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.

Do Canadian Silence and Finnish Silence Feel the Same? A Performance at the New Performance Turku Festival in Finland


Cindy boatI am delighted to announce that I will be presenting a durational and site-specific performance piece during the New Performance Turku Festival this October 2017: Canadian Silence.

New Performance Turku Festival is an international festival for performance and live art, organized annually around Turku, Finland – this year between October 6-8th.

In preparing for the performance, I consulted with the curator. Having recently learned of a tradition in Swedish culture called kura skymning (or “keeping dusk”; a time when farming families would sit together in total silence to mark the transition between day and evening) I wanted to see whether such a tradition also exists/existed in Finland. Apparently it does not, however, another similar feature of Finnish behaviour, in particular with regards to social interactions, does. It is known as Finnish Silence. It’s not uncommon for Finns to spend long periods of time in the company of others sitting together and not talking. According to the curator, “We just sit, listening to our own thoughts. No one feels the silence is uncomfortable, it is actually more comforting.”

In a kind of cultural exchange, my peformative action is therefore going to be an open invitation for interested citizens of Turku to come join me at the riverfront, while we sit in Canadian Silence. No cell phones or tablets will be permitted; no texting, no picture taking. Instead, in collective non-action, I will accompany those who participate, who in turn will accompany me: observing our thoughts as we observe the river. After having spent this time in a deliberate moment of Doing Nothing, upon a participant’s departure, I will distribute a small leaflet with the question: Do Canadian and Finnish silence feel the same? Participants will then have the opportunity to respond to an email address included in the leaflet. With permission, replies and comments will then be compiled here…

Pictured above, the Cindy boat – the site for our upcoming Canadian Silence.

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

Monthly Report About Nothing: First Installment of a New Radio Spot on CKUT!

This September 26th marks my first foray back into campus-community radio as I join the inimitable Vince Tinguely for a guest spot on his weekly show, The Kitchen Bang Bang Law.

vince + victoria 2004

It’s kind of fitting that I should find myself sitting next to Vince once again (this image above was taken when we co-hosted a show some 15 years ago), in part because we share a history of radio together but also because we co-wrote and published a monthly zine in the mid 1990’s with the charming moniker: “Perfect Waste of Time.”

…You can see where I’m going with this…

Already back in 1995, when the zine first appeared, I was (we were, Vince and I) contemplating rampant consumer culture, gentrification, climate change and the role of the artist in all of this… late capitalist… claptrap. We walked everywhere, year-round, taking time to notice our neighbourhood and city; we relished in slow and inefficient. We weren’t in a rush and resisted working too hard (or too much). We were decidedly UN-productive. On purpose.

It was a kind of art-life project that we didn’t name as such although the emergence of the zine sort of did the job for us. It spoke on our behalf as we churned out the little fold-over one-page month after month for about two years… (with a special issue put out in 2005).

Perfect Waste of Time eventually caught some attention and turned into a book (Impure – a whole other story) which took up all of our time, having us work way too hard and then that art-life project came to an end. As all things do. A perfect waste of time (indeed! Harumph).

Jump-cut to the present…

Finding myself on campus at McGill university for the Resting, Walking,  Place-Making project (which continues on from the Doing Nothing project), I have come full circle. Sort of. Things definitely got busy somewhere in the interim and now (well, officially since the spring of 2016), I have been actively – and very vocally – trying to reclaim that space/time/attitude and mode of decelerated being and (in my art practice) of immaterial/unproductive making. (As has been studiously documented in the dozens of posts previously published in this blog).

And so now, excitingly, commences my monthly check-in, the last Tuesday of each month on CKUT (McGill’s radio station), when Vince and I will waste time together quite perfectly (and happily) again: Welcome to The Monthly Report About Nothing.
Stay tuned…!

