The Conversationalist: Interview With Shauna Janssen
Le Dalhousie, the cul-de-sac in Griffintown that was the site of two recent UOU projects.
Griffintown is a neighbourhood in transition. Surely you've heard about it—developer Devimco's plan to give the historic industrial area in southwest Montreal a "big face lift." Originally, that meant a $1.3 billion plan that would have virually razed 10.2 hectares of the neighbourhood in order to build nearly 4,000 condos and a massive swath of commercial space, among other things. Well, the recession happened, and for a while it looked like Devimco's plans might just go away. But in August, Devimco announced a revised redevelopment plan, now called District Griffin, with construction possibly to begin before 2010 is up. Not surprisingly, the project has galvanized local residents, many of whom oppose the developer's plans to radically alter the neighbourhood they call home.
In the midst of all this, enter Shauna Janssen, a Concordia PhD student and the founder of Urban Occupations Urbaines (UOU), a creative platform with a mission to "promote the cultural fertility of Griffintown by evoking the traces of its built, social and spatial history." With UOU, Janssen is drawing attention to Griffintown and the issues it faces in a different way: not through outright activism or protest, but by staging public art and interventions in a way that not only highlights everything that is unique about the neighbourhood, but that also clearly makes a comment on its impermanence. She spoke with Maisonneuve about the project.
Amelia Schonbek: So what are the roots of the Urban Occupations Urbains (UOU) project?
Shauna Janssen: I'm a PhD student now in Humanities at Concordia, and I also did my MA there. My MA project dealt with the Darling Foundry, which is also down in Griffintown, and basically my thesis was looking at the conversion of that space from a ruin into a site for the diffusion of artistic practices and arts residencies.
And actually I'll go back a bit further and say that my background is in theatre and I spent many years working in Toronto developing new work. I got really interested in this relationship between the spaces people are creating in, and how the art form informs the place and how the space informs the art form. So that's kind of a pre-history to starting the MA and looking at the conversion of space for artistic purposes, cultural purposes—that was the focus of that project.
But of course working on the Darling Foundry helped me to discover other elements in the neighbourhood and also discover the politics behind the urban revitalization and renewal of the neighbourhood. So I carried that interest into my PhD in a way. I'm interested in the conversion of actual buildings and architecture. The reuse of ruins and also how ruins in our cities contribute to the urban imaginary, is maybe a good way of putting it. And I got to know the community and certain community members—local residents and landowners in the neighbourhood who are fighting to preserve what's left, since so much in the neighbourhood, in terms of its built environment, has already disappeared over the years.
Through the research I did at the Darling Foundry, I started to observe the way artists actually are presenting their work in public—public art interventions, and the role that public interventions play in creating public spaces— we're kind of moving off the canvas into these other contemporary performative forms. Artists responding to revitalization politics, which has a long history—it's not a new idea, but right now it's here and it's happening in Griffintown. So I was inspired by some of the work of two artists who were in residency at the Darling Foundry, this German couple Sylvia Winkler and Stephan Koperl. They were a source of inspiration because they were actually responding to Devimco's original plans from 2007-2008 and their whole six-month residency at the Darling Foundry really became a response to those plans at that time. And as you know, by 2009 the recession had hit and the [Devimco] project kind of folded for a while, and of course now they're back.
In the spring I was invited by Judith Bauer, one of the key community members behind this idea for a cultural corridor, to be a part of discussing ways to promote the cultural corridor in Griffintown, and my first instinct was well, you know we have to make art, and so I wanted to find a way to bring that kind of presence to the neighborhood, and bring artists to the neighbourhood who would engage with what's there in terms of the spatial history of the neighbourhood. I think that's kind of key in terms of the process of the [UOU] project. As much as I want to see the projects succeed, UOU is also about allowing a process... a process is occurring between the sites and the artists.
One of the misconceptions about doing work like this is that there's this idea that these neighborhoods need to be re-animated in some way, and that's not at all what the series is about. There's already agency there, and the idea is to say 'what is a response we can have,' even to the ecology of the area, because that in itself says that it isn't a completely abandoned, wasted space. So the key thing is that there is an engagement that's critical and creative with the site, more than it is about reanimating…
AS: What were your goals when you sat down and first started thinking about the project?
SJ: Well, I've described the project Urban Ocupations Urbaines as a "creative platform." Meaning that it kind of riffs of the stage: this notion of staging creativity, ideas. There's creation, there's performance, there's a visual component, there's art being made, but also I'd like to think of UOU as a site, as a stage, as a space for allowing a discourse to happen, too, about the issues of urban renewal, and so that the artists engagement is reflecting that.
AS: Have you seen that discourse happen over the last couple months that the project has been ongoing, either at the events, or in the community afterwards?
