The second issue of SAW Video’s Cultural Engineering project is appearing moments before the construction hoarding is scheduled to go up and the first stage of the physical transformation at Arts Court begins. Meredith Snider and Timothy I. Smith have each produced another installment in their ongoing investigation of the redevelopment process, and guest artist Rachel Kalpana James makes a unique contribution to the latest edition. In the process of responding to the Arts Court redevelopment, the artists have added to a broader understanding of what the phrase “cultural engineering” might mean. If it is understood as a method of planning to increase public participation in cultural life, then one would hope for every success in the cultural engineering of Ottawa’s Arts Court. An analogy for a sympathetic type of cultural engineering might be found in the way that some urban planners take into account how people actually use public space before they lay down pathways. These paths can be guided by the “desire lines” cut into the earth by pedestrian traffic. Now that change is underway at Arts Court, the interventions of the artists in the Cultural Engineering project can be considered to be making visible the desire lines within the overarching redevelopment.
Desire lines are what the viewer first encounters when watching Timothy I. Smith’s latest post, which opens with a shot of a man following a path in the snow-covered vacant lot that is to be the future location of the Ottawa Art Gallery. Smith wanted to capture that corner of the city at Daly and Waller since the view from this side of Arts Court will be the one that is most dramatically impacted by the development. Through successive panning and scanning, Smith’s video gradually builds a comprehensive view of the site and its context. Smith’s engagement with digital imagery recalls photographic terms that are now essentially metaphorical: by dodging the unseen, he makes that which is visible a burning concern.
The desire lines in Meredith Snider’s latest post are even more metaphorical and fleeting, like a name traced with a birthday sparkler in the dark. Snider has switched focus from the Arts Court façade to its interior, and this time she has inserted herself into the frame. Her video attempts to comprehensively, almost obsessively, document a space in the building that will cease to exist after the renovation: an unsightly passageway that once conveyed prisoners from the adjacent jail to the courthouse. Snider’s circumnavigations idiosyncratically evoke the history of corridor, commemorating what has transpired in them but also testing the space’s capacity for movements that can only be imagined. At the moment of its erasure, the unexplored possibilities of the space are glimpsed.
Rachel Kalpana James’ video offers three guided meditations that lead like Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinthine complexity of the Arts Court, registering the desires of the numerous residents as well as circumscribing unstated anxieties and issues that are still to be resolved. James is a multidisciplinary artist whose work explores identity and belonging in society. Her video not only presents the diverse voices that are in the dialogue around the development of the Arts Court, but also opens a space for considering those that are excluded. It depicts the excitement and uncertainty of development and displacement.
Each artist traverses the space at Arts Court in his or her own way. The verb “traverse” can mean to crisscross an area or a subject so that nothing is left uncovered, and it can also mean to go against the current. With the groundbreaking ceremony set to happen soon at Arts Court, the artists in Cultural Engineering will continue to make visible what might otherwise be hidden from view.
Text by Michael Davidge.