CKUT Radio, 90.3 FM
Sept. 26, 2017, 1 – 2pm
– Listen here –


The Punctuation in Waiting

At the invitation of Folie/Culture artist-run centre in Quebec City, I invested the space of The a-Post Office, (Bureau de l’a – POST –), a portable structure set up in strategic locations in Quebec’s city centre. Taking inspiration from the idea of the Post Office, this two-day durational, and relational performance became an annex of research into another kind of Doing Nothing – that of Waiting. Standing inside my little kiosk, this Office on wheels transformed into a site of pause: The Waiting Room / La salle d’attente, where I contemplated what it means to wait, while demonstrating waiting (as we once did when, in a previous era, when we mailed letters and had to be patient about getting a reply).

Sitting at my station, this fire-engine red shelter became like a miniature observation tower. And observing, as I was, the circulation of schoolchildren, delivery trucks, cars, tourists, retired folks and working parents, I couldn’t help but ponder my performative action through the lens of Resting, Walking and Place-Making. My kiosk was situated smack dab in the middle of a neighbourhood that felt very much like a little village, the same people possibly strolling past me several times in one day. While I observed their walking, some actually stopped to consider my resting, and verbally expressed wonder at what the Post Office – and I in it – were doing here.

This intersection of their walking and my “doing nothing” became the very site of place-making; for at the instance when someone would decide to stop and approach me, their otherwise fluid passage was brought to a temporary halt. Why is she inhabiting this spot, why now?

– “What’s going on here, what are you doing?”
– “I’m waiting.”
– “What are you waiting for?”
– “Nothing. I’m waiting. Just to wait.” (“Rien. J’attends, juste pour attendre.”)

…And from this entry point, The Waiting Room / La salle d’attente became a locus of inquiry; a place that when unnoticed, sat latent (yet attentive), and waited, but when remarked upon transformed into a site where questions, values, reflections, local history, concerns, and confessions, were all conferred not only upon me but the situation as a whole (me, and this little booth).

These punctuations in waiting gave the project of waiting a whole other flavour. It was as if I could (and did) occupy two distinct zones: one of actively spacing out and one of actively listening. The two continuously bounced back and forth and definitely complemented each other; I felt myself go into a calm and comfortable lull (in my own head) staring off into the beautiful view of a steep street lined with staircases and overgrown summer flowers when I was unnoticed… And was reanimated when someone came up to me and started to speak. It made those moments more precious too – because the piece was just as much about the waiting as it was about the interactions (which inevitably had us collectively reflecting on waiting).

These punctuations in waiting were also made possible precisely because of the structure surrounding me – this flaming red booth. If I had been sitting on a park bench, no one would likely take notice at all. So in eking out an autonomous space, and putting a sign on it (two signs: Folie/Culture’s Post Office signature and my little “La salle d’attente”) I contributed to creating a place where these exchanges could occur. It should be noted however, that these exchanges did occur entirely because of people’s curiosity. Clearly the kiosk was an eye-catcher, but I was genuinely surprised by the number of locals (and tourists) of all ages who did approach to ask what it was, and why I was there.

And so this coinciding of walking and resting – punctuating waiting (as it were) – became a place where unexpected conversations between strangers could spontaneously happen, with us then collectively establishing our individual and unique positions (who am I, and who are you, as we now meet in this conversation)? What place we do create and inhabit together – both within this specific conversation, and within the world immediately around us.

(Photos above are by Fabien Abitbol, who also wrote a nice little piece about the performance here).

Waiting as a Form of Restful Creativeness

I often refer back in my memory to my first major art residency, the time I spent a year and half traveling between Montreal and the city of Granby, to the artist-run centre 3e impérial (just south of Montreal, in the Eastern Townships). The reason I do is because that was the place where, for the first time, I experienced the possibility of having a long period in which to really get to know a site in order to propose the definitive form of a work. To be able to delve deeply into a process and recognize this as a form of creative making. It’s a very rare opportunity and one that I have consistently sought out since.

The opportunity occurred again with my project at DARE-DARE last season and, once again, I find myself with the incredible spaciousness of a context that allows me to explore on a slow, meandering path.

In a culture where we are often faced with a pressure to produce (and to do so with a certain acceleration) this kind of movement (while happily encouraged within these contexts) can nonetheless occasionally feel stagnant and faltering; like some kind of failure. These feelings don’t take over for very long but when they do emerge, I can find myself entertaining doubt and a feeling of some kind of deficiency. I’m not doing enough. My doing (or non-doing, as it were) is too invisible.

In preparing for a course I’m teaching this fall I came across a quote in an interview with installation artist Ann Hamilton. I was looking at her work for another set of reasons but to my surprise, I found this helpful bit of creative wisdom. What resonated for me was the way in which she described entering into her process of making. In detailing this trajectory, she clearly emphasized the importance of a kind of meditative reception as an integral part of her uncovering the work that will be made. This process is essentially one of waiting. She states:

“I listen to all the millions of small things that give a place its sense. I try to walk it into my body, to feel it, to understand it by moving through it, rather than looking at it. I make lists of words that describe the physical circumstances. I look for their metaphoric possibilities. I wait. That is the practice – to be blank and to listen – and to wait.”

To be blank and to listen, to my mind, is a form of actively doing nothing. At least on the visible surface (as we have repeatedly come to understand that “Doing Nothing” basically masks a whole host of imperceptible, yet present, processes). Her description of “walking it into the body” – hence a direct correlation between walking and receiving (from a space) as a way to reveal the (art)work to eventually be made also acts as a timely inspiration, while I tentatively become familiar with my new residence “home.”

And so this is how I have decided to begin my process in residence at McGill; to walk, and look, and sit, and listen, and wait. To rest, while I receive this new place (and the people who populate it).

Also very timely – and serendipitous – in all of this mix is an intervening performative art project that I have been planning to carry for artist-run centre Folie/Culture’s season opener: Bureau de l’a – POST –. My proposed project has me in the province’s capital of Quebec City over the next two days, occupying a traveling kiosk disguised as a Post Office. The Office on wheels will be my site of pause: A Waiting Room (Salle d’attente) where I consider what it means to wait, and demonstrate waiting (as we once did when, in a previous era, we mailed letters and had to be patient about getting a reply). As I spend this time thinking about waiting, I will also sit and wait, and invite people to come and tell me their stories about waiting…or to simply sit and wait with me. Eventually, something will come.

When a Familiar Place Becomes New Again

view from the Faculty of Education, McGill

Sept. 1, 2017: Day one on campus at McGill University. … Honestly, I feel like I am visiting another city. McGill is of and in Montreal (with the great landmark of Mount-Royal looming majestically behind it) but McGill is, for real, its own universe. This isn’t groundbreaking news, but it nonetheless surfaces as the most striking sensation while I sit at a picnic table up on the hill of McTavish, outside the Faculty of Education. I’m overlooking the recently relandscaped reservoir and noting:
1. How new this all seems to me, like a place I hardly know;
2. How easy it is to just completely zone out;
3. How the security guard across the way leaning against the railing seems to be zoning out too. It’s been a good ten minutes that he’s been standing, more-or-less motionless, staring at the field. (This last doesn’t present any kind of problem to me. More so I’m interested in having inadvertently witnessed someone in their own bubble – in the middle of their workday – in a moment of momentary “downtime”);
4. How so many of the people (not student-y looking but tourist-y and of various ages, younger, elderly) make really great use of the benches, sitting down to rest, before continuing on their way up the hill.

… I’m from Montreal but didn’t attend McGill, so my dealings are indirect; I’ve been a user of various resources and spaces (seeing concerts at Pollock Hall, visiting semi-precious stones in the Redpath Museum, eating lunch on the grass just inside the Roddick Gates) so it’s no wonder I feel like a visitor now. But a visitor, plus. For it is not completely unfamiliar, just… like I’m moving temporarily into the house of an old friend; I’ve known this person and been in their home several times, it’s just not the same as (now) living here.

…So this is what I’m most struck by, on my first day on campus: the intensely familiar revealing something new.