Rearview Mirror ~ Artist Roundtable: GUELPH + SenseLabs: LETHBRIDGE

[ I ]

Has it really been a month? Hey clock, slow down. On September 11th, we piloted (or as my colleagues emphasize, piloted the pilot) of a new model for bridging artistic and scientific methods … with artists at the center. The new process, produced locally by Musagetes for Cities for People, is called simply Artist Roundtable (or A.RT). Here we’re making a playful reference to Robert Rauschenberg’s Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), but also other experiments in embedding artists – e.g. Artist Placement Group – into other sectors and atypical spaces that defy the default to vocational territorialism.

This inauagural roundtable featured Mark Prier, a Mississauga-based multimedia artist in discussion with an entomologist, historian, and museum director. His ongoing project, Grey County Pastoral: Proton Township Exclosure, is a living installation that attempts the restoration of a historically-documented forest in southern Ontario on one acre of land. He creates miniature, nearly virtual versions of the history of our natural environment, letting us experience what our region was like before settlers colonized the land. Prier has a particular interest in forest ecologies and the dynamic between native and invasive species in Ontario.

mark prierexclosure02

Taking its cue from from the UN Climate Summit that happened shortly after on September 23 in New York City, the roundtable discussion focused on aspects of climate change, an interest of Mark Prier and the three respondents:

  • John English is an historian, author, former politician, and expert on international affairs. He recently published Ice and Water, a history of the Arctic Council.
  • Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate is an entomologist and biocontrol scientist based in Lethbridge, Alberta.
  • Gordon Knox is the director of the Arizona State University Art Museum, former director of the Stanford Humanities Lab, and an expert on artist residencies internationally.

The event was moderated by Jeanne Wikler, an artist coach and expert on cultural diplomacy.

The essence of the Artist Roundtable concept is building and strengthening connections in a way that adds value to artists’ and other professionals’ work (on the same theme, topic, issue). On the morning of September 12th, all the roundtable participants, including the moderator, artist, organizers and representatives of Musagetes and Cities for People met to evaluate proceedings from the previous night. Our goal is to make sure that the concept is clear enough to be communicated and flexible and open enough to be replicable in a variety of contexts.

The spirit of the idea is that it can be modified for different types of places – urban, rural, university setting, festival setting, organizational setting, thematic, etc. The concept borrows from many projects and events by other conveners as well as widely accepted practices such as university seminars, crits and master classes; studio visits; portfolio reviews; and charrettes (from the urban planning vernacular). The process is careful not to defer to or preference norms of bigger cities or dominant cultures in the process of being tailor made for a location; however if the artist participants are interested in connections with nonprofit organizations working on a particular issue (on one side) or certain attributes of the art market (on the other), it may be necessary to invite representatives from those – typically urban – initiatives as well as local and regional experts and peers. Ultimately, the composition of a roundtable can be organized around project, theme, person, and/or goal.

We are developing a flexible and modifiable approach for artists to share their ideas and innovations beyond the art world, to build a comfort zone in which artists can talk to policymakers, politicians, community organizers, social movement leaders and vice versa. The approach consists of a suite of activities – including preparatory coaching, a public roundtable discussion, documentation and tailored follow-up engagement based on the proceedings of the roundtable – geared to enhance dialogue with representatives from a range of sectors that both need the ideas and solutions that artists generate and yet do not regularly/systematically engage artists working on common issues or have not developed ways to interface with professional artists that do not have a history of working with a specific sector but hold current insights and actionable solutions from a discreet project or period of investigation.

[ II ]

Right after the Roundtable, I traveled to Lethbridge with one of our participants Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate, Musagetes director Shawn Van Sluys, and a guest artist from Montreal, Jean-François Prost for the beginning of SenseLabs. It doesn’t take much to relate the intentions of this project in Lethbridge with those of Artist Roundtables – somehow cut from the same cloth – SenseLabs are a series of four intensive labs for a group of participants over the course of several months. In June the SenseLabs began at the Southern Alberta Art Gallery (SAAG) in Lethbridge; they conclude in November. The labs are designed to be challenging for both the participants, facilitator, (Shawn), and artist (Jean-François), deeply engaging sense-making skills like making, listening, debating, and observing.


I also really loved getting to know about The Field Notes Collective, a collective of art professionals and scientists working in the Southern Alberta area who are bound by a shared set of social, environmental and cultural concerns. The mandate of the Collective is to foster dialogue and action through the staging of cross-disciplinary events, engaging with matters of local and regional interest. Here’s a radio programme that discusses the September stage of SenseLabs and its collaboration with The Field Notes Collective, a project led by SenseLab participant, Rosemarie De Clerck-Floate.

[ III ]

After all, one of the benefits of being located outside of Canada – where most of the Cities for People work happens – is that I get to visit places, like Guelph and Lethbridge, and experience them for the first times while implementing dynamic projects … and big ideas with local folks. What a pleasure! It’s nice to see a sign, like that for Guelph Neighborhood Support Coalition, and ask ‘what’s that’ to learn that they are involved locally in all manner of citizen (neighbor) –level empowerment, such as participatory budgeting. And to be able to make corollaries in their work and initiatives in my own backyard, such as the Flux Factory and its role in participatory budgeting for Long Island City or the Brooklyn Solidarity Network.

Not to lay on excuses for time getting away from me, but these last weeks were sorta busy with erecting and watching melt, a three ton ice sculpture spelling out The Future – an intervention by artists LigoranoReese – in New York City for the Peoples’ Climate March and UN Climate Summit. Thanks to everyone who tuned in to the live stream!!!

October 31, 2014
Todd Lester