense.” Or as Fischer-Lichte puts it, “a sudden deeper insight into the shared process of being in the world.”

Each presentation during this day of reflection in some way succeeded in opening such a space for deepened observation through singularly revealing how the “already there,” when experienced in a collective context does just that: creates a moment of “sudden deeper insight into the shared process of being in the world.”

Upcoming Event: A Day of Reflection on Resting, Walking, Place-Making

walking on mt royal

Resting, Walking, Place-Making: How Do We Talk About Invisible, Liminal Spaces in Art?

March 23, 2018, 10am – 6pm
Art Hive, McGill University, 3700 McTavish, (1st floor) Montreal
Free and open to the public

Moving across the various spaces in the Faculty of Education at McGill University, this day of reflections will engage in an embodied dialogue around the three themes that have comprised Victoria Stanton’s program in residence (namely Resting, Walking, Place-Making). Investigating how these themes subtly imbue the frameworks we may use for connecting art and education, this culminating event occurring toward the end of her residence invites members of the Faculty of Education, along with artists/scholars from the national and international community to share their explorations in a convivial setting, where performances, demonstrations and conversations can intermingle, and potentially generate new knowledges around the role of these more invisible practices within larger creative processes.


Victoria Stanton – (P. Lantz AiR) – Art Walk on Mount-Royal
Victoria invites you on a silent, collective walk on the mountain. Walking is as mundane an activity as it is profound. Not only does it allow a moment of being with our thoughts – a precious time to process events (big and small) – it also opens a space for breath and time for decompression. Or to leave thoughts behind. Maybe even to notice, and connect with, what is circulating around us. Following up on the heels of the Weekly Art Walk, this subtle, performative group action is a moment to arrive, before jumping into the activities of the day.

Lori Beavis (P. Lantz Coordinator) – Making Bannock … a space for contemplation
Lori’s presentation will be part cooking lesson, part dialogue. The food we make is so often connected to family history with recipes handed down from one generation to another. In many ways this has been Lori’s experience and she has made her grandmother’s recipes part of her art practice – this action has opened a space for her to “talk” to her grandmother about thoughts on shared cultural identity as Lori writes out or makes the recipes. During this presentation, as she prepares a round of bannock, she will discuss how one may use the process of preparing food as an opportunity to contemplate memory and identity.

Lori’s presentation enacts a space of collective contemplation, the preparing of food as “performance” becoming an act of witnessing while also creating a suspension of time; a moment of collective rest. Further, the sharing of this recipe – and history/identity – itself becomes an act of education, where transmission (of knowledge, of skills, or histories) is the very basis of the piece; where wellbeing/care, learning and community intersect.

Johannes Zits (Artist and Curator, Toronto) – Getting Into Nothing
Johannes’ performance is structured around a series of actions without intention or direction. Inspired by Victoria’s project, as a way to frame these actions, he is working with emptiness, waiting, stillness, rest, inaction, as well as pauses and gaps. These elements explore the possibility that nothing can become something within a given context.

For Johannes, “getting into nothing” means trying to work through the notion of “embodying” as a kind of total approach that shows us as we are, and as we try to exist, learn, think, do… Inevitably struggling with barely being there at all. As a queer (and aging) male, Johannes and his performance invite – while enacting – an embodied consideration of what it means to put oneself totally and quite physically into such situations that strangely celebrate the human condition, in all its guises. The piece also works to symbolically express a certain bare minimum of the human condition, holding various precarious states while engendering knowledge at its foundational level; of where (and how) the body (and all its faculties) may take risks through risking beautiful vulnerability.

