Road to Congress: Art and citizenship in the information age

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host over 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences (formerly the Learneds). In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. Today, the spotlight is on Janine Marchessault, York’s Canada Research Chair in Art, Digital Media & Globalization, who is examining how artists working collectively are shaping the visual culture of three major world cities.

Canadian “media prophet” Marshall McLuhan predicted in the 1960s that all people would be artists by the 21st century.

“That didn’t happen,” says York CRC Janine Marchessault (right), who has published a book about media theorist McLuhan titled Cosmic Media (2005), “but his idea serves as a starting point for our research into new forms of collective expression and new kinds of citizenship in this age of information.

“Long before computers were portable and commonplace, McLuhan envisioned them connected to televisions and telephones; he could see how art and artists might be influenced by – and influence the development of – new technologies.”

Marchessault, along with Susan Lord of Queen’s University, heads a research team examining art and artists in three urban centres – Toronto, Havana and Helsinki. They chose those particular cities because they exemplify very different relations to technology, to nationalism and to an economic system along a north-south axis.

“Havana and Helsinki represent the two poles of the digital divide spectrum, with Helsinki being at the high-end of technological use,” says Marchessault. “In both those cities and in Toronto, artist cultures play a vital role in civic life.”

In particular, Marchessault and her team are looking at the resurgence and influence of artists’ collectives, which were popular in the 1960s.

“We want to know how the status of art has changed in the context of globalization. Is it now more important to everyday life, to the social and political world, to education?

“I have no doubt that the role of art has changed or been reinvigorated in recent years. It is no longer simply something that hangs on walls or sits in museums. It is active. It crosses boundaries, traverses territories and connects people, creating new kinds of communicative bonds within communities and between cities worldwide,” says Marchessault.

“There are many new kinds of art practices that are ‘urban interventions’; they are more relational and performative, and less object-oriented and static.”

Marchessault explains further, “There was the Peace Taxi project [right] in 2003, organized by SAVAC [South Asian Visual Arts Collective] following 9/11 and around the time when the war began in Iraq. These artists decided to bring attention to the threat to civil liberties by the recent catastrophic world events. They also wanted people to be more aware of the vulnerability of Toronto taxi drivers, who are mainly from immigrant communities.

“So they asked Toronto taxi drivers to take various forms of art made by South Asian artists into the private space of their cabs, everything from poetry and questionnaires to books and pieces of fabric. They wanted to connect with a wide spectrum of the public through the mobile spaces of the cabs that, in turn, became creative spaces for discussions between passengers and drivers.”

Another Toronto collective developed a project called Free Dance Lessons, in which they took ghetto blasters and stopped rush-hour traffic, offering free dance lessons to motorists and pedestrians.

Says Marchessault, “It was performance art. Did it annoy people? I think so, but as an urban intervention it also made people stop; as a public disturbance, it stopped the ‘flow’ of everything that is being driven by profit. Such actions are inspired by French Situationalists [1957-1972], who created special walks throughout cities and similar kinds of urban disturbances in order to raise social awareness.”

Marchessault said the Free Dance Lessons group took their project to Havana, Cuba, where artists since the 1970s have been involved in comparable interventions and disturbances.

But not all urban interventions are disturbances. In one project, some members of the Cuba-Brazil group undertook a series of painted murals, collaborating with different communities across Havana, for the most recent installation of the Havana Bienal 2006.

Also in Havana, artist Rene Francisco is working in impoverished neighbourhoods to rebuild homes for elderly residents as part of a performance-art trilology. “People singled out an elderly woman who was once a midwife and who was now housebound in a wheelchair,” Marchessault says. “The artist went to her house, and asked what she most needed. She said ‘running water’. So Francisco and the collective raised money to renovate her kitchen and provide the woman with running water.

“In all these places, art is an active and collective force,” says Marchessault. “Whether it is part of political protest of community-building, artists are helping us to rethink public spaces and common purpose.”

This article was written by former YFile editor Cathy Carlyle, now a freelance writer and contributor to YFile.