Category Archives: Essays

Staring Down the Cool Kids


An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

“Does this even work? Has anyone actually used one of these successfully?” asked Wendy Coburn, during her Art Now presentation at the University of Lethbridge. We sat and contemplated the object in question: a turkey-baster projected on screen, nine feet high. Like much of Coburn’s work, this was a sly and witty commentary on our perceptions of particular kinds of lifestyles, making such perceptions salient while, at the same time, subverting them. The turkey-baster is obvious code for lesbian baby-making–the ingenious circumvention of the constraints of nature–but this particular baster, beautifully rendered in bronze, also bore an intentional reference to Jasper Johns’ Lightbulb I. In Coburn’s hands,[1] Johns’ metaphor for male genitalia thus became a meta-metaphorical homage (should such a thing be possible).

Sitting in the audience, I could appreciate art for art’s sake, but having spent a couple of hours in the library prior to attending her talk, I realized I was also in a good position to answer Wendy’s question. Yes, such things have been used, and yes, they really do work. Indeed, I had just been reading the first recorded description of artificial insemination in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, published in March 1799. The paper, by one Everard Home, Esq., is primarily “an account of the dissection of an hermaphrodite dog”, but, almost as an aside, it describes how “the late Mr. Hunter” had been asked to ‘remedy…[the] inconvenience” of a gentleman suffering from a condition known as ‘hypospadias’ that prevented impregnation by standard means (in this condition, instead of opening at the tip of the penis, the urethra opens somewhere along the shaft, or even the perineum between the scrotum and the anus). The ‘late Mr. Hunter”, a Scottish surgeon, thus suggested that the gentleman in question should “be prepared with a syringe fitted for the purpose, previously warmed; and that immediately after the emission had taken place, it should be taken up by the syringe, and injected into the vagina”. As Mr. Home goes on to note, “[t]he experiment was actually made, and the wife proved with child.”[2]

The parenthetical nature of this description is no accident. Despite the success of the procedure, John Hunter was so worried that his actions would be criticized, because of the way they transgressed certain moral boundaries, that he never formally reported on his experiment. Home’s description came some 23 years after the event, and after Mr. Hunter’s own demise[3] — a far cry, then, from the humorous public presentation of Coburn’s turkey-baster, and the knowing and delighted response of the audience.

This, for me, gets to the heart of complex social change: the process by which taboo subjects are transformed and achieve public acceptance; the way in which ‘received wisdom’ is questioned, undermined and overturned; the characteristics of those who effect change, who notice the problem and see the solution through to the end (or not, as the case may be). Finally, it highlights the way we must strive to avoid any form of Whig history, with its narrative of inevitable progress toward enlightenment, along with assumptions about when and where certain kinds of ideas first became possible. As Angus McClaren notes, Hunter’s findings deserve more widespread attention from historians because “no act so dramatically demonstrated the separation of the principles of sexual pleasure and procreation which is said to have occurred as the ‘modern mind’ emerged.”[4]

More specifically, this story sums up my experience of working as part of the Complex Social Change project: the serendipitous connections, the synthesizing of different sources to reach unexpected conclusions, and the marrying together of findings in arts, sciences and humanities in playful and creative ways, have all been tremendously rewarding. This is especially so, as these ideas feed into our teaching, as well as our scholarly endeavours, helping to reinforce the strong commitment to liberal education that we all share.

A scientist by training, my background is very different to the others on our team, but ideas relating to social change inform my work on both humans (where, as the above makes clear, I am interested in ideas relating to fertility control and reproductive decision-making in relation to the ‘demographic transition’ in Europe, the period that saw a shift from a high mortality-high fertility demographic regime to one of low mortality and fertility) and non-human primates, specifically monkeys of the cercopithecine family (where I am concerned with the evolution of sociality more generally, and the scope and limits of complex social structure and change among non-language-using animals). We have discovered how the monkey work in particular can inform the ongoing development of our project–which might seem surprising at first–by adapting the ethological methods we use to observe the behaviour of monkeys to conduct naturalistic studies of visitor behaviour and engagement in the gallery space. In addition, my involvement with the project has allowed me to develop other interests relating to social change and activism, encouraging me to broaden my understanding from a range of perspectives, and develop a more interdisciplinary approach. One such interest is the use of satire as an agent of social change. Again, Wendy Coburn’s work helps introduce the issue.

Along with presenting the work she has produced over the last few years, Coburn’s exhibition included a new piece produced exclusively for the University of Lethbridge. “Slut Nation: Anatomy of a Protest” documents the infiltration of a “Slut Walk” held in Toronto on April 3rd, 2011.[5] This protest took place following comments made by a police officer at a York University safety information session. The officer suggested that women should avoid dressing like “sluts” in order to reduce the likelihood of sexual assault. Although a formal complaint was made, and the officer subsequently apologized, some on campus decided enough was enough: the victim blaming had to stop, and the idea that responsibility for sexual assault should lie with women and their decision to wear certain kinds of clothing, rather than with men and their decision to commit rape, needed to be repudiated in the strongest possible terms. Hence, the public protest.

Coburn’s installation reveals how provocateurs, dressed as protestors, hijacked the image of the protest, both trivializing its message as well as acting in ways that might alienate those watching at home (and perhaps even some of those participating). As Josie Mills notes in her introduction to Coburn’s exhibition, had the protest focused on a highly contested or divided issue, the amount of time and energy put into the performance of the provocateurs might have been more easily explicable, but “given the peaceful, good-natured, and clearly justified goals of the organizers of the march, such intervention can only be understood as part of the pressures that discourage activism and support passive acceptance of the status quo.”[6] As such, it is a piece that resonates strongly with the Complex Social Change project, with its aim to understand how such pressures achieve their effects, and how they can be undermined, subverted and converted into positive action. Undeniably powerful, “Anatomy of a Protest” is exemplary in demonstrating how art can be an instrument of social change. It works both by encouraging us to laugh at the ham-fisted antics of the provocateurs while simultaneously inducing anger as we come to realize that tax-payers’ money has been used to undermine our democracy; it fires you up at the same time as it encourages you to laugh and let it all out.