Robert Luzar (Bath School of Art and Design, Lecturer) – Sanded Steps, Standing Over Stones
Robert proposes a participatory performance: four people stand apart and over an area of sand mixed with debris (e.g. crumbs, pebbles from pavement found and gathered around the education building, spread throughout a room). The work starts over a kind of public square. In plain view, the group gently sweeps the sand – but who notices? Are the four “occupying” the square or room? Or holding a spot, a symbolically private island? The questions are open. The work goes as it appears. Throughout the span of the piece, four people step from one end of the sand to another. Each slowly sweeps away footprints left from the other. Sometimes one person stops walking. Another walks over, moving them on. “Move on” the person says. “Nothing to see!” Another responds. And yet another: “Under the stones is the beach!” These and other statements, and longer texts, are said, echoing words from student demonstrations (c.1968), revolutionary change, and praxis. While this action takes place, the audience (who themselves may become participants) is offered texts printed on paper, and are asked to quietly read out them out. By reading out in hushed tones, like barely heard whispers, the sounds of the sweeping and moving around become pronounced. Sounds of disquiet and unrest. Either way the work goes on, sweeping, stepping, stopping, then walking or pacing again, reading and sounding, and so forth… until all the sand is swept across the stones/the floor. The collective action becomes traceless. Metaphors of change, work, and everyday life are symbolically cleared. The symbolic public square is swept.

Here, Robert’s piece engages education and pedagogy via the combined act of sand sweeping, reading and passing on – of texts, actions, and reflections. The act of people/students passing in and out of this space means turning the location into a kind of peripatetic environment where individual and collective reflection occurs via the passing of something; where students and the public at large would be handed printed pages from books (emancipatory pedagogy such as Paolo Friere and related radical literature, for example Fanon, Weil, Horkheimer/Adorno) by authors whose ideas have engaged with education, freedom and equality.

Jessica Giambagno (McGill, B.Ed) – The Community Within
Jessica, a pre-service teacher and ongoing participant in Victoria’s project, will be leading a participatory discussion that looks at the interest in creating much needed spaces of dialogue within the university setting. Beyond meetings that take place formally (for example in the completion of group class projects) or informally (having coffee between classes) the idea here is to collectively draft a spontaneously constructed “plan of action” – taking suggestions from the audience in a kind of brainstorming session where we collectively communicate common (or divergent) desires around tools for building community – in whatever context we might find ourselves. Here, place-making is addressed in relation to a specific context (being an undergraduate student in Education at McGill) but one that could easily relate to other contexts as well.

Inviting Jessica to be part of this event and lead a discussion on The Community Within stems from a creative dialogue which began during the fall semester. What started as the seed for a classroom project turned into an ongoing an evolving exchange, where the foundational components of Victoria’s project (as intersecting with Jessica’s assignment) emerged to demonstrate how art, when brought into the realm of the social, the experiential and the environmental, is not only an object that stands outside us to be contemplated in a detached way but may come directly into dialogue with education itself; how invisible processes in the everyday can become creative and impact learning.

Maren Gube (McGill, PhD Candidate, Department of Educational & Counselling Psychology) – Understanding Creativity
In leading up to a workshop on Creativity that Victoria would be facilitating during the winter semester in Maren’s course (Education of Talented and Gifted Students), Maren and Victoria have been regularly meeting to discuss the form and content of this lesson. Going on walks, sharing readings and talking in the Art Hive have characterized their encounters, which began during the fall semester. Taking an otherwise “ordinary” formula of preparation, the two agreed to capitalize on both Maren’s research as a PhD student (namely the role of affective and motivational processes in supporting creative thinking) and the themes of Victoria’s residence to underline the possibility for (and importance of) highlighting a process of preparation – seeing the “leading up to” as just as important as the event itself (Victoria giving a workshop in Maren’s class).

Together they will discuss their process of creating this space of exchange as a consciously inhabited structure, deliberately framing this experience (as art, as part of Victoria’s overall project) in order to demonstrate a living and breathing process of creativity in action; of seeing the quality of the way we spend time together, while an unquantifiable element, as elemental in approaching not only art making but teaching about artistic & creative process.

Performance presentations will be followed by informal discussion/Q & A. Victoria will moderate all discussions post presentation. Light refreshments will be provided.

