Thursday, February 19, 2009

Prairie Artsters: The Isolating Aesthetic*

Riding the train beyond the tunnels of downtown, rumbling along in the semi-new carts and into the chain-linked isolation of north and east Edmonton, I sat numbed by the graffiti removal just east of 95 St. Where there was once a milieu of unsolicited creations lining the otherwise grey zone of industrialization, there now only exists more grey, in the form of patches outlining the former bursts of expression.

If you saw this particular stretch of graffiti that resided there for seemingly as long as I can remember, you would remember that it was a mix of amateur works stretching between the nothingness of Stadium and Churchill. For the most part, the works were mediocre, being neither mind-blowing or base in articulation, but still there was something intrinsic in their quality; everytime you saw them amidst the emptiness, there was something deeply moving about the experience of encountering these works that situated you into an “Edmonton” experience.

Their removal is natural to the medium of graffiti, and on one hand the situation presents itself as a prime blank canvas. On the other hand, though, its targeted removal by a civic committee intentioned to replace all unsanctioned works with blotchy patchworks of muted blue-greys actually creates another type of Edmonton experience: the experience of isolation, or in terms of visual understanding, an isolating aesthetic.

Beyond the inherent issues of improving architectural standards and public art engagements, the city reinforces a visual solitude. Navigating through the city, the conditions isolate you into the solitary commuter: sand and grit dunes lining every meridian and sidewalk from Beverly to Lewis Estates creates less-than-desired treks; the horizon breaks up into hubs of big box stores along inhumane lanes of traffic; gravel lots extend from homogenous single storey abandoned buildings; the soulless walks through sidewalkless paths leading you to nowhere.

Erasing those marks left by the anonymous only perpetuates the disconnection that already permeates our dirty city streets. With each step we take to “clean up” this city’s image, we are removing those who have contributed to Edmonton’s identity, and in turn, the potential of ever forming a self identity and heritage.

As the Edmonton Heritage Council begins to form adjacent to the Edmonton Arts Council, a look back at The Art of Living Plan emphasizes that heritage “is the knowledge of the watersheds in human experience that provide the framework for how communities and individuals understand themselves.”

Heritage is a form of living history cultivated down into a collection and archive, but what boils down to inclusion and exclusion will inevitably shape our history and heritage. There are plans to open up a city museum, but will this museum feature an Edmonton that I remember? Through erasure, there leaves no possibility for remembrance and understanding, be it through the difference and expression of opinions. In starting fresh everytime, there is no momentum, no continuation, no follow through, leaving only the static representation of the present. This in many ways may be our identity, partaking in an ongoing amnesia of not just the past but our past mistakes in believing that it’s easier, cheaper and better to start all over again. Staying on this path, there will never be anything more than this self-effacing cycle of denial, which looking back and looking ahead, leads again to a state of isolation.

- A.F.
*First published in Vue Weekly, February 19 - 25, 2009

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