SJ: Yes, but like you said, probably more [after the fact]. But even to see fifty-odd people moving around and occupying the Dalhousie [cul-de-sac] in a kind of organic way around a performance … this site specific performance [created by Theatre Nulle Part] guided a group of fifty spectators through a process of occupying this corner of the city… it was really interesting for me to observe. And I think, in itself, in those evenings, there was a discourse—even if it was an unspoken one, and it's gone now, but there's a trace of it in the memory of the site, and in the memory of the people who actually participated in the experience. I think that's what was, for me—as much as I was feeling nervous or unsure if it was working, or what it meant—there was an experience that was offered, somehow, and some sort of reflection, even if it might happen two days later, or three days later, for both the artist and the spectator.
For both the [projects that happened in September], the artists really took time to respond to the space. Both projects, in the Dalhousie cul de sac and at the local neighbourhood dog park, are really of the site, and the space, rather than about it. It's not just about the art, it's actually about the space and its users too. And one isn't more important than the other, they are reciprocal.
Le Dalhousie at night, during a performance of a site-specific work created for UOU by Theatre Nulle Part.
AS: To what extent do you see the project as activism, either in response to the Devimco plan, or to something beyond that?
SJ: I wouldn't call it activism, but I would call it an act of some sort. Maybe an act of citizenship, on some level, because artists are citizens too. I would also describe the project on some level as functioning as a kind of resilience, or maybe it's more that I hope it would build some resilience, you know? Definitely it's political, because it's the appropriation of space in ways that people don't normally …. that's political in and of itself. So I would hope it builds a sort of resilience, eventually, in terms of the way it opens up the spaces for public engagement, and brings the public to re-engage with sites they might never have.
AS: So you could say it's a response to a changing neighbourhood more than activism around a particular issue?
SJ: There is the idea of responding to urban change. Because a neighbourhood is going to change, and in many ways I don't think that people don't want to see [Griffintown] change, it's how. What does it exclude, what does it include? There's the same problem with what's going on in Shaugnessy Village right now. It feels like these real estate developers are rabid, and where they are there will always be displacement.
AS: This is a tangent, but do you ever watch The Wire?
SJ: Watched the whole thing in one summer.
AS: Nice! So I don't know if you remember, but when Stringer Bell goes into real estate developing, McNulty makes this great statement about how he's somehow managed to become something worse than a drug dealer.
SJ: Well, you know, heritage means lots of things to different people, and it can be very intense… I don't even want to get into 'what is heritage,' because it's a complex subject. But some of the concerns that have been voiced for many years, since the arrival of corporations like Devimco, is that people want to see these kind of sites repurposed, but for me it's become, 'what and why do you save and preserve rather than razing and demolishing?' And I'm thinking now—and again maybe this goes back to what the artwork, the interventions, the series is trying to do, is uncover the relevance of these sites again, which is not necessarily the approach, ever. We skip a step somehow and go right to this idea of preservation. It's kind of like being on a board and having a project but not knowing what the mission is. But this idea of rediscovering the relevance—because maybe a site isn't relevant anymore… I mean, just to play devil's advocate, and I hate saying that, but why? Why save the Seville Theatre? for example. I mean, it's gone anyway now. And if we had preserved it, wouldn't it have just been a facade, and what would that mean? It's more than just about preservation, it's about relevance. And I think artists have a great capacity for drawing out a sites relevance, because that resonates with the work artists do.
AS: And I think this conversation is one that's really necessary to have, because talking about and questioning relevance creates a context within which people can think about the issues surrounding preservation, you know? Rather than it being an autopilot response—I think it's easy for people to push back against that. But people might be more inclined to chose preservation if they were part of a process of questioning and trying to discover why a site should be preserved…
SJ: I'm not the voice of authority on preservation whatsoever, but one of the dangers of preservation is that it can freeze a certain urban dynamism that's happening. Often the designation of building as a historic site, officially, can bring on problems of its own about how that space will be repurposed—there are so many rules and regulations. So it's kind of a catch-22. What I'm more interested in is finding out their relevancy again. Also, I've said this before, but [Griffintown], even if it didn't change—I mean, it has and it will change, so there's no question—but what it is right now allows for the unexpected [things like public art interventions] to emerge, and if we don't have those kinds of spaces in the city, then we won't have those kind of things that contribute to making urban fabric diverse. We need space for these kinds of gestures, and that's what Griffintown affords us, in terms of the cultural landscape that it is now.
Related on maisonneuve.org:
—Photos: 'Knights of Griffintown' Outtakes
—Interview With Sean Michaels
—Will Steep Fines Kill the Plateau's Nightlife?
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