Schedule (subject to change)
• 10am… arrival and prepare to go out again for:

• 10:30am – 11:30am Art Walk With Victoria
Location: Circuit up on Mont-Royal

• 11:45am – 12:45pm: Lori Beavis – Making Bannock
Location: Art Hive

• 12:45pm – 1:30pm: Lunch break (bring a lunch; light snacks & juice provided)
Location: Art Hive & surrounding spaces

• 1:30pm – 2:30pm: Robert Luzar – Sanded Steps
Location: Library (raw space next to Art Hive)

• 2:45pm – 3:45pm: Johannes Zits – Getting Into Nothing
Location: Coach House, room 200

• 4pm – 5pm: Jessica Giambagno – The Community Within
Location: Art Hive

• 5:15 – 6pm: Maren Gube – Understanding Creativity
Location: Art Hive

• 6pm: snacks & beverages, informal chat

This event is being presented by: the McGill Faculty of Education, the McGill Institute for Human Development and Well-Being, the McGill Art Hive Initiative, and the P. Lantz Initiative for Excellence in Education and the Arts.

Weekly Walk on Mount-Royal Begins!

Sitting at the foot of Mount-Royal, the Faculty of Education overlooks the incredibly lush terrain of one of this city’s most important landmarks. The Weekly Walk takes advantage of this proximity, inviting students, faculty and staff to come join me every Friday to journey up the steps and onto the trails from 3 – 4pm. The Weekly Walk is a moment to reflect, recharge, or to reconnect (with oneself, with nature); to problem-solve, zone out or just get outside for an hour… It is generally a silent walk, but exceptions can be made to have a Walk & Talk if this is specially requested by a participant.

Year-End Recap 3: Res(is)ting


This one is the doozy. Essentially because I had what turned into probably the most intense and busy three months of my entire adult life. I am now (in late December) finally catching my breath. And finally getting caught up on my blog – hence the three consecutive posts and nary a post in site for the previous two months. Ironic, right? Reality (check). But it really got me thinking. Yes, I was supposed to be basking in this awesome residence situation in which my primary goal was to reflect upon and enact moments of pause (via walking and observing “in place”). But the day-to-day unfolded such that several things were just all happening all at the same time. Torrential pouring. This had me in a constant shifting of gears and switching of modes. Transition from one mode to another has never been my specialty in the past; rather, it has usually been a source of tremendous impatience and exhaustion. But, I had no choice. And, I really did not rest. I basically ran (mentally and sometimes geographically) from one “event” to the next.

Please don’t get me wrong: I am not complaining. I am merely attempting to unpack this past autumn and resist the temptation to berate myself for failing to come through. For real: when I would put off a coffee date (“can we meet in January?”) or not reply to an email for several weeks (“I’m so sorry, I’ve been swamped”) my interlocutor would implore: “But I don’t get it: I thought you were supposed to be DOING NOTHING!” … Sigh. And so, I am instead trying to seize an opportunity to put all this in perspective – and learn a thing or two in the process. The following is a current reflection-in-progress:

Question 1: Did the project fail/did I fail my project in the first half of my residence?

…I mean… the project is, in part, about failure, but here I am again looking at failed failure (see June 6th post for an example). I guess it could go both ways. I didn’t stop. But I sure spent a ton of time thinking about why I couldn’t stop and how great it would feel when I did! Or more like waiting for the moment when I would have the time to properly reflect on why I had no time to really think. And also thinking about what all this meant. So… what to say… I tried to just move as gracefully as possible in all this acceleration and decided that there was no point in dwelling on whether what I was doing was harmonious with my project or a complete contradiction. It ended up being both. Which leads to

Question 2: What does it (really) mean to create spaces of pause and interval in the goings on of a “typical” westernized, capitalist, Protestant-work-ethic-infused-framework of a day-to-day?

I’ll start by answering a question with another question. My partner David recently asked: “Do you believe in cycles of hard work followed by vacation or that every day should be a vacation? Or, if you do need a special time for vacation, does that mean your life is out of balance?
…I.e.: am I working too much? (Pic seen here and above are of me on vacation. Something I rarely do. Thanks mom, for making this beach holiday possible and David for documenting the occasion).


