From the Ground Up

The Estate Agent/Souvenier shop.

Plotting out the future can be a daunting task, whether it’s for a book club or a neighbourhood. Conflicting personalities, differing goals and incompatible world views can all get in the way. It’s why generating participation is the bane of any planning process. When it’s as high-stakes as public consultation about neighbourhood development, it’s easy to get discouraged by bureaucracy and lobbyists. Things can get discouraging enough, even, to make folks dream of moving to a new place, to avoid the changes that are taking the shine off their current home and to build something that better reflects their own desires. Unfortunately, one neighbourhood’s fleeing resident can become another community’s damaging interloper.

A letter from "Walmart" left on a neighbourhood doorstep, ominously promising to move into the neighbourhood.

There’s really no such thing as building a community from the ground up, at least not in the real world. But last week, the Vancouver East Cultural Centre presented an opportunity to do so imaginatively, with their home sweet home installation. This piece was created by Subject to_change, a British theatrical company that specializes in breaking down the boundaries of artistic production and putting the spectator into the centre of its pieces. Home Sweet Home has been travelling to sites world-wide since 2007.

A cardboard business, ready to put together, tied up with a welcome message, instructions and suggestions.

The piece begins as a planned community would, with lots marked out and construction materials at hand. Participants could choose to build residences, businesses or community amenities. Over the course of the installation, residents could also become involved with the community’s radio station and council or simply interact with other residents.

The community bulletin board, with lots of notes about zombies and the elusive Councillor Bob.

There were elements of the fantastical involved in the community that developed, like unicorn corrals and zombie warnings…actually the radio station and bulletin board seemed to really run with the zombie theme. But what I noticed, having arrived late in the process, was that the little village seemed to be an ideal version of the real-life neighbourhood outside. There were dog parks, community kitchens, bike shops and co-ops of all kinds. There were very few outsized developments and at least one of these was a seniors’ residence. A number of houses were given over to Canucks playoff fever and there was even a tiny East Van sign.

The tiny East Van sign - you can't tell in this photo, but it lit up like the real one.

This little East Van also reflected our neighbourhood’s anxieties – the biggest threat wasn’t really zombies (or the ongoing campaign against someone called “Councillor Bob”), but the letters delivered to residents promising an enormous Walmart development. In a neighbourhood where long-time residents are worrying about a future filled with chain stores and cookie-cutter condos, the installation encompassed what we love about this place, what we want for it and what we fear is on its way.

Anti-Walmart signs that started to appear once the ominous letter was delivered.

By leaving participants a blank slate, Subject to_change manages to make each iteration of this piece a social commentary, a learning environment and a kind of community carnival all at once. It also allows for artistic expression on a playing field that’s levelled across age groups – there were interesting and provocative structures from kids and adults alike.

A tiny version of a real place (Melk) beside an imaginary one (Beatlemania).

I’d like to adapt this concept to some of the organizations I’m involved with – a day long retreat, complete with paper, glue and decorations, might do more to foster dialogue than any number of meetings.

The village, with one of the installation workers in the background. To the right, you can see the screen where the goings-on were projected.

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6 thoughts on “From the Ground Up

  1. Interesting workshop. The town that I’m living in is going through changes – new subdivisions, more retailers (I appreciate the WM superstore!) and more diversity in terms of culture (my family’s one of the ‘new ones’) – and I’m welcoming the changes!

  2. I really liked seeing what it brought up for everyone. In your community, there would probably be some similarities to what happened here, but I bet it would also reflect the unique set of concerns and desires that matter where you live. I think that’s my favourite part of the project – it’s different every time; a product of its host community.

  3. Excellent post, Teresa! The concept is wonderful, and you’ve conveyed it very well with both your words and your photos. I agree that this idea could be used in other places to encourage discussion. Very cool.

    1. Thanks, Tricia – I think this sort of process can remove the tension from important decision-making processes, in the way that science fiction can allow us to see societal problems because it removes us from potentially volatile real-life contexts.

  4. This type of workshop would be so adaptable to the workplace environment and would greatly encourage dialogue and creative thinking. What a great post!

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