This is no mean feat. Being British, I have a long-standing appreciation of efforts to poke fun at the so-called ‘establishment’, to prick pomposity and undermine the deference that characterizes our class-ridden culture. My admiration for the remorseless wit of Jonathan Swift, unstinting in his efforts to protest the treatment of the common people of Ireland, along with an appreciation of the somewhat less admirable antics of the Earl of Rochester, who dared to speak truth to power in the form of outrageously rude (in both senses of the word) poems about Charles II, led me to believe that prompting people to laugh at those who deserved to be laughed at was perhaps the most cunning route to changing the world. At Swim-Two-Birds and Catch-22 are among my favourite novels; South Park is one of my favourite TV shows; I have a long-standing love of the British satirical weekly, Private Eye, and its editor, Ian Hislop. Who doesn’t like to laugh, and who doesn’t hate to be laughed at?[7] If someone is clever enough to make you laugh and make you think, if someone has the capacity to use words as weapons to wound those whose behaviour is reprehensible, shaming them and forcing a reconsideration of their actions, then surely we have hit on the best way to remake the world for the better?

Well, maybe, maybe not. Recently, I have found myself retreating from this position. In part this is a reaction to the fact that we seem to have moved beyond satire, living as we do in a world that sells “Bic for her” pens (they’re pink! and shaped to better fit small lady-hands!), and where the spoof newspaper The Onion seems almost prophetic, rather than merely satirical (try this from 2001, for example:,464/ “Bush also promised an end to the severe war drought that has plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf-War level armed conflict in the next four years.”).

There is another reason, however, for my questioning of satire as tool of social change, one related to the above but distinct from it. All too often, laughter simply lets us off the hook. As the novelist, Jonathan Coe puts it, “laughter is not only an ineffectual form of protest, but…it actually replaces protest.”[8] Similarly, the political historian, Steven Fielding, argues that, in our willingness to accept amusing, satirical views of politicians as inevitably corrupt and useless, we embrace a ‘dangerous new stereotype’ that serves to reinforce our mistrust in the public realm; a mistrust that can be exploited by other political forces for its own ends. It is also “a convenient view, for it means we, the audience, the voters, are not to blame for anything: we are not to blame because we are the victims of a politics gone wrong.”9 Politicians are so appalling that there is nothing we can do but laugh at them.[10]

Steve Almond, writing in The Baffler, makes this point even more vehemently in his dissection of the success of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. According to Almond, Stewart’s and Colbert’s political humour is merely therapeutic: programs like The Daily Show congratulate the viewers for being savvy enough to see things for what they are, while remaining careful to avoid any real questioning of the status quo.[11] Indeed, it is not in Stewart’s and Colbert’s own interests to do so, Almond contends, for their livelihoods depend on a continuing parade of appalling neocons whose views they can disparage and mock–without them, they have no show–and so change is not, therefore, on their agenda. “What Stewart and Colbert do most nights is convert civic villainy into disposable laughs…[treating] the ills of modern media and politics as matters of folly, not concerted evil….What’s missing from this formulation is the idea that comedy might, you know, change something other than your mood.”[12] Almond contrasts Stewart and Colbert with the late American comedians Bill Hicks and George Carlin, arguing that they, and Hicks in particular, understood that comedy’s ‘highest calling is to confront the moral complacency of your audience”[13], and it is this willingness to present radical ideas unflinchingly that makes comic work endure. Consequently, it is South Park, the often scatological cartoon featuring poorly drawn 10-year olds, that Almond considers to be the truly radical political comedy of our time. Its willingness to be actively confrontational, savaging both right and left of the political spectrum alike, exposes the lazy assumptions and complacency of the viewing audience. The taboo topics tackled by South Park’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, are almost too numerous to mention, but include abortion rights, race, religion, and sexual orientation–all topics that tend to give people the vapours and lead to a frenzy of pearl-clutching.

Like Fielding, Almond’s ultimate conclusion is that, by presenting pundits and politicians as the one’s who ‘prey on a noble citizenry’, Stewart and his ilk absolve us from any responsibility to change things. But, as he notes, it’s not that simple: we’re the ones who watch the pundits, and elect the politicians. We’re the ones choosing to simply laugh at the world, rather than take action.[14] Of course, the same may well be true if you choose to watch South Park rather than The Daily Show, but you certainly feel a lot more uncomfortable watching the former rather than the latter, and it is a lot more difficult to pat yourself on the back for holding the right kind of smart, right-on liberal views. What’s more, you’re never going to catch Cartman unironically mooning over Condeleeza Rice, like Jon Stewart did.