I met another professor here at McGill named Bronwen Low with whom I had the pleasure of sharing another short chat. One comment she made struck a chord: she said that she is quite tired of how this mode has become the main characteristic of so many of her friends/colleagues lives. She finds this “Cult of Busy” almost absurd and wants to eradicate the very word from her vocabulary.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that even if in reality I (you, our friends, neighbours, family, colleagues) might in fact be really busy, is it still possible to shift our attitude toward how we view our (working) lives and adopt a more benevolent, spacious approach?

Other ways of asking this question now arise: Am I busy because I really am busy or am I busy because I feel like I am supposed to be busy?
If I say I am busy (or think/feel that I am) am I creating a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Do I want to be busy because I think I am healthier/more productive?
Do I want to be busy because I associate being busy with being SUCCESSFUL?

Question 3: How do I continue from here?

I should acknowledge, I did make time for certain things, for example the lovely walks that I took with Jessica G. up on Mt-Royal. But this raised yet another set of questions. Was I making time because of my publicly stated commitment to going on these walks as part of my project? Would I have done this if I hadn’t mandated myself to do so? And so does this fall under the purview of work (because this was part of my “contract”)? Do I need to make contracts with myself in order to make sure I insert downtime and rest into my schedule? Is that the only way I can make this happen?

I remember saying several years ago how I see my performance art practice as rehearsal for the rest of my life (with thanks to Linda Montano for confirming this notion for me). But I don’t think this was the kind of example I had in mind when I initially made this claim. No matter. I think for the time being that I will continue to play with this model because, quite honestly I’m not sure how else I will get there. Contradictions and all…

And in the meantime, I feel like I am going in circles; that I keep asking the same questions. My sense is that the frequency with which I ask these questions matches the depth of complexity that they imply. Conclusion: I will keep on asking these (same) questions as I continue attempting to unpack this intricate web of circumstantial evidences.

PS: Happy 2018!! May yours be filled with the calmest of solutions to even your most intricate and challenging life situations.


Year-End Recap 2: Un/Conscious Walking

Putting Walking at the centre of this project, not as a by-product of the other activities (Place-Making & Resting) but as an activity unto itself, I thought it’d be reasonable to say a few words about the unfolding of this element too.

I am looking at two kinds of Walking:
1. Unconscious Walking: … Now made conscious because I am deliberately pointing to it, but these are the walks that need to happen in order to get anywhere. These could also be called Walks of Necessity. And
2. Conscious Walking: The walks that are inserted into my time at McGill, i.e.: for pleasure and not to get somewhere.

In the former can be found my trips up and down that lofty hill either on McTavish or Peel Street between Sherbrooke and Av. Des Pins. McTavish has been revamped and is now for pedestrians only (up until Dr. Penfield) making for a lavish path. It’s not often you get to walk right down the middle of the road and this road in particular faces one side of Mt. Royal. Every time I go up and down this street I can’t help but imagine a small-scale parade. I see streamers and hear trumpets. But a slow, ambling pageant, like a line of Mr Snuffleupagus’ kind of bobbing along. Peel is steeper; after a fresh snow the sidewalks are slightly treacherous. But I take it for variation. I also like the way the light falls in late morning (the time I usually make my way over).

Stanton_DesireLinesIn this same category are the “desire lines” that thread between the three main buildings that make up the Faculty of Education; these shortcuts have been etched into the ground after several years of the buildings’ occupants criss-crossing to get from one office or class to the next. They’re somewhat tricky to navigate at night especially under a new moon, but one can tangibly feel their distinct personalities and histories (with light undertones of mystery).

Stanton_ReservoirIn the latter, and as mentioned in a couple of previous posts, I have taken a shine to the reservoir across the street, where a giant football field sits and a running track circles around it. Walking the track is fantastic at all times of the year (with the giant exposed bedrock lining the far edges) but I have to admit, I am spending considerably less time there now that the snow has started to fall.

