The title for Cultural Engineering’s seventh issue is inspired by the video contributed by the guest artists Adam Brown and Geneviève Cloutier, “Summerhill on Major’s Hill.” It documents the project they ran this summer out of the BLINK Gallery, which they modelled after the Summerhill School and other experimental education initiatives. That the Library of Parliament can be seen as a backdrop to their activities resonates with the fact that Summerhill is a democratic project, wherein the school’s curriculum is determined at meetings in which everyone, teacher and student included, has an equal vote. The “blank slate” or tabula rasa is a very old philosophical concept that is linked to education, but I would simply like to think of it as a kind of “reset” button that is forward thinking rather than fixated on the past. A surface on which you can write, erase what you’ve written, and write again, the blank slate provides an inclusive, permissive environment for everyone’s contributions since nothing is permanent. Over the course of two weeks, the participants in Brown and Cloutier’s project built a space marked by imagination and play, which is exactly what the Arts Court aspires to be.
The activities of the children in “Summerhill on Major’s Hill” are echoed in Timothy Smith’s video, “Vertical,” where the makeshift play structures are replaced by heavy duty construction equipment. Although the title connotes an upward aspiration, the actual action of Smith’s video, as it traverses the six frames of its vertical grid, brings the viewer down to earth. The video tracks the movements of crane-lifted materials and a construction worker as they make their way to the ground. Repeated viewings allow you to get oriented to the new reality at Arts Court. Here the blank slate is a view of the cloudless sky, against which details of the redevelopment are foregrounded. The impression given is that the people involved have actually been able to build a castle in the air.
With her video “The Courtyard,” Meredith Snider continues to look at spaces around Arts Court, gathering an informal history of places that will cease to exist or be transformed into something else over the course of the redevelopment. Two individuals who have had a long term involvement with the place, Penny McCann, the Director of SAW Video, and Jason St. Laurent, the Curator of SAW Gallery, share with Snider some of the discreet actions they took to improve conditions in the courtyard: feeding squirrels and planting climbing vines respectively. Highlighting these details that might have gone unnoticed, Snider’s video indeed makes the courtyard look like a downtown oasis. As St. Laurent articulates his inclusive vision for it, he notes that years ago the courtyard had the appearance of a muddy pit. A blank slate if you will. Previously a courthouse, the Arts Court complex was never intended to be a cultural hub, but it has changed over time as those involved have modified it and refined their vision for it, on both large and more intimate scales.
While the concept of the blank slate connotes erasure, I would rather it suggest revision, according to Alexander Sutherland Neill’s principle “Freedom, not Licence.” The founder of Summerhill, Neill intended for those at the school to be free to do as they pleased as long as they did no harm to others. The blank slate, while unable to deny its pre-existing conditions, allows for the necessary interventions in them.
Text by Michael Davidge