The Cultural Engineering project was launched over two years ago, and each issue has showcased artworks that were commissioned by SAW Video as way to chart the Arts Court redevelopment and document its transformation. Each issue has also offered artists a chance look at the Arts Court from new perspectives. It’s easy to imagine that flow charts were used for project management on this ambitious infrastructure development. If a flow chart is a diagram of the sequence of actions in a complex activity that helps to illustrate a process, then one that traced the course of the Cultural Engineering project in retrospect would undoubtedly reveal a complicated and perhaps contradictory trajectory: one that might double back on itself just as much as it might pursue an oblique angle down an unfinished path. Like all endeavors that are meant to be democratic, Cultural Engineering has been subject to change, depending upon the individuals who have been invited to contribute to it.
In her video for this issue, “Culture Lives Where?” Meredith Snider returns to a format that she employed in her first video for the project. In “Architectural Facade: An Exterior Perspective,” Snider asked the public in the vicinity of the Arts Court if they were familiar with the building. Inspired by marketing slogan employed by the Downtown Rideau BIA (“Where Culture Lives”), Snider now poses two additional questions to people in the vicinity of the Arts Court: “What is culture?” and “Where does culture live?” Although many people answered her questions in a similar manner, the results are as diverse as the people who participate. Gauging the flow of people passing through the Byward Market, Snider’s video discovers a majority who say that culture lives in the heart and in the mind.
Tim Smith has been charting the gradual redevelopment of the Arts Court, along with the stunning rise of the new Ottawa Art Gallery building. For this issue’s video “Past & Present,” Smith animates archival photographs in order to propel the viewer back to the earliest years of the building’s history, capturing the flow of time and offering fascinating glimpses of the transformation of the site, and you might say its political fortunes, not just within the past few years, but since Confederation. Although it is mostly by chance that a major arts infrastructure project has ended up inhabiting the site of a former courthouse and police station in time for Canada’s sesquicentennial, Smith’s video leaves a lingering impression that culture also has a hand in controlling or policing human behavior.
The guest artist for the ninth issue, Cara Tierney, connects and mixes several separate events into one powerful montage. “Melt in. To Spring” combines sound and footage from the construction site of the new Ottawa Art Gallery, the consultation panel that explored strategies for making that gallery’s public washrooms universal, the Senate debate on the transgender rights bill (C-16), and the protest by transgender rights advocates objecting to a talk at the National Gallery of Canada. These items are interspersed with shots of turbulent water and strong currents (the Ottawa River flooded this spring) along with the slow but steady flow of water from bathroom fixtures. The sense given by the video is that positive change is going to come for transgender rights, but only because of persistent pressure. Tierney and the other artists in this issue offer evidence that we can effect change as much as we are affected by it.
Text by Michael Davidge