Edmonton to Winnipeg. The horror of last week’s Greyhound incident came days after I met Shawna Dempsey, Winnipeg-based artist, curator and performer. Over the course of a week, we shared extended discussions about our respective cities, especially in reference to our “murder city” reputations. Having traded the number one ranking for homicide in Canada back and forth for the last number of years, Edmonton and Winnipeg must share some sort of social affinity, we thought, and this horrific act of randomness only deepens the ongoing inquiry into the relation between a place and its people.
In town for Visualeyez, Dempsey agreed to meet up and talk about the pros and cons of living and creating in a relatively isolated city, and the mentality it takes to prosper—or even just survive.
Originally hailing from Scarborough, Dempsey is of course one half of the infamous Lorri Millan and Shawna Dempsey duo, who have created works ranging from their seminal collaboration “We’re Talking Vulva” (1990) to their terrorist organization, Consideration Liberation Army, and a lengthy list of projects that cross-pollinate media and aesthetics. They have curated three major Winnipeg-based group shows at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, taking a critical look at how contemporary artists are responding to the city they call home (Subconscious City, 2008) and what the upcoming generation of local artists are doing (Supernova, 2006).
Touring extensively, collected nationally and representing Canada on the international scale, Dempsey relates that although Winnipeg may not be for everyone with their curiously high levels of eccentricities, the city has been a solid base from which to create and cultivate. Straddling between the realms of “serious art” and entertainment, Dempsey and Millan’s works are charged with political sentiments masked in wry humour, with costumes to match. Performing on the street and in malls, galleries, recreation centres, comedy clubs and even churches, Dempsey thinks that the redneck honesty of Winnipeg has helped in the long run.
“It allows me to engage with the city and the people instead of always just talking to fellow artists,” she explains. “It’s nice sometimes, but when I was in Toronto, everyone I hung out was a lesbian socialist feminist! In Winnipeg, the crowds are different; I’m talking to cops, plumbers, bakers. It’s more real and it connects to your community.”
Like Edmonton, Winnipeg is a blue collar city filled with citizens who love talking about the city for better or for worse, internally marvelling over its own constant stream of complexities and simplicities. With Calgary as the next closest major Canadian city for both Winnipeg and Edmonton, disconnection broods a mentality to give things a try and make things happen on your own, that anyone can do anything over a “who do you think you are” attitude. One major difference is that, while it is also a developer-driven city, Winnipeg has one of the best municipal and provincial funding bodies in Canada, second only to Québec. There is also less of a transient mentality there than there is here, lending heart to long-term investments and building out connections through stability.
While everyone continues to try and grapple with the sensational and devastating news that is circulating world wide, its aftershocks are slowly rippling through our city streets. Individuals are a little more conscious of the strangers around them on the bus, eye contact is diminishing; small, subtle changes in how we interact with each other collectively are taking shape. As an arts community, it is our responsibility to react and to respond. We are the interpreters; we may not have answers, we should not have answers, but we must investigate and express, because this is our home.
*First published in Vue Weekly, August 7 - 13, 2008