Sorry Miriam, Diary of a Neighbourhood has got to be one of the worst pieces of public/community art I have ever seen in a long time, if not my entire life. I’m addressing Miriam Ginestier, head of Studio 303 and one of the partners in Michael Toppings project called Diary of a Neighbourhood because I really like her and her organization what they do and how they try to do it. But in this case not one bit, so I want to make extremely clear and 100% sure that she understands that this isn’t personal. Now that I got that out of the way, let me backtrack slightly so that the rest of you (all 10 of you) understand as well.
Yesterday, I was walking down Jeanne Mance, when as I crossed Léo-Pariseau and went to take a picture of MAI, I noticed that there was some writing in their windows. I vaguely remembered having seen writing (standard issue plastic stenciled lettering) in some some the other windows in some of the apartments facing MAI. Now normally, I am a big fan of this type of community-building public art. Bringing art to the masses, one for art – art for all, that sort of thing, but this just fails on so many different levels, that it shows how removed from the actual art made the decision makers and signers of checks are, and it is unfortunate, if not really really sad that CALQ gave Mr. Topping $20K to pull this off (the Canada Council also gave a significant chunk of change, but their database stops at 2010, so I have no idea how much he got – and then upon looking a little further it appears as if he got some cash from someone named Margaret Rind, the city and possibly the Cirque du Soleil as well).
If you want the CliffsNotes version of why Diary of a Neighbourhood sucks the big one, aka is really horrible or is just bad art, I have five words for you: unoriginal and impossible to view. Then to make matters worse not only is it unoriginal and impossible to view, but had Mr. Topping had even a moment to pause and reflect, instead of just slapping some letters up on some windows and then wrapping everything in multisyllabic nonsense designed to confuse bureaucrats and take advantage of the fact that he is an English Canadian in Quebec, he actually could have pulled off something cool, interesting, effective and useful. Pity.
Let’s start with the accusation of unoriginality first. Mr. Toppings’ piece is on Jeanne Mance in between Léo-Pariseau and Prince Arthur, for the most part on the east side of the street. If you were to walk two blocks west over to Hutchison, in between Prince Arthur and Pine you’d see some lines of personal poetry, this time engraved in stone, on the facades of some houses on the east side of the street. Back in 1988, Gilbert Boyer, a Quebecois poet decided that he wanted to write poetry on the sides of houses. (Actually come to think of it, there are lots of examples of officially sanctioned public poetry on the side of apartments.) But before I get hopelessly confused in my own parenthetical statements, M. Boyer decided to break up the lines of his poems onto different buildings, one can still be seen on the facade of 3703 Hutchison. yes, his was only two lines on Hutchison and the rest elsewhere around the city. But it’s close enough both by geography, theoretically and aesthetically that Mr. Topping should be somewhat embarrassed. Art, if anything is supposed to be original.
Now that we got that out of the way, let me explain why it’s unreadable, and that’s simple enough. For some strange reason Mr. Topping decided to use windows that were on the third and fourth floors along with some lower level windows that were obscured by foliage.
Plus, I strongly doubt that in the time that MAI has been around there have been more than two dozen people who have walked along Jeanne Mance and looked up at their windows. So while technically it may be possible to see what’s written on their windows, for all intents and purposes no one is going to.
By using the MAI windows, Mr. Topping also sends a mixed message, because they use the exact same type of signage to publicize the events that they organize, it muddles whatever message Mr. Topping is trying to send. Is a list of visual art exhibits and plays part of the artistic intervention? Or not? I don’t know. You tell me.
Then, again while I realize that technically a neighborhood can and does include the people who work there. Practically, it means the people who interact with each other in some kind of loosely (or tightly) defined geographic area. So the people working in a neighborhood would be for the most part the store clerks, cashiers, bus drivers, waiters, etc. Faceless bureaucrats working in a low-rise office building (even if it for the most part only has artistic organizations as tenants) really don’t do much to a neighborhood. They show up at about 10 o’clock in the morning, work in their cubicles, eat lunch in the food court or park nearby depending on the weather and how much their salary is, then leave and go home at about 6 o’clock, to their own neighborhoods. Yes, there might be some people who work at 3680 Jeanne-Mance who walk to work. But the vast majority of the couple of hundred or so people who work there drive, bike or take the 80/435 to get to work and as a consequence are minimally part of the neighborhood around Jeanne Mance and Léo-Pariseau. The lines written in the windows of MAI imply a completely different type of story than those on the windows of a house.
Nor do I understand why the church at the corner of Prince Arthur that was turned into condos was not included. Aren’t the people living there as much a part of the neighborhood as the people on the east side of the street?
The, don’t even get me started on the voyeuristic nature of this project. In order to read it you have to stare directly into people’s living rooms and bedrooms.
Apparently, there were some events happening as part of this intervention. Unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of them until way too late, so I was unable to participate, but it strikes me that these would be events that were fairly insular in nature and designed and organized around the people already participating instead of being more open inviting and inclusive. There was nothing on the street explaining to the outsider what was happening or why. Given the very strong negative values associated with being a voyeur and/or inquiring into things that are obviously not your business, I’d be hard pressed to believe that anyone besides the aforementioned people in the neighborhood and the people involved in the project took part in any of the events. And as there are over 40 people (not including “all those volunteers making up the mob scene”) mentioned by name on Mr. Toppings website in the credits, and I counted over 60 separate entrances to apartments I would hope that in his reports to the various funding agencies that he got at least 1,000 people to participate in his 21 separate events. While 1,000 sounds like a lot of folk, that’s actually less than 50 per event. With 60 apartments and 40 people involved, that’s a very low threshold to cross.
To me this is a perfect example of what I would call Grant Art. It involves what the grant officer would presume were not regular grant recipients. There were two well established arts organizations willing to help. It was multicultural. Sounds way more complicated than it is. Used large multisyllabic words. And is forgotten as soon as it is over.
Then, to get very specific (I was scanning Mr. Topping’s description of the project, while writing that last paragraph) if Diary of a Neighbourhood is truly “a self-penned literary work.” Then what exactly are the “quotations from a large pool of disparate sources – David Wojnarowicz, Hart Crane, WU LYF, Nietzche, Jeanette Winterson?” Is he implicating himself as a plagarist? And I’m not quite certain what he means when he writes “With the actual neighbourhood as stage, performers infiltrate by assuming the role of resident, rendering portrayals of the everyday and the banal alongside deconstructions and gender inversions of film and theatre classics such as Network and A Streetcar Named Desire.” He self-penned it (whatever that means) then has quotations included, and during the events he’s going to have one person yell out their window
And another one yell
Gimme a break! But as long as I am discussing the content, I might as well add that what bits I was able to read were not compelling in any way, shape or form. It appeared to me as more of “ain’t I cool, that I can everyone (or almost everyone) to do this.” Thank any real literary work. I realize that there is such a category as Experimental Fiction, but until I see otherwise Mr. Topping can’t hold a candle to what Robert Coover, Gail Scott or Georges Perec write. Add to that, the fact that easily a third to half of the entire project is physically unreadable and I just guess that in practice the actual content of this “literary work” was secondary, if not tertiary to whatever the main objectives really were.
Personally, if I had $50,000 (what I guess he raised from the various sources) and really wanted to do “a community-based initiative, implicating the residents of one street in one Montréal neighbourhood. Envisioned as a trans-disciplinary project… [encompassing] public art, print art, installation, street theatre and performance but remains, in essence, a literary work.” I would have thrown a street party to end all street parties, and then simply asked everyone who participated to write down their thoughts and impressions. I would have then published everything and given each participant a copy of the book. But then, maybe that’s why I don’t apply for grants.
Oh, and one last thing. I might be blind, but while I was looking at and taking pictures of the various texts on the windows, while I did see text in French, English, Spanish, Arabic, and Chinese, I did not see the Braille.