Another problem raised by modern-day satire is captured by “Poe’s Law”: it is now impossible to present a parody of any form of fundamentalism that someone, somewhere, won’t mistake for the real thing. This itself reflects the way in which so much lunacy now pervades our world, that even the most obviously ludicrous stories (breast milk cures homosexuality!) are taken to be deadly serious. There is a marvelous Tumbr (Literally Unbelievable) devoted to the outraged reactions of people who mistake The Onion’s satirical news stories for real reporting.[15] Luke O’Neil, writing in the New Republic, suggests the proliferation of such sites is another a reason for dialing down the satire, offering another twist on Coe’s and others’ argument. As O’Neil suggests, satire works best “when it takes a lie and makes it seem true, not when it takes a truth and twists it into a lie” as many of these stories do, as when, for example, a story circulates that the President of the NRA is looking forward to the return of slavery.[16] Satire of this kind fails because, as O’Neil points out, it deflects attention from the rather disturbing comments that Jim Porter, NRA President, actually did make about the civil war. Once again, laughter serves to obscure, rather than skewer, the real issues and, once again, it allows us to feel superior when we get the joke, as though we have somehow gained the moral high ground.

So, what to do? Is it possible to get satire back on track as a means of forcing us to deal with unpalatable truths? I can’t pretend to know the answer, or have even the suggestion of one, but it is an issue that, through the Complex Social Change project, I would like to continue pursuing. Not least because there is clearly some connection between Coe’s point about laughter as a replacement for protest and the phenomenon of “Facebook activism” or “slacktivism.”[17] Supporting a cause by ‘liking’ it on Facebook has now been shown to reduce the likelihood that people will contribute to the cause in a more material, tangible way. Posting, commenting and liking make us feel like we’re doing something, when nothing is actually happening. As with satirical comedy, Facebook activism lets us off the hook: we are seen to seem to be caring, we have expressed our outrage, our solidarity and our commitment to the cause, and now we are done. Bruce McKay, as part of his liberal education class on activism, discovered that many of our students are happy to engage with social issues online, liking posts or clicking to sign a petition, but are wary of actively meeting with and talking to people about such issues in real life, and by extension, helping to take action that can really make a difference. Again, we currently have no answers for why this should be, and we are developing programs and strategies designed to help people, both students and other community members, become more actively involved. This is a need which is clearly felt by many of our students: when DodoLab visited my class, there was much talk about how people felt unable to engage in any form of activism or protest, because “no classes or seminars” in such things were offered at the U of L. Marlaina Buch’s suggestion that they improvise and just give it a go anyway was met with a lot of enthusiasm but also a certain amount of nervous laughter.

Perhaps the broader issue here concerns the uses of irony in modern culture. Indeed, we live in hyper-ironic times, times that make it possible for people to like the music of Celine Dion, say, in ironic fashion as a ‘guilty pleasure’, to wear certain kinds of clothes ironically, to dance ironically, to offer certain kinds of party foods in ironic tribute to the 50s (‘tuna Jello salad is the new sushi’). To look as though you really mean it can be social death, and the same may be true of activism and a desire to produce social change; it’s one thing to “like” something on Facebook, for this is, after all, an easily reversible action, and also one that allows a certain ironic distance to be maintained. It is quite another to act in earnest, and risk being seen as naive, idealistic and uncool by all the knowing, cynical cool kids. David Foster Wallace, writing about the influence of television on modern society,[18] says “irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective and…at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis.”[19] In particular, he discusses the “Joe Isuzu” commercials, that feature an ‘oily Satanic-looking salesperson’ telling a bunch of obvious lies about the Isuzu’s features, such as its ability to run on tapwater. As with arguments against current political satire, these ads “invited viewers to congratulate Isuzu’s ads for being ironic, to congratulate themselves for getting the joke, and to congratulate Isuzu Inc. for being ‘fearless’ and ‘irreverant’ enough to acknowledge that car ads are ridiculous and that Audience is dumb enough to believe them.”[20] Wallace argues that such tactics mark a shift from irony as liberating to enfeebling. Quoting Lewis Hyde, who said that “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage”,[21] Wallace expands on the view that irony can serve only a negative, ground-clearing function. It cannot be used to construct anything positive to replace the old hypocrisies it once exposed. For Wallace, persistent irony is ‘tiresome’ and ‘unmeaty’,[22] because it means that people’s views become impossible to pin down. In so doing, irony serves only to oppress. Irony means we don’t mean what we say, so what, Wallace asks, does it mean when irony is our cultural norm? That we never mean what we say? That it is, by definition, impossible to do so? Wallace suggests we most likely end up saying “how totally banal of you to ask what I really mean”, such that anyone who does so ends up “looking like a hysteric or a prig”. By suppressing the asking of such questions via the use of irony, ironic rebellion becomes tyranny.

Wallace does, however, offer an optimistic conclusion to his piece, although this can be hard to see at first, for he argues that the new rebels will be outdated before they even get started. They’ll be too sincere, quaint, repressed, backward. But they will be rebels because of their willingness to risk disapproval. The new rebels will stare down the cool kids. “[T]hey might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the ‘oh, how banal’. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.”[23]

Who knows indeed. And maybe the new rebels will not just be artists but young activists, who are willing to risk the same.

[1] I recognise this is rather unfortunate phrasing.

[2] Everard Home, An Account of the Dissection of an Hermaphrodite Dog. To which are Prefixed, some Observations on Hermaphrodites in General (London, England: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1776 -1886),162,

[3] Angus McClaren, Reproductive Rituals, (London, England: Methuen, 1984)

[4] McClaren, ibid. p. 14

[5] Nicholas Maronese, “Slut Walk Toronto: April 3, 2011,” Excalibur, Apr. 3, 2011,

[6] Josephine Mills, “Acting Out,” University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, November 7- December 20, 2013

[7] Of course, satire doesn’t always involve laughter, and laughter is not necessary for something to qualify as satire (and vice versa).

