Socializing the Conference:

Encouraging Uncanny and Unexpected Interactions

By Michael McCormack

Floating Warren Pavilion. Photo: LP Chiasson & Festival Inspire.

Floating Warren Pavilion. Photo: LP Chiasson & Festival Inspire.

Atlantis went through all stages of consultation, planning, and exhibiting recognizing each participating organization as a specialist, representing their home communities. We maintained flexibility in our structure, encouraging the remote, encouraging participants to remain experimental, interactive, and critical of dangerously comfortable, contradictory, top-heavy administrative organizing.

Flotilla showcased a high volume of projects, in order to create an environment where a high percentage of visiting delegates became presenters, or affiliated with organizations staging projects. Rather than commissioning a small number of presenters to talk about their programming, we funded individual centres and artists to showcase and test-drive their programming for a national audience.

We distributed the significant majority of our Canada Council New Chapter funding to these artistic projects, maximizing the amount of travel support we were able to offer to our delegates, who were often also our artistic presenters. This collapsed the third wall between presenters and audience, and Flotilla catered to multiple concentric circles of audiences. By encouraging autonomy and redistributing our funding amongst our contributing artist-run centres, our internal funding distribution reflected an artist-run ethos. By engaging delegates as presenters, all attendees at Flotilla became active participants rather than witnesses, contributing to the collective environment and benefiting from this support network.

Our projects were broken down into four categories; Transmission, Exploration, Collision, and Immersion. Transmission events focused on promoting knowledge sharing throughout lectures, workshops and discussions in both tradition and unconventional spaces. Exploration events included ongoing installations, podcasts, and pop-ups that could be experienced at anytime throughout the four days of Flotilla. Collision events were meant to provide opportunities for collaboration and celebration of artistic differences together in a variety of situations and settings. Immersion projects presented interactive artistic showcases including; food-based art, performance interventions in public spaces, and any atypical interactions in temporary spaces.

Many Immersion events were taste-based artistic projects that created sensory dining experiences. The AGAVF and IPAC Kitchen Party was one of many of Flotilla’s immersion-based projects that included food as a central element to bring people together for more intimate discussion and programming in unconventional spaces.. Eyelevel Gallery’s Food For Thoughts project hosted three meals in homes and park spaces throughout Charlottetown. They consisted of workshops, discussions, and performances by Sooyeong Lee, Russell Louder, and The Magic Project (Kate MacDonald and Emma Paulson) covering topics of art, activism, race relations, communal cooking, and the connection between food and healing. Galerie Sans Nom presented On a Silver Platter a dinner-exhibition-discussion project by artist Mathieu Léger that responded to topics of bilingualism and linguistic tension in New Brunswick. CARFAC Maritimes featured a Brown Bag Lunch event where participants could order a PEI Handpie and listen to CARFAC’s Brown Bag Old Time Radio podcast in Victoria Park. AKA Gallery presented Samqwan/Nipiy by artists Jordan Bennett and Lori Blondeau. This was the first time Bennett and Blondeau worked together. They offered a feast of locally sourced lobster to participants, closing the weekend’s activities by offering gratitude for water and the life it contains.

This waterfront feast was one of two Indigenous-led performances on the same site at Confederation Landing Park. In their performance Different Ways, Lisa Burke and Terrance Houle responded directly to this site, re-imagining the first meeting between First Nations and settlers, from the perspectives of women and Indigenous delegates who were absent from discussions around Confederation. The location is a popular tourist destination, and brought in an accidental audience of tourists and patio diners who joined the Flotilla audience. Events in public spaces allowed Flotilla to create intersectional programming that was free, inclusive, and thought provoking, raising important questions about Canada’s colonial history.

Flotilla thrived on the element of surprise, and encouraged visitors to roam in order to uncover spontaneous performances and unexpected installations. The schedule would circle back and encourage visitors to return to familiar sites, redefining them throughout the weekend. This provided opportunities for delegates to consolidate, and gel together their experiences collected throughout the weekend. It also created a generative space where ideas cross-pollinated in clusters of projects that referenced one another.

Sputnik Returned 2  when it was almost towed by local authorities. Photo: CBC News, submitted by Daniel Larter.

Sputnik Returned 2 when it was almost towed by local authorities. Photo: CBC News, submitted by Daniel Larter.

Third Space presented Brandon Vickerd’s Sputnik Returned 2, a parked car on the side of the street with a crashed satellite on its roof. This installation was another reminder of the absurdity of borderlines, and how they inform relationship between what is considered public and private space. Challenging the social fabric and public space of Charlottetown, Sputnik Returned 2 was almost towed by local authorities before Becka Viau was able to explain that it was an artwork! Down the street at The Guild, Michael DiRisio & Teresa Carlesimo’s performance toward an unachievable blankness questioned how the gallery space is used to harbour power and privilege. The Society of Anonymous Drawers also facilitated an experience to deconstruct stigma between artists and public through their all ages drawing extravaganza workshop at the Charlottetown Farmers Market.

Flotilla’s experience extended into all forms of media; from pirate radio broadcasts on the Floating Warren, to Winnipeg artist hannah_g’s project The Anecdotalist in Residence, which celebrated the stories that unfolded during Flotilla in real time through social media posts. Utilizing multiple forms of communications technology, these projects allowed Flotilla to be experienced remotely, further opening up access points to experiencing Flotilla in the broader public sphere.

The Flotilla framework prioritized mobility and flexibility, and in the initial conceptual framework for the project, our team used the word “nomadism” to describe mobile artistic practices. Hank Bull raised some apt and timely criticism of this term which has gained cultural currency as an art world buzzword: 

 

“This flotilla on the move, nomadic. Nomad is another image that appears on the conference website. Ocean meets Land. But as soon as one uses this metaphor – nomad – it’s important to acknowledge that this term is also appropriated, that there are in fact real nomads out there, and to recognize the fact that the nomadic lifestyle is becoming more and more difficult to sustain, even forbidden, that we are more and more stuck in one place, pinned down, positioned by GPS, observed. To some extent the nomadic lifestyle was always forced, by climate or colonialism.”

 — Hank Bull, “Flow Tilla Thrilla,” Flotilla, 2017.

 “Nomadism” has been used to refer to the romanticized lifestyle of the international artist, cycling from residency to residency. It has also been used internationally to refer to art practices that rely on site-specificity, trans-locality, and rootedness. Hank Bull’s critical commentary encouraged us to consider what this word means on a local scale, outside of the international context. Bull swiftly reminded us of the local histories of displacement and colonial violence in Charlottetown.

 In a large empty storefront space on 141 Kent Street, The Confederation Centre for the Arts Art Gallery and Or Gallery presented Charles Cambell’s Actor Boy: Travels in Birdsong, in order to draw attention to these local histories. Campbell embodies Actor Boy, a character from an alternate future, a “six-dimensional being capable of folding and traveling time,” who travels from the Caribbean to Charlottetown in the early 1800’s, finding himself in The Bog, a racially-mixed community of African-Islanders and working class poor. Campbell’s work ties together important considerations of the Bog community of Charlottetown with information from historian and folklorist Jim Hornby’s 1991 book Black Islanders, and the declining populations of songbirds in North America since the 1970’s. This work brings forward a renewed dialogue around Charlottetown’s Bog community, a vibrant and complex culture that has often been overlooked by eurocentric teachings of “history.” Campbell’s performance follows quiet narrative threads which trail off and never reach a conclusion. Actor Boy does not provide a clean historical account, but offers unresolved musings and creates space for reflection.

 At our internal team meetings, we discussed strategies for “socializing the conference,” while still making spaces for introverts. We wanted to make workshops and panel discussions feel like social events, while being mindful of social burnout. By sprawling our events in vacant spaces, arts venues, and outdoor spaces across the city, Flotilla allowed for quiet moments in transit between social events. By convening clusters of delegates in varying sizes, we encouraged unexpected connections between delegates. One such space was a storefront space that Winnipeg-based organization Art City completely transformed into their interactive project titled FREE STORE. Equipped with a dysfunctional cardboard cash register and shelves, the FREE STORE took on the atmosphere of a corner store, seeking to demonstrate what the world might be like if we re-imagined retail services to be equitable across societal barriers. Throughout the entire four-day period of Flotilla, Art City activated the space, facilitating free art-making workshops, by providing materials, and supplies to create artwork that would be packaged and “sold” in exchange of other art pieces that would be made by future visitors on site. Because the “products” made in the FREE STORE were given permission to be interactive, they quickly compounded in value. People brought in items to “sell,” and in one case, someone even manufactured a fake Flotilla delegates pass.

The accessibility of this project generated tremendous enthusiasm from people from all walks of life who participated. Its spontaneous nature brought together an active, all-inclusive environment that motivated critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and community outreach, opening up an access point for anyone and everyone to experience Flotilla, even if just for a moment.

 

“It would be hard to overstate the impact of this experience (Flotilla) for me, both personally and professionally. I found the chance to showcase the work we do at Art City to a national audience of artists and artist-run organizations to be challenging, evolutionary, expanding, and validating.”

— Josh Ruth, Art City, 2018.

Leading up to Flotilla, Charlottetown did not have an Artist-Run Centre with consistent operational funding, nor did it have a space that was dedicated to ongoing programming. The addition of multiple venues brought forward timely opportunities to demonstrate the immediate positive outcome that artist-run culture can have on the well being of any community, particularly one that has for too long been overlooked by public funders. Visitors, public, and participants of Flotilla would literally weave through public spaces to experience each of these venues and the works that were housed in them. The brief encounters between venues remained an important element of Flotilla’s attempt to decentralize what would typically be an isolated “conference style” experience, making room for spontaneity, and thus allowing for some unexpected changes as we continue to learn more about our organizational fallibilities. 

Overheard at the FREE STORE:

This is already the best part of the whole conference.”

— Monica Lacey, This Town is Small, PEI’s artist-run centre. Photo: Flotilla.

IMG_20170921_150034291.jpg

“Is it okay if we steal your idea and do it after you leave?“

— A local youth

“This is the coolest thing to hit this rock in a long time.”

— John from Charlottetown

“What are you making?”
“Friends.”

Oh hi, yeah we are coming, we’ve just been at the FREE STORE for 19 hours.”

— Divya Mehra, on the phone.