Which leads to the main event: the Weekly Walk. This got off to a slow start, for while the intention was there to go out every week, sometimes my intense schedule made it less possible. But a routine has gradually set in and the Weekly Walk is now officially plugged into the university’s calendar, with an hour-long Friday afternoon time-slot blocked off until late May (official announcement coming soon)!


In the meantime I had a few lovely meanderings with a B.Ed student, Jessica G. (pictured above) starting in early November, during which we discussed one of her final projects (an artwork for her Knowledge Through the Arts course) and shared spontaneous reflections around what resting, walking, and place-making means to us. Counting the Weekly Walk and her participation in the Art Hive inauguration as part of her research (in my untimely absence at this event, she generously took the reins and hosted a “performative trajectory”), she sent a draft of her notes, describing her experience of spending time with me. I include an excerpt here:

“I shared with Victoria the struggle I have with defining rest. I think that may be in part due to the fact that I do not feel very comfortable when I rest. The idea that I will stop thinking and/or doing something and just rest is stronger than me. This means that I do not take time out my busy schedule to stop and rest. We were discussing that this struggle of mine can also be greatly influenced by the people that surround me. I brought up the example of my mother who does 3 things at once and says she’s resting because she’s use to doing 5 things at once instead. Therefore, the idea of sitting down, potentially putting my feet up and clearing my mind of any negative thought is difficult when I’m just not accustomed to it. I thanked Victoria for giving me this opportunity of walking on this path with her. Although we may be very active in the sense that we are exchanging ideas throughout this walk, for myself I also see it as a little form of rest in my day.”

… Which makes an excellent segue to the final post about Resting, in the series of Year-End Recaps.

With special thanks to Jessica G. for contributing her time and thoughts to this process.


Year-End Recap 1: The Making of Place (Or: How Place Is Perceptual)

Sheryl Smith-Gilman, Communication in Education Class, McGill

I started drafting a text several weeks ago delving into more recent reflections around “Place-Making” that I intended to publish several weeks ago, but I never did finish that piece. A series of intervening events kept interrupting me. Happy interruptions for the most part, but each time I thought I had clarified an idea, another one came along and got me rethinking the whole thing. Later thoughts replaced earlier ones. You know how it goes… But I’m interested to see how the earlier thoughts gradually transformed so now the challenge is to create a coherent post that doesn’t go on for several thousand words or meander too aimlessly. I’ll try it in bite-sized parts.

1. Place is perceptual
(Expanded journal notes from Sept. 21)

I notice how well I feel when I step foot on campus. Everything just… settles; my stress subsides, staving off residual tension from all the other facets of my current schedule; from the rest of my life. This place is quickly becoming a kind of refuge.

But how different would this be if I was a student here? (Or full time faculty, or a member of support staff)?

I overheard a couple of conversations since arriving, coming from students (past and present) who described quite the opposite sensation; this site is not a source of refuge or creativity but rather one that inspires a certain degree of angst.

As such: I come back again to this notion that an embodied perception of place is directly connected to our experiences that take place in them.

If I associate my time here with freedom of thought, open spaces (the giant reservoir across the street that I adore sitting in) and an intrigue about architectural construction (the Education building is quite a gem from its time) then I am definitely more likely to have a positive feeling when I come here, then, say, a student who associates their time with tight deadlines, crammed classrooms and the overall pressures that characterize student life.

2. Place is a lived experience
(Reflections that have been brewing for the last few weeks that I am finally recording)

I am noticing that, rereading the above passage almost three months later, I really don’t feel the same now as I did back in September. The weather has changed. I’m not outside as much. I am hit hard with many deadlines and administrative tasks that have piled up and so the previous lines that had been drawn around this sanctuary (that initially provided me a sense of calm upon arrival) have slowly dissipated. Feeling behind in just about all of my work (including the schedule I had set out for myself for various parts of my project in residence), the “outside world” (i.e.: the rest of my life) has completely caught up with me here. And now that this place has become a regular feature in my day-to-day, all these disparate facets of my life follow me everywhere; even on campus. I still enjoy being here (don’t get me wrong), but I don’t feel the same ease as when I first arrived. As a result of its increasing familiarity, this place has changed – precisely because my lived experience in it has. Place is perceptual, indeed.