[8] Jonathan Coe, Sinking Giggling into the Sea” London Review of Books, Vol. 35, July 18, 2013

[9] Steven Fielding, “Comedy and Politics: the great debate” Ballots & Bullets, September 29, 2011

[10] Steven Fielding, “Why the Thick of it is Safe in Comedy” The Guardian, September 9, 2012

[11] Steve Almond, “The Joke’s on You” The Baffler Vol.20, 2012

[12] Almond (2012), ibid. p. 32.

[13] Almond (2012), ibid. p. 36.

[14] Almond (2012), ibid.

[15] Hudson Hongo, “Stories from The Onion interpreted by Facebook” Literally Unbelievable , May, 2014 (access DATE?)

[16] Luke O’Neil “No More Fake News! An earnest argument against satire” New Republic, May 10, 2013 (access DATE?)

[17]Kristofferson, K., White, K. and J. Peloza,  “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action.” Journal of Consumer Research. DOI: 2014 10.1086/674137 .

[18] D.F. Wallace, E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction In: A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. (New York: Little, Brown and Company,1997), 21-82.

[19] Wallace (1997), ibid, p. 49.

[20] Wallace (1997), Ibid, p. 61.

[21] Wallace (1997), ibid, p. 67

[22] Wallace (1997), ibid, p. 67

[23] Wallace himself practiced what he preached and became a fine example of the ‘new sincerity’. His Kenyon commencement speech has now become a classic, but for another fine example, read his short story “Good people”.


Almond, Steve. “The Joke’s on You” The Baffler Vol. 20, 2012

Coe, Jonathan. “Sinking Giggling into the Sea” London Review of Books, Vol. 35, July 18, 2013

Fielding, Steven. “Comedy and Politics: the great debate” Ballots & Bullets, September 29, 2011

Fielding, Steven. “Why the Thick of it is Safe in Comedy” The Guardian, September 9, 2012

Home, Everard. An Account of the Dissection of an Hermaphrodite Dog. To which are Prefixed, some Observations on Hermaphrodites in General London, England: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 1776-1886.

Hongo, Hudson. “Stories from The Onion interpreted by Facebook” Literally Unbelievable , May, 2014

Kristofferson, K., White, K. and J. Peloza, “The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action.” Journal of Consumer Research. DOI: 2014 10.1086/674137 .

Maronese, Nicholas. “Slut Walk Toronto: April 3, 2011,” Excalibur, Apr. 3, 2011,

McClaren, Angus. Reproductive Rituals, London, England: Methuen, 1984.

Mills, Josephine. “Acting Out,” University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, November 7- December 20, 2013

O’Neil, Luke. “No More Fake News! An earnest argument against satire” New Republic, May 10, 2013

Wallace, D.F. E unibus pluram: television and U.S. fiction In: A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. New York: Little, Brown and Company,1997.

The Role of Public in Public Art Galleries

An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect.
- Rebecca Solnit

When it comes to public programming, art galleries have a tendency to construct the equivalent of a 1910 prairie boom town. With the first stroll down the main street, a person reading a grant application or annual report might think that there is a long row of two story, well-kept buildings with activity bustling behind all that construction. However, stepping onto the porch and opening the front door, one is confronted with the disappointing reality of, at best, a single floor structure (with or without a faint hope of one day building that second level) or at worst, a lean-to shack propped against the lovely facade. There are a myriad of reasons for this pattern: decades of funding cuts to, and attacks on, the value of the visual arts; the pressure on art galleries to satisfy mutually incompatible demands such as producing events which generate funding support from a wealthy elite while also appealing to the general public with broad based approaches; the rise of new areas that need attention (websites, technology in the galleries and the offices, social media) with all their demands on the fixed resources and yet maintaining the traditional areas (exhibitions, collections, research, archives); and of course, the never ending ‘edifice complex’ – dealing with a building that is too small, too old, too drab, too expensive or falling apart at the seams.

As daunting as all these problems sound, they pale in comparison to the biggest challenge facing public programs in art galleries: indifference. There is a long standing hierarchy within art galleries that places curators at the top and public programming at the bottom – curators initiate and research the exhibitions while public programmers come in at the end trying to create activities and events that connect the public to the art, artists, and ideas in the exhibition. One good thing to come out of the major restructuring of funding to the visual arts – and by restructuring I mean massive funding cuts beginning in the 1980s to all public sectors – is that art galleries were forced to pay attention to their audience. As a result, there has been a shift to involve public programming, but also marketing, earlier in the process of exhibition planning. Yet despite this shift, it is still the norm to dismiss public programming as a much lower and simpler form of gallery activity; an area to be relegated to junior staff, in which curators and the director need never concern themselves.

I realize that I run the risk of committing a serious sin by acknowledging internal faults for art galleries as there is always the fear that if one admits to poor performance it will provide ammunition for those critical of the visual arts. Thus, there is a tendency to stay mum about systemic problems and to never venture into that lean-to shack propped behind the painted facade to avoid being confronted by the evidence. Equally problematic, the devaluing of public programs exists just as much within funding agencies and sponsors as it does inside art galleries. The kinds of information required about audiences for federal and provincial grants does not even come close to understanding or caring about what actually happens with audiences in art galleries. For example, the Alberta Foundation for the Arts asks organizations in the post-secondary program to provide the total number of “students and staff” who attend their events and the total number of “community members.”1 They do not ask galleries outside the university system to make this differentiation. The assumptions behind this defining split required in university gallery reporting are appalling. The stats being gathered presume that if a Biology student, a Management professor, or an administrative assistant from a Dean’s office comes to a university gallery event, they are not members of the general public. However, if they attend a civic gallery, they are. The assumption is that it is not hard for university galleries to attract students and staff and that these visitors are less valuable in terms of measuring success.2

