Action items, in management lingo, are specific tasks assigned to individuals at the end of a meeting. These actions are intended to advance the cause of the group, whatever that may be, and each person is expected to report back about the end result. One video in this issue of the Cultural Engineering project, Tim Smith’s “Scale,” astonishingly illustrates the manner in which large undertakings are actually the end result of many people accomplishing numerous particular tasks. One uninterrupted take zooms out from a single construction worker and shows his place in the larger construction site and its orchestrated activities. As passersby, we tend to focus only on the outsized items, such as construction cranes, and lose sight of the specific part that individuals play. From a variety of perspectives, the artists in this issue reveal the singular actions that in varying degrees constitute the warp and weft of the city.
This issue’s guest artist, Eric Archambault, presents his video “Autopia,” a meditation on transportation infrastructure which could be applicable to any large North American city, but by incorporating scenes of Ottawa it evokes the name of one person who might be held responsible: the city planner Jacques Gréber. Commissioned by Prime Minister Mackenzie King, the Gréber Report was developed after the Second World War and made recommendations for the urban planning of Ottawa that have shaped the city as it is today. With its emphasis on parkways and the removal of the train station from the city’s centre, it gave prominence to the automobile as the main means of transport. In his artist statement, Archambault noted that the implementation of light rail transit and multi-use pathway infrastructure in Ottawa has promoted more sustainable living in the city, signaling the end of the Gréber Report’s vision. The elegiac tone of the video, set by its music and the use of historical and contemporary footage, empathetically accords with its depiction of the LeBreton Flats, an area of the city which was negatively impacted by the urban renewal initiatives of the Gréber Report. The future of the area, still unrealized, is now being envisioned by a few powerful private developers.
For her contribution to this issue, Meredith Snider interviewed Carla Sullivan, a graduate student in Geography at the University of Ottawa whose research focused on the interaction of Indigenous people with the space of the university. Sullivan took inspiration from a Round Dance held in Tabaret Hall on campus that was organized as part of the Idle No More movement. While conducting her research, Sullivan found that Indigenous students at the university felt alienated from the institution as its structures and practices were not rooted in their own culture. The Round Dance was a momentary transgression that temporarily reclaimed the space and brought into relief other people and other histories that were not immediately apparent. Sullivan coined the phrase “settlernormativity” to reflect the ways that the dominant colonial culture is embedded in the very landscape of the country, down to the “micro-spaces” of the city. Such an analysis brings into the question the efficacy of action items when individuals in a group cannot recognize each other.
This issue’s contents broaden the scope of the Cultural Engineering project beyond the walls of the Arts Court. However, their interconnectedness suggests that a pattern could be perceived no matter what level of magnification you took to look at this city. It is perhaps unsurprising that the exhortation to think globally and act locally is attributed to an urban planner. The artists in this issue are also thinking locally to act globally.
Text by Michael Davidge