Time Travellers and Rule Breakers
Flotilla’s Shifting Infrastructure
By Michael McCormack
March 10, 2019
In June of 2009, one of my first tasks in my new job as Director of Eyelevel Gallery was to open and respond to thousands of unanswered emails immediately following 35 Days of Non-Organized Art, an event marking Eyelevel’s 35th anniversary. This was by no means due to lack of commitment or neglect from the previous director, (on the contrary, Eryn Foster’s talent, creativity, and years of dedication left some big shoes to fill!) but instead a programming initiative to run the gallery, as accurately as possible, as it was programmed during its inaugural year in 1974. It was truly a remarkable 35 days, in an attempt to reclaim some of Eyelevel’s grassroots spontaneity, and move away from the layers of administration accumulated over three and a half decades. More than two dozen exhibitions and events in 35 days were hosted all in a single storefront gallery space.
This was a pivotal moment for me, not only as it marked the beginning of my short career as Director of an artist-run centre, but it became a benchmark years later that helped me understand how essential it is for artists to have immediate access to centres that provide inclusivity and support for experimentation and a dialogue around contemporary art. I soon learned that this was characteristic of many Atlantic centres, sometimes in the form of BBQ’s (Struts & Faucet), Art Crawls (Eastern Edge), and many other initiatives.
Our region has received sparse recognition on a national level for way too long. It was overdue to have a national event in Atlantic Canada, and even better to have it in Charlottetown, as opposed to larger Atlantic cities such as Halifax or Moncton. The island community is located on unceded Mi’kmaq territory of Epekwitk and was as gracious and supportive as I would have ever imagined, and integrated delegates, artists, and public participants of Flotilla with genuine kindness and ease.
The Flotilla metaphor intends to encourage mutually supportive infrastructure, a flexible and multi-talented group of smaller organized units traveling in a direction together, with differing crews, each with its own set of rules, but all at once affected by a larger than life source; a storm, a thick fog, or maybe just a shitty government. Even if only for a short while, we make the most of being at the same place at the same time, exchange ideas, brainstorm, and hopefully return home with some serious and tough questions.
During the first night of Flotilla, Raven Davis and Allan Saulis led a discussion on power structures within art spaces, and inclusion of Indigenous peoples in galleries, institutions, and artist-run centres. This included a performance by Teresa Marshall that poignantly addressed the delay in removing the Edward Cornwallis statue.* The discussion linked into this other symbolic imagery, monuments, and place names of colonialism such as flags, maps, street names and political borderlines, that have made healing much more difficult for Indigenous artists both within and outside ARC’s, allowing systemic forms of oppression to continue to exist. While we were situated in the “birthplace of confederation” towards the end of a year full of Canada 150 celebrations, Davis and Saulis brilliantly connected and guided the complex conversations that were absolutely imperative to begin Flotilla with.
Through activating an artist-run hub in the small Atlantic city of Charlottetown, participants could easily drift between programming initiatives at their own will, experiencing Flotilla in a non-linear fashion. Creating a buzz of activity and ease of transition on street level between each venue as much as within each project encouraged participants to actively connect with the multiple storefronts within short walking distance from each other. There was a looseness, perhaps even a utopic feeling that transformed the Charlottetown streetscape, reminiscent of early 1970’s artist-run centres, with a density of programming akin to Eyelevel’s 35 Days of Non-Organized Art event offered eight years earlier.
The early conversations around programming Flotilla were based on a desire to highlight artistic and artist-run methodologies as a “living, breathing” program as opposed to a series of monologues about artist-run culture. We wanted to emphasize many aspects of artistic space-making including Indigenous sovereignty, food production, housing, dislocation and displacement, global warming, international markets, labour conditions, and industrial production.
The Floating Warren Pavilion was constructed on a tidal area which was on water during high tide, and on land during low tide, facing outward, literally stretching itself towards an area where rules around territory and ownership shift and therefore seem at times ambiguous. The Foreshore project presented by Access Gallery and Other Sights shared this play with tidal areas as a metaphor for discussing grey areas around territory describing a shoreline as “a place of unclear jurisdiction, and thus of contestation, friction, and constant movement.” Eastern Edge hosted SHEDtalks (a play on TEDtalks, but Newfoundland style), and offered a series of salon style discussions in a small shed like venue just up the shore from the Floating Warren Pavilion. With an aim to bring marginalized and rural voices from Newfoundland and Labrador to the forefront, this project brought presentations, talks, roundtables, and performances to Flotilla in an intimate setting.
Flotilla intentionally left programming open to unknown, unplanned or accidental interactions, discussions and interventions, trusting in participants to guide topics of conversation and take on the helm. Presentations by D’Arcy Wilson discussed the impact of Atlantic Canadian Settler culture on wildlife, and Divya Mehra spoke of experiences of institutional racism, and very personal stories about loss and deeply rooted effects of colonization. Both offered powerful messages that walked the line between performance and formal keynote presentation.
I had the incredible opportunity to work directly with the Indigenous Peoples Art Collective, who visited from Prince Albert Saskatchewan, bringing with them artist Michel Boutin, spoken word artist Kevin Wesaquate, Dene-Metis jigger Modeste Mackenzie, and fiddler Tristen Durocher. This group of artists livened up a spectrum of venues within Charlottetown ranging from outdoor venues, regional junior high school music classes, and finally to a kitchen party, co-hosted with L’Association des groupes en arts visuels francophones (AGAVF). Food, or meals often brought people together for discussions such as Eyelevel’s Food for Thoughts, or Galerie Sans Nom’s presentation with Mathieu Léger titled “Sur un plateau d’argent/On Silver Platter” exploring cultural distinctions between Anglophones and Francophones of New Brunswick.
All of these events ring true to the nature of artist run movements, which is hopefully always changing and morphing. From the start, artist-run centres have been built on a model of decentralizing power, and opening up pathways that are accessible to artists and their connecting communities. With an increasing drive towards centralization of power and corporate control over public space, it is all the more critical to focus on encouraging smaller centres that encourage intersectional approaches to art making, and activities that service a variety of communities. There are so many elements of Flotilla still to process, and I am so grateful for the guidance, perseverance and dedication of Katie Belcher, Anne Bertrand, Patrick Brunet, Brandon Hood, Beth Lassaline, Sally Raab, Amanda Shore, and Becka Viau who made this experience possible on the ground (and in the clouds). I am also extremely thankful for the generosity of the talented Flotilla curatorial team: Raven Davis, Michael Eddy, Zachary Gough, Elise Anne LaPlante, Mary MacDonald, John Murchie, and Pan Wendt. Looking back at all of this now seems like a flash in the pan, as conversations and experiences morph, my memories of Flotilla remain strong, impactful, and tied to my first experiences with artist run culture. I am left with exponentially more questions and experiences to draw from.
* The Cornwallis statue has since been removed after more than three decades of Mi’kmaq communities calling for its removal.