Like the hierarchy inside the gallery, public programming comes in a distant second to the curatorial aspects despite the superficial lip service stated by funding agencies. These two factors mean that there is no encouragement for directors or curators to get into their exhibition on a busy week-end, during a family day event, or to spend time with regular gallery visitors. They give VIP tours and meet the press, but tend not to be in touch with the everyday experience in their gallery. There is also a lack of immediate consequences for not paying attention – galleries that have the shabbiest lean-tos for public programs plans continue to do well in their grants and with their elite donors. It is of course important to expertly produce exhibitions with significant artists who are doing interesting work. What should also go without saying is that it is important to expertly engage with your audience; to understand, care about, listen to, and respect your audience; and to generate programming that works with, builds on, and informs the exhibitions, collections, research and all the other activity in the institution. That is what makes public art galleries public. If they were private, there would be no need to give a fig about who attends or whether or not they make any meaning while in the gallery. But the art galleries I am discussing are public and this essential aspect has somehow been denigrated and pushed to the margins.

In “Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy: Why culture needs a democratic mandate,” John Holden of the Demos Foundation discusses the breakdown in the relationship between the public, politicians, and cultural professionals. Addressing the cultural system in Britain, but clearly applicable to art galleries in Canada, he states that: “The ‘cultural system’ has become a closed and ill-tempered conversation between professionals and politicians.”4 The public is left out of this conversation, ignored by cultural professionals in favour of giving all their attention to policy makers and granting agencies. With on-going cuts to public funding, and the turmoil this produces in how public art galleries generate revenue, cultural professionals have prioritized establishing legitimacy with their funders over making the case with the public. ‘Advocacy’ has meant producing ‘good stories’ and ‘convincing numbers’ to make the case for next year’s grant, rather than building a broad base of popular support.”5

Holden’s argument is as much about arguing for the necessity of engaging the public as it is on critiquing the existing problems. He asserts that the only way cultural institutions can establish true legitimacy and actually have value is in their connection with the public and he has the statistics to back up his argument that the public is more sophisticated about, and supportive of, culture than either politicians or cultural professionals assume.

People We Can Learn From: lessons from the gift shop and the security staff
The sophistication of the general public who visit art galleries is something I have long known – and that I learnt by accident, or perhaps to be more generous, serendipity. After completing my undergrad degree in Saskatoon, I knew that I wanted to work in the arts. Being both painfully shy and over-intellectualized, it never dawned on me that public programs was an option for employment. Cheryl Meszaros, the head of what was then called Education at the Mendel Art Gallery, spotted potential despite my obvious short-comings. Meszaros told me to apply for an Education Assistant job, hired me, and then trained me to talk to the public. Most of this training was more like being thrown in the deep end of the pool as my job included giving tours to school groups which the volunteer docents did not want to do. I can attest that if you can handle half an hour with a group of Grade Eights stuck in a gallery featuring Abstract works by Guido Molinari, in his black and white phase, you can handle pretty much any public speaking situation.

My work at the Mendel introduced me to the area of school programs within galleries and it also informed my interests during grad school as I began to explore issues to do with public art and public space. However, it was not until my second try at public programs that I developed a true appreciation for the people who visit art galleries. Serendipity again favoured me as Meszaros had moved to being the head of Public Programs at the Vancouver Art Gallery at around the same time I moved to Vancouver while completing my doctoral dissertation (on how the concepts of public and art operate together in contemporary galleries and art practices). Meszaros was building an innovative environment that included a sophisticated Open Studio with hands-on activities related to the exhibitions and hiring grad students to give short tours and then being available for conversation in the galleries. Thus, I experienced the amazing combination of writing about theories of the public during the day for my dissertation and talking to the actual public on Thursday nights and week-ends.

Leading tours and chatting with the general public at the VAG was transformative. I was impressed every single time I went to work by how happy and excited people were to come to the gallery and see the art. They were eager to learn, to encounter new things, to talk to their friends, and they were over the moon delighted to have a real, live person with whom they could chat. Sometimes their questions had no particular focus and they would just be open to having me tell them more; other times, they would have specific questions about something they had heard or read about the artist or the exhibition; but best of all was when they had a question that they had always wanted to ask but had never had the chance – they would wait to talk one-on-one and almost whisper things like “so, what’s the difference between sculpture and installation?”

Being a tour guide was enormously encouraging to me as an emerging curator. I was able to see firsthand the genuine, deep, diverse connection that people have with art galleries and art works. Overwhelmingly, people came to the gallery to learn and to engage. It was also an invaluable learning experience for me in what not to do – I was also able to witness the standard things that contemporary art galleries do which frustrate visitors in their desire to connect. Much of these negative aspects came from underestimating the audience and from not listening to them. As a junior staff person, I interacted with the security guards, the staff in the gift shop, and the rest of the front of house. We had a wealth of information about what worked and what did not work within the gallery. The VAG was doing better than most galleries in taking an interest in public programs, but even still, there was so much potential for knowing the visitors and their experience which was lost because the front of house staff had no standing within the gallery hierarchy and thus little to no means to convey the information we learned.

Animals We Can Learn From: lessons from DodoLab
Marginalized youth dressed as racoons and playing croquet in downtown Sudbury; an art gallery serving free pizza to hundreds of students and staff on campus; strolling the streets of cities from Hamilton to Oxford dressed in the clothes of a distinguished professor and the head of a starling; and wearing lab coats with the DodoLab logo while asking people whether they think the University of Lethbridge is laying its eggs on the ground. These do not sound like radical activities nor like the most serious approaches to contemporary art practice, but they are all events that have significantly shifted my approach to curating, to planning for the U of L Art Gallery, and to thinking about the details of how to genuinely engage with the public. These are a few of the events created by DodoLab in their work across Canada, internationally, and at the U of L Art Gallery. Their subtle, playful, and open approaches, combined with genuine interest in people, have been essential to informing the direction of the Complex Social Change project and my programming for the U of L Art Gallery.

