Costa Rica provides canvas for Eco-Arts Residency

By Elaine Smith

York University’s Las Nubes Campus in Costa Rica is serving as a home base for its first-ever Eco-Arts Residency, an intensive, 10-day course being offered by two professors from the School of the Arts, Media, Performance & Design (AMPD).

Professor Brandon Vickerd, a sculptor, as well as theatre and performance artist Laura Levin, director of Sensorium – a York research centre for digital arts and technology – are leading a group of 25 students in research centred on the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor preserve and communities near Las Nubes.

The course focuses on developing research methodologies and strategies for building community-driven, site-oriented, collaborative approaches to art production.

“Current studio courses focus on students’ artistic skills and don’t teach them how to go to a community, make connections and respond to the reality of the environment, the politics and the institutions while producing meaningful works,” said Vickerd. “This residency-based course provides such an opportunity.”

The students are living with families in the local villages, two per home, and taking part in a curated, daily schedule of activities and exploration. Their experience began in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, with two days of visiting theatre companies and museums before travelling to Las Nubes. Once there, they were able to get a sense of the landscape, the people, the economy and politics.

“They will engage with the larger questions of the course in a site-specific way,” Levin said. “They’ll visit local farms, and – informed by their readings on food sovereignty – they’ll learn first-hand about the challenges of individuals running small farms in the global food system. 

“We’ll also travel to an Indigenous village that is the home of the Boruca people, a group that has developed over time an intricate mask-making tradition and a youth theatre company that imaginatively incorporates those masks. There will be a lot of hands-on engagement with cultural producers.”

One of the students’ other major tasks is to assist with producing ExpoCOBAS, an annual festival organized by the local community designed to celebrate and consolidate identity around the Alexander Skutch Biological Corridor. It’s an exercise that will include everything from making piñatas to putting on a student art showcase to brainstorming about activities that will engage young people.

“There are important lessons we’d like our students to absorb,” said Vickerd of the residency’s goals. “We want to show them that they can engage with the environment in a variety of ways. We also want them to understand what it means to engage ethically with a community and collaborate, to engage in social action. They need to understand what’s important about a culture and how they can contribute with support and understanding, meaningfully adding to its health.”

Levin noted that some students had never travelled to Latin America before undertaking this residency, offering an additional opportunity for some.

“We want them to learn what it means for artists not to be tourists and how to negotiate their experiences in a thoughtful way, rather than viewing the community as a spectacle to be consumed,” Levin said.

Vickerd and Levin are providing the students with creative prompts and exercises to help them engage with the unique landscape, such as participating in outdoor classes or hiking in the rainforest.

“They won’t be able to sit back,” said Vickerd. “This course is about engagement.”

Po Kuen Cheung, a graphic designer and mature visual art and art history student who is studying part time for a degree, is one of the students registered for the intensive Las Nubes course.

“I want to explore the wonderful world of art when I retire, and when I saw the Costa Rica course, it matched exactly what I want to do – explore what happens elsewhere,” said Cheung. “It will be an experience of a lifetime.”

Once he and his fellow students return home, they will have the opportunity to reflect on the experience and translate it into either an essay or artistic output.

“This experience allows them to think about how to explore and explain the world in a different way,” Vickerd said.

Their responses, whatever form they take, will enrich the understanding of others, giving what they’ve learned a broader impact.