Wreck City: The Experience of Experimentation

As a recent transplant to Calgary, I’m constantly absorbing, searching and learning, about the city, its offerings and its character. I came here with a blank slate, no expectations (having never been here before) or real understanding of the city's identity. Specifically seeking to understand cultural identity, as a creative worker, I tried to piece together some pillars – the larger art institutions, the creative spaces, the galleries and those making it happen. What is harder to tap into is the essence of the cultural experience in a city – the organic, the happenstance, and the interventions that create a positive, vibrant, rich environment.

Thus, I was excited to visit Wreck City: An Epilogue for 809 – the recent public art installation happening in response to nine houses, including beloved garage gallery 809, set for demolition. With 8 curators (Matthew Mark Bourree, Caitlind r.c. Brown, Jennifer Crighton, Brandon Dalmer, Andrew Frosst, John Frosst, Shawn Mankowske, and Ryan Scott.) inviting over 100 artists to participate, this project was something I had not experienced the likes of before, in my  years of passionate exploration of public art. Some works were responsive to the architectural elements of the house, others were about playful interaction with the four walls, while some touched on the past, previous residents and the lives they lived. 

One of the many notes left by the over 8,000 visitors to Wreck City. Illustrates the importance of engagement in public art.

I felt a genuine joy when swinging on a swing, crossing a wooden footbridge linked between two houses, or lying on the floor to see a room created upside-down. I felt simultaneously sad and inspired coming across a wall of messages from “Wreck City” visitors. Their thoughts, reactions and emotions were revealing what Calgarians from all walks of life are thinking about their city. Comments ranged from -   'I feel like crying', 'More fun public art like Wreck City, unpretentious and accessible...', to  'Make it livable. Walk, bike, local markets not big box', 'There is beauty in destruction'.

Though some spaces and works were more successful than others, it was the overall experience of this project that was invigorating, and we need more of it, not just in Calgary, but in many North American cities. We have not left enough room for active culture – continuous, organic happenings that grow naturally as part of our city, or pop-up unexpectedly. Sometimes the best experiences or memories we have happen when we least expect them, when they surprise us, when our plans change and develop. It is similar with art – it needs room to breathe and grow. In our cities, we have over-planned and over-stipulated, placing value on a controlled outcome, rather than the process of creation. The intrigue, the provocation and the daring are replaced with the safe, the comfortable, and the inoffensive. We have created public art with an 'X' to mark the spot – it will fulfil this need, it will check that box, and poof: uninteresting public art.

The importance of experimentation is that it creates a sense of freedom and magic, and opens up the city. It demonstrates that creativity is valued, that all citizens have a voice in their city, and a desire to be a place that embraces fun, new energy, and a dose of self-criticality. Wreck City was an opportunity for people to see Calgary let its hair down, and trust a group of individuals to change the site as they wanted

Bridge by Alia Shahab

Whatever your opinion of the project, its great success was in its transitory, experimental nature. Turning the city into a lab for creativity is something that allows us to share experiences more democratically – with neighbors, residents, artists, business owners, friends and strangers- because there are no boundaries, and art is everywhere.

Wreck City was playful, provocative, and got people together, from all ages and backgrounds. Such experiences shows what our city looks like underneath, stripping away the boundaries (the gallery wall, the museum doors), the regulations and rules, and participating with others to experience fun, sadness, frustrations, together. 

Weaving by Suzen Green

Artist Jeremy Pavka

I think Calgarians are looking for more of these experiences, and want a city that is rich and diverse in interest. There is great power in the unexpected and allowing people to explore and form their own opinions. When we dictate the outcome of the artwork, we are telling people what they should know, how to experience. When there is no room for thought or interaction, it’s a one-way conversation.

Experiments in public space change how we view things and alter our expectations. An un-manufactured experience – raw and genuine- It asks us to be part of something greater, to share, and to learn.

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Everyday Art Tourist recently relocated to Calgary from the GTA and works in the creative sector. With over 7 years of experience in both Canada and the US, large museums, small non-profits, and government, Everyday Art Tourist’s focus is on public art and cultural policy. EAT will be a regular guest contributor to EverydayTourist. 

EverydayTourist note: I received the guest blog this week from a new Calgarian and thought it captured some to the ideas that I have been blogging about recently Calgary: North America’s Newest Design City and Alberta’s Dream and Wonderland public artworks.  I think the author correctly points out that most public art in Calgary doesn’t really capture the public’s imagination and is more or less ignored.  Perhaps it is because it is too contrived, too planned, and too safe and too soon becomes part of the urban landscape.  I believe “Wreck City” had over 8,000 people visit in just one week, the same week that Jaume Plensa’s Alberta’s Dream was installed downtown to almost no reaction.  It created a buzz and an urgency that rarely happen with public art. 

Look for more guest blogs from Everyday Art Tourist in the future.