With the Complex Social Change project, I am finally able to fully realize what I began to learn from talking with visitors as part of their experience of exhibitions. Working with Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer from DodoLab has been essential to this development. It can seem that there are multiple obstacles to engaging with the public, but DodoLab demonstrates that it is in fact quite simple. This is not to say that such work is shallow or to be taken lightly, but rather simple in the sense of being eminently possible. All it takes is the recognition that the public is the core of what an art gallery does, and that public engagement should be primary and central to the planning, operations, and decisions within the art gallery. The added benefit is that carrying out such engagement is enormously fun and rich with possibilities.

Founded in 2009, by Hunter and Hirmer, DodoLab generates projects that partner mainly with art galleries, but also with other groups, to produce what they describe as “creative public interventions that are truly collaborative, encourage and evolve out of dialogue and critical reflection, and that strive for tangible and meaningful outcomes.”6 The originality of their approach makes their work hard to encapsulate. In terms of their projects with the U of L Art Gallery, I often say that bringing in DodoLab is like having the curator, artist, designer, public programmer, and marketer all in one. Their first project for the U of L Art Gallery was “The Important Things to Know About Eating and Drinking (In Lethbridge),” Fall 2011, and was part of the Food series. This project centred on surveying people on campus about what would go on a “Lethbridge pizza” and then having the pizza produced and served as part of a major event. Fun and inviting, the project succeeded in engaging with people who did not normally visit the art gallery and sparking conversation about local identity and a range of social and political issues related to food. Their second project, “The Anatomy and Etiquette of Social Change,” is a central component of Complex Social Change and began with a site visit and preliminary conversations with people on campus in March, 2013 and continued with the results presented as “Animals We Can Learn From” in November, 2013. (The final report on this project, created by Lisa Hirmer, is included within this publication and was published in the U of L’s magazine, SAM).

Engage the public in public.” This is a phrase that appears in all their statements and it speaks to the heart of what DodoLab achieves. They do not do performances, in the sense of presenting a fixed, predetermined presentation for a static viewer. They start with conversations – with the staff at the gallery to find out about goals and context and with the public to find out their concerns – and they often end with more conversations. Such an approach fits with their stated goal to create “tangible outcomes”. One of the biggest challenges art galleries face is being seen as irrelevant, nice but not a necessity, and disconnected from people’s lives and routines. When people who have never set foot in the U of L Art Gallery have a worthwhile conversation with people associated with the gallery, and change their opinion to thinking of the gallery as a place that is connected to them, that is a significant success.

If you are not speaking to the people with challenges, then you are not thinking.” One of the single biggest problems with not knowing about your audience is that it limits the imagination of the curator when they create exhibitions. If you spend all your work time with other curators, art collectors, and artists, then you are going to plan exhibitions, write text, and make all your decisions with this limited range of people in mind. It is important to maintain connections with a core of support, but such thinking underestimates their ability to relate to a wider scope of content and approaches. And of course the bigger problem is that it makes the gallery uninviting and unappealing to anyone who does not already fit within this inner circle. It might seem that it is safer and easier to have a narrow notion of audience and to assume that visitors are just like you, the curator, however, a safe and easy approach will not lead to innovative practices and it will not build the broad base of support necessary to advocate for public and private funding.

My favourite example of DodoLab creating something amazing through the process of “speaking to the people with challenges” was The First Annual Tournament of Beasts. Produced in partnership with the youth at the Sudbury Action Centre for Youth (SACY), DodoLab identified the frustration of the young people with the ridiculously strict rules around Sudbury’s downtown Memorial Park. The park was kept empty of people because of city policies banning a substantial list of activities while at the same time, the disenfranchised youth had few places to go instead. Working together, the youth and DodoLab came up with the tournament:

The project featured a croquet competition between a half-dozen animals (raccoon, bear, wolf, rabbit, deer and moose) in response to a sign posted at the park’s entrance what prohibited many things including golfing, cats and dogs. The croquet game was conceived as a catalyst to spark public discussion about the use and control of public spaces, specifically whether limitations and rules or encouraging use would result in more vibrant public spaces.7

The project is brilliant on many levels. It did not just give the young people a voice, it showed them the power of using gentle humour and subtle approaches to point out the absurdity of bureaucracies. The usual response is to become angry and lash out, but that just leads to being labeled as a hooligan and does not empower the person. Graffiti or vandalism do not help to demonstrate to others the validity of young people’s opinions. Giving voice to a marginalized person takes more creativity as well as commitment to true collaboration. The result is something inventive, effective, and appealing to a broad audience: after seeing a bunch of youth dressed as a racoon and a moose playing croquet, it is impossible not to laugh at the City of Sudbury and then recognize that their absurd approach is blocking the ability of a vital public space to develop, not just for marginalized youth, but for everyone in the city.

What is the internal culture? What are the barriers to change?” In starting the project for Complex Social Change, this was a core question the DodoLab team posed. However, if you walk up to people and asked these questions, most would be hard pressed to say anything meaningful. Instead, DodoLab recognizes that you come at the issue gently, sideways, through metaphor and play, and by letting people know that you really do want to hear what they have to say. For this project, they came up with telling the story of the dodo bird – not the stereotype people have heard that the dodo was slow and stupid, but the synopsis of the effect of rapid change on a previously isolated ecosystem. They told the story of a flightless bird, safe on the island of Mauritius, that had no natural predators and thus laid its eggs on the ground. When European sailors arrived, and released pigs and rats onto the island, the dodos and their eggs suddenly became vulnerable and they could not survive the rapid change. DodoLab assumed the best in the audience (that people can understand about changes to ecosystems and that they are interested in this subject) and they made it engaging by creating a mini graphic novel in which the dodo told her tale and the lessons within the allegory provided sparks for discussion and spring boards to launch new ideas.