3. Place is an emotional/experiential construct
(Expanded journal notes from Sept. 21)

If the experiences that occur “in place” (in these structures/on these sites) shape our perception/reception/engagement/memory/active articulation/usage of these spaces, then I think it could also be argued that places evolve. Not just physically (by moving a chair from one side of the room to the other) but energetically and emotionally.

4. Place is malleable; a construct that we can transform
(Expanded journal notes from Nov. 10)

How can we instigate certain experiences into being? How can we contribute to creating environments that permit certain kinds of behaviours, activities, shifting perceptions that will then shape our experience – and by extension transform our sense of place? This is what I came away wondering about after having sat in on a class in early November.

Sheryl Smith-Gilman, a professor at McGill who teaches Communication in Education had her students do an exercise in which they discover the Education Building, floor by floor. A proponent of The Reggio Emilia approach (a student-centred philosophy that deeply considers the role of relationship and place in learning for preschool and primary schoolchildren), Smith-Gilman encourages her students to think about how and what environments communicate by their particular features and how educators can adapt to and appropriate these in order to create spaces that become more conducive to learning – by considering how we occupy these sites. The exercise points to an initial appropriation of space: observe what you see; what is there; what can be utilized, what can be added to or subtracted from; what is available and what is ready for setting up your “holistic” learning environment. Starting from an embodied reception of place (i.e.: more closely observing how a particular place makes us feel, exactly as it is) we can then go in and propose changes. Which can be quite subtle and relatively simple (more intimate seating arrangements, adding cushions, plants, student-made art on the walls, etc.).

Needless to say I was fascinated when Prof Smith-Gilman told me about this module in her class because I hadn’t realized that these notions I have been exploring through my performance art practice are cornerstones in certain educational pedagogies. Which is to say, observing how place impacts our actions in it. I was also really excited to hear about the typical composition of a classroom – with comfy chairs and pillows for young students to hang out in while learning. I.e.: in a mode of rest and relaxation.

Granted, a comfortable place doesn’t guarantee a comfortable experience but if the philosophy at the outset has us already mindfully (and continually) tuning into those spaces that populate our day-to-day with the purpose of sensitizing us to the “feel” of a room, then we are already transcending the notion of place as a merely physical construction and becoming increasingly aware of place as a set of relational circumstances. Experience “in place” affects our “sense of place”; (mindfully) altering place can (potentially) alter our experience “in place” and our (future) sense of it. This can be both positive or negative, to be certain. The goal clearly in the Reggio Emilia school is to produce a positive experience, but the point I am more interested in making is the very possibility for apprehending a place and, further, contributing to it through our actions in it (which emerge as a result of our observations of it); to be able to receive what is there in order to work from there. Starting as an empathetic observer, how do I understand my experiences “in place” – and when (and how) does my experience of place (and actions) transform?

Students’ Summary of the the Lobby

5. Welcome to your new home, Victoria! McGill now has an Art Hive
(A kind of conclusion – and new beginning – as the year comes to a close)

It’s worth mentioning an important new development in the Faculty of Education at McGill, which I think will have a direct impact on my experience “in place” while here in residence. We now have an Art Hive, which officially opened in late November. This place is the headquarters for the Artists-in-Residence but is also an open studio where all members of the McGill community are welcome to come – and make art. Or just hang out. Comfy chairs, plants, tables for working and tons of art supplies (along with tea) are all on offer and permanently available from this creative hub. Why I include this last part here is that I see more directly the feedback loop that is impacting my experience of this place. When I got busy and overwhelmed by too many demands (external to this residence), my previous floating around care-freely upon arrival (“walking the place into my body”) was short-circuited by a need to centre and ground. While serving an initial purpose I saw that I was also in need of “my place.” Not necessarily a private place, but a place to settle into. To space out. And work from. This open studio will now be the “ground zero” for the remainder of the residence and I am very curious to see how my “sense of place” is impacted upon as I take up residence, and enter into circulation with the many students, faculty and staff that I hope will come and visit.

Additional Thoughts on Canadian and Finnish Silence

The gap between myth and reality can be quite close; sometimes it is merely a question of perception that creates a rift between the two.

This is the thought I was holding as I came onto the Cindy boat in Turku, Finland, the location where the performative non-action, Canadian Silence would be carried out. The premise of the piece, I reminded myself as I hunkered down in preparation for three hours of Doing Nothing, was based on fact but also touched on a certain cultural mythology – specifically that of “Finnish Silence” (see previous post for the complete intro).

Sitting quietly (as I was) for the duration of the non-action, I didn’t have a chance to discuss the proposition or possible discrepancies that Canadian Silence offered with the participants who came onboard. That time was rather spent staring out the window, watching the rainfall, noticing the surface of the water shift and change depending on wind cycles and strength of rain-drops, observing people walking on the other side of the river, trees blowing in the breeze, and aware of people coming and going inside the boat. In other words, just being.

It was only afterward that dialogue occurred; with a few participants and with a handful of folks who didn’t attend, but are either from Finland, or have recently taken up residence.

Here is what I gleaned: For some locals, Finnish Silence is a kind of cultural stereotype, and not something that necessarily overtly exists; they’re aware of it (i.e.: as a cliché) but not so attuned to it. For others, it does exist and occurs most obviously in nature; people specifically spend time in the forest to find and foster tranquillity. For others still, it transpires in a kind of liminal space within the day-to-day; people don’t name it precisely but its effects are felt as unspoken social ‘rules’ – or even as atmospheric resonance. I received a couple of captivating examples of the latter:

– In the everyday people do not talk when taking public transit. “Sit on a bus while you are here,” my interlocutor suggested to me. “You’ll notice no one speaking. It’s not that we aren’t allowed to interact, it’s that people want to respect everyone else’s space – and sound travels. So out of courtesy and consideration, people tend to sit quietly.”

– A very personal and particular example came from another conversation with a young woman who explained how when her father, a British born rather rambunctious fellow first arrived in Finland, he recalls having gone to his first party. “Oh yeah, ask my dad and he’ll tell you, Finnish Silence is a real thing! He has this amazing story of walking into this celebration and lots of people standing around… not talking! He couldn’t quite make heads or tails of it and didn’t know how to act, or what to do! He said he felt so awkward and out of place. But it’s not something I have experienced in quite the same way.”

So a thing existing exists largely in our perception of said thing. And we could say that “Finnish Silence” is a thing, but an almost imperceptible one. Depending on where you are. Who you’re with. And, quite clearly, where you are from.

Which leads back to the performance’s initial framework; a comparison across cultural planes inquiring, do Canadian and Finnish silence feel the same…?

While my Canadian Silence was, in essence, a contrived state, a figment of my imagination that I wished to place in parallel with my current context, I suppose a more precise question coming out of the performance would be, what is the space between this invitation and the reality of the situation? Am I in fact imposing a temporary state or merely pointing to something that is already there?

… The answer came rather unexpectedly two days later when I found myself in Helsinki, inside the Kamppi Chapel, an elegant and unusual structure that stands in the middle of the city. Not only is it riveting to look at, it also has a very specific mandate: it was built as an offering of refuge to all; a space devoted to… SILENCE.

It would seem a need for quietude – and the necessity for this space of pause beyond a cultural cliché – has therefore been officially recognized here, in Finland.

Methinks Finnish Silence is a thing after all… and I was honoured to be an active initiator, witness and participant.

All photos by Jussi Virkkumaa except Kamppi Chapel above (taken by yours truly).

With special thanks to the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec (CALQ) for supporting my travel to Finland.