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Author and New York Times photography critic Teju Cole is one of several daring thinkers who will speak about cities at SFU’s fourth annual Community Summit. Conceptual artist Candy Chang seeks to counter isolation amongst urbanites.
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This article was published originally on The Georgia Straight on October 28, 2015.

SFU's We the City: 2015 Community Summit examines urban living

by Alexander Varty, October 28, 2015, straight.com

What kind of city do we want to live in?

For some, strung-out on a downtown sidewalk or stressed out by mounting debt, even contemplating that question is a luxury—and many more of us are too busy trying to stay afloat in the here and now to give much thought to the urban future. Yet the growth of cities—and our city, in particular—is not merely a function of implacable economic forces. There are ways in which we can render the urban environment more just, more stimulating, and more sustainable, and this week those ways are under consideration in We the City: 2015 Community Summit, a weeklong series of panels, workshops, and public interventions sponsored by Simon Fraser University’s Public Square initiative.

Public Square’s mandate is to “spark, nurture and restore community connections”, an obvious nod to the combination of disruption and hope generated by the university’s move into the former Woodward’s building, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, in 2009. It was a controversial undertaking, and echoes of the arguments between preservationists and developers will no doubt ring through many of the Community Summit’s panels on urban renewal, education, and affordable housing. (Other programs and workshops will address urban agriculture and food security, what cities would look like were they designed by women, and issues affecting urban aboriginals.)

Some of the most interesting discussions, however, will circle around the role of the arts in the urban environment—and that topic will certainly be at the fore when Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, Taiwanese-American conceptual artist and urban planner Candy Chang, and Nigerian-American author, critic, and photo-grapher Teju Cole join moderator Mo Dhaliwal for We the City: An Evening at the Centre. In ways both critical and celebratory, all three plan to address how ready access to art contributes to the health of a city and the well-being of its citizens.

In terms of concrete results, Chang has an enviable track record. Through projects like I Wish This Was, in which residents of her native New Orleans were invited to make anonymous suggestions about how to restore derelict buildings, or Confessions, in which Las Vegas casinogoers got a similarly anonymous opportunity to unburden themselves in Sin City, she’s found a way to use the tools of community art to humanize very different urban environments. And now, with her online Neighborland project, she’s able to apply those tools on a more than merely local level.

“The interactive public-art projects, they really started out as my quiet way of asking my neighbours things I was too shy to ask in person,” Chang relates. “I’m an introvert, and I’ve been to a lot of community meetings that have ended up being run by the loudest people in the room. That made me wonder how can more people get involved over time, and how can the quiet people be heard just as much as the loud ones? But only later did I really realize that participatory public-art projects had many benefits—that they’re places where we can collectively dream together and reflect together.”

Although Chang has degrees in urban planning, architecture, and graphic design, most of her work is rooted in psychology—in her fear that urban environments, as we understand them today, reinforce feelings of social isolation and political impotence.

“In my experience, people are yearning for safe spaces where they can be honest and vulnerable,” she says. “Over the last century, many communities have changed from these closely knit local groups to these spatially dispersed social networks. Thanks to the Internet, our networks are now global, and many of our closest friends live far away. But with that shift, I think we’ve lost a valuable resource, in that we don’t know as many neighbours as we once did.…And I think that leads to a number of other things: less local knowledge and wisdom being passed on, less compassion, more infighting, less solidarity. Less ability to come together and shape the culture of our communities.”

Community art, she says, is a way of rebuilding trust. But it’s not without physical impact, she adds, citing improved street lighting, bike lanes, and night markets as just a few of the valued community enhancements that have come out of her work in her own Louisiana neighbourhood.

If Chang’s vision is somewhat dystopian, or at least concerned with harm reduction as much as civic improvement, Teju Cole has a sunnier approach. Author of the novel Open City, photography critic for the New York Times Magazine, and a photographer himself, Cole is happy to self-identify as a flâneur—a term coined in 19th-century Paris to describe those who enjoy urban life as an essentially aesthetic experience. His vision of “the urban” is expansive, to the point that it now includes digital communities as well as physical ones.

To make his point, he refers to the way we began our conversation. He’s in an unnamed airport, en route to a writers’ festival in Bali. I’m in a Vancouver exurb. We’re connected by telephone—but also by a wealth of experiences we almost certainly would not have had prior to the rise of affordable books, reliable communications technology, and the Internet.

Conceptual artist Candy Chang seeks to counter isolation amongst urbanites.

“That’s the collective space that we are inhabiting as modern citizens,” he says. “Our conversation began with gamelan [music], and then we spoke about [American composer] Lou Harrison, and I think this is very natural to the way we live today. And it’s not something that’s put on at all: it’s just recognizing that the common spaces that people have with each other can be quite interesting and unexpected, and very nourishing for all sides. And art is just one of the things that makes this possible in a very vivid way, in a very indelible way.”

His own art, he says, is rooted in the fragmented nature of urban experience—Open Cityeschews traditional narrative structure in favour of a series of memories and impressions; his camera builds on the snapshot aesthetic of 20th-century street photographers. Rather than hunger for a coherent narrative, he suggests, we should embrace life’s discontinuity.

“Ultimately, we’re still individuals that are functioning in this, right?” Cole says. “Even if it’s all one big ‘continuous city’, to borrow a phrase from [Italo] Calvino, it’s still a city—and the point of a city is its variegation. So it might be one continuous city, but inside that space is the ineluctable fact of the individuals in it: the isolation of being yourself, and the joy of being able to wander.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie might seem an odd choice for a panel on art and urbanism: for most of this century, she’s been making her art while living on a lush Kauai farm. In her typically forthright way, however, she sweeps theory aside to zero in on the most practical thing we can do to build better people, and by extension better cities. “To encourage children at home, in community centres, and in school with free creative tools—like crayons and clay and musical instruments and other things that make noise and colour and fun—is to accept and build their self-expression, and to pave their way to personal success, their sense of contributing and interactivity with the rest of the community, rural or urban,” she tells the Straight.

“Artists are more than just decorators and entertainment,” she continues. “We are also visionaries and true creators, and Canada needs to encourage creativity and originality at home in our own families if we are to thrive as healthy societies.”

We the City: An Evening at the Centre takes place at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts on Wednesday (November 4). The Community Summit runs from Friday (October 30) to next Saturday (November 7); for the full schedule, visit the SFU website.

Follow Alexander Varty on Twitter @alexandervarty.

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