For the first part of the project, DodoLab spent a week on campus talking about people’s perceptions of things the U of L was doing that could see the university suffer the same fate as the dodo. The timing could not have been better in terms of generating discussion because it happened that the Government of Alberta had just announced the shocking news that instead of a small increase promised to universities across the province, there was a significant cut, effective immediately. Not as shocking as ships loaded with European sailors releasing hungry rats and pigs onto a previously secluded island, but certainly a rapid and negative change to our ecosystem nonetheless. The bad news for the university worked in favour of the project as people were particularly eager to talk and willing to spend significant time in detailed conversation about the things they saw around them every day, what they would change if they could, and what they thought was working well.

The staff at the university were by far the most excited to talk to us. Like the front of house in an art gallery, their work is essential to running the organization yet they do not have a voice in the decisions and planning. We heard great ideas and we heard people say that they felt that they had never been heard before. DodoLab took the stories and ideas we learned and categorized them into 6 eggs that the U of L was laying on the ground – 6 areas where the university was at risk and was failing to respond to change. From there, they researched 6 animals that have adapted to change and from whom the U of L could learn. The story of the poison mimic frog resonated for me as it told a story of an animal who makes the environment richer for the growth of the next generation. My hope for the U of L Art Gallery, and the Complex Social Change project specifically, is that we make the environment around us better for everyone and in doing so, we become a vital hub, a necessity to campus.

People We Can Learn From: activists who stand in the rain
One of the barriers to change within art galleries is that there is systemic indifference to the public despite the obvious fact that the public are the reason that we have art galleries: they are a necessity to us, but we are not living up to our potential to be a necessity to them. I started this essay with a short quote from Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark – “It’s always too soon to go home. And it’s always too soon to calculate effect.” Solnit’s words are clearly an encouragement to activists but perhaps do not seem connected to the issue of valuing the public. However, the quote speaks to my frustrations about measuring success in terms of audiences. With the current requirements for only simplistic numbers and surface attention to the area, there is a refusal to be interested in the small yet profound moments that incrementally build relationships between people and art, between audiences and art galleries. Solnit goes on to tell this story:

I once read an anecdote by someone involved in Women’s Strike for Peace (WSP), the first great antinuclear movement in the United States, the one that did contribute to a major victory: the end, in 1963, of aboveground nuclear testing and so, of the radioactive fallout that was showing up in mother’s milk and baby teeth (and to the fall of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the Homeland Security Department of its day. Positioning themselves as housewives and using humor as their weapon, they made HUAC’s anticommunist interrogations look ridiculous.) The woman from WSP told of how foolish and futile she had felt standing in the rain one morning protesting at the Kennedy White House. Years later she heard Dr. Benjamin Spock – who had become one of the most high-profile activists on the issue – say that the turning point for him was spotting a small group of women standing in the rain, protesting at the White House. If they were so passionately committed, he thought, he should give the issue more consideration himself.8

For now, I am taking the approach that it is essential to think about the art gallery’s audience as an integral part of planning and thereby that I produce events that are engaging whether through topics that people care about, methods used by artists to include space for conversation and dialogue, and/or including a myriad of connected programs. For the future, and the next stage of Complex Social Change, I hope we can dig deeper and shift the assumptions about what art galleries can know about their audience and how this would be measured, valued, and reported. When forced to fill in numbers that I know are irrelevant and useless on a grant report, I feel worse than a peace protestor standing in the rain, but when I don a lab coat bedecked with a DodoLab logo and spend time chatting with people on campus, it gives me hope that such change is possible. It also gives me a wealth of great ideas for future projects and for small changes to make in the installation of exhibitions or the presentation of information connected to them.

I see my work as a Director/Curator of a public gallery as a form of activism, of changing the system from within and making my part of the world a better place. In this way, I hope that the U of L Art Gallery is like the mimic poison frogs that check on the pool that holds their tadpoles and adds nutrients as needed. I think this is greatly preferably to being like the crows that either haven’t even learned to drop nuts on roads so that cars crack them open for them nor like the crows who managed the first step, dropping nuts on the road, but not the second, using cross walks so they can pick up the nuts safely. I also hope that my work could contribute to better ways of measuring success, ways that are connected to what we actually do and to what we should or want to be doing: How well do we learn from observing our audience and the successes of other organizations? How much do we enrich the world for future generations? I might look a little odd when dressing up with DodoLab or seem uncool because I genuinely want to talk to the public at the gallery, but the gallery directors who are not talking to their public, they are laying their eggs on the ground and putting their galleries at risk of extinction.


[1] Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Post-Secondary Grants, Organizational Project Grant, Government of Alberta 1995-2012,, accessed June 4, 2014.

[2] For the sake of brevity, I am only addressing the tip of the assumptions in this superficial and one-sided differentiation. There are also issues such as: what does the term “community member” mean? Or that civic art galleries have a strong connection to, and dependence on, universities for their audience with close ties to Art students and Art faculty

[3] For the purpose of this essay, I am focussing on the norm and the problems, however, there are a minority of art galleries which take their public seriously and are making a concerted effort to integrate public programming with curating and to find more sophisticated ways of understanding their audience.  This difference seems to be creating a divide: the art galleries that are genuinely interested in being public and in their audience and those that are not.  As well, the Canada Council for the Arts has just launched a whole new public engagement strategy, but the depth and complexity of this approach is yet to be seen and nor can one tell how it will affect the visual art sector compared to the performing arts divisions which already have a different set of assumptions and approaches to their audiences.

[4] John Holden, Cultural Value and the Crisis of Legitimacy. (London: Demos, 2006), 10.

[5] Holden, 40.

[6] Lisa Hirmer and Andrew Hunter, “ Dodolab,, accessed June 4, 2014.

[7] Lisa Hirmer and Andrew Hunter,” Dodolab,, accessed June 4, 2014.

[8] Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. (New York: Nation Books, 2004, 2006), 3-4.

Performing and Complex Social Change


An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

At the beginning of our project, the Complex Social Change (CSC) team asked “What is involved with creating participation and engagement in activist actions in the current social climate?” It was clear to us that art was often deeply embedded in successful activist actions. For our performing arts section of the research, we sought to investigate that involvement, specifically how participation in performing arts and performance could contribute to successful activism.

Add art to issue, mix, and presto – a feast of successful activism. But the recipe is not as simple as it may seem. Artists make, well, art. And a great deal of art and performance over at least the past century emerges out of a social context of self-expression, valuing technical proficiency, and commodification. In contrast, social change thrives in a context of community engagement, collaboration, commitment, and critical social analysis.

Some artists make art about changing things.

Some artists go on to talk about the art they made about changing things.

Some exhibit or perform the art that is about changing things.

Some artists engage with people, who are not artists, who want to change things, and then make art together with them.

The art may be provocative, humorous, beautiful, obscure, entertaining. It might inform, outrage, inspire new perspectives, empower viewers to make changes in their own lives, perhaps.

But how, really, seriously, how does art change the things that really need changing?

Making art about change does not inevitably lead to action for change. And research exploring links between actual change and art’s instigation of it is scarce. The question is: what is actually happening when art is recruited for social change? What – or who – changes?

And: So what?

To understand better the choices we made about participatory performance in our social change research, we will tell the story of the evolution of the UpStart Drama/Dance Workshops part of the CSC project. We’ll describe the workshop process and present some of the findings, and explore the nature of this “answer” to our team question.

Creating and Performing art that seeks change
Doolittle’s involvement with the Complex Social Change (CSC) research group began in 2010 with the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery’s (ULAG) cross-disciplinary initiative focusing on Food. Embedding her contribution to the Food Series inside the Department of Theatre Arts, she first offered a course in dance creation with the Food theme. With design colleagues and student performers, she developed material from that class into a performance, Moveable Feast, for the Department of Theatre Arts’ 2011-12 season. We used Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed1 techniques among other participatory theatrical and choreographic processes, along with other research, to create images and scenes. For example, information about the threatened extinction of the common Cavendish banana combined with food distribution politics became a samba dance scene in which unscrupulous politicians and businessmen strip off character Carmen Miranda’s elaborately dress, constructed with over 100 plastic bananas, and leave her violated and naked. Ancillary to the performance, in a partnership with three community food banks, we invited audiences to contribute food or cash when they attended the show. About $500 of cash and donations was raised and about a thousand people saw the show. Moveable Feast was a lively piece of physical theatre that raised social change issues, but had limited off-campus, participatory community engagement. What, if anything, changed?

The biggest changes occurred in the students – who spent so much time experimenting with, and performing, artistic interpretations around food issues. We believe they think and act differently, more thoughtfully, with more awareness of social context and social justice when it comes to all things “food.” Direct participation in creating and performing the art was key to moving from complacency into action. Evoking the slow food movement that has arisen to critique the ubiquitous presence of “fast food”, let’s call this theatre and dance for social change “slow activism.” Watching a show, drinking wine at an opening, listening to a protest song, is a quick activist ‘fix’ that may bust some complacency. However, when people do things with their bodies, or rather, go beyond watching and listening to participate, to make and do expressive things that connect their bodies, their minds and their hearts, they are rehearsing new realities. They are creating bonds with others, connecting their lives to issues that they hope to change. From this, we believe, changes are more likely to be enacted.

Recipe for a nourishing Slow Activism Social change project

Oppressed group/issue
Curious Academic(s)
Money, Space, Time
Publicity/information dissemination/performance/exhibition
Access to and communication with people with power over the oppressed group

First squish out the artist ego and reserve to one side, or discard. Fold artist and issue/oppressed group together, gently, taking plenty of time for the mixture to begin to react. Add academic in small doses if you require evidence-based proof of outcome. Best to squish out that professor-researcher ego and discard it too, making sure differences of class, income and education don’t curdle the mixture. Add funding, space and a lot more time as required. The appropriate use of these volatile ingredients takes some experience, but a rule of thumb is to share them equitably with everyone and give everyone a chance to participate in the cooking. Simmer, stirring, listening, watching and adjusting constantly. This will prevent the mixture from boiling over. When results start to appear (and these will surprise you if you have the recipe right), add the rest of the ingredients and shake things up. Results vary wildly and depend on the quality of the ingredients and the care of the cooks …

Refining the recipe
For Adams and Golbard, U.S. consultants in community arts for the past 30 years, the recipe is called community cultural development, which they define as “a range of initiatives undertaken by artists in collaboration with other community members to express identity, concerns and aspirations through the arts and communications media, while building cultural capacity and contributing to social change.”2 For meaningful and sustainable change, many community-engaged arts practitioners suggest “this work must be set in the context of an ongoing collaboration that synergizes artistic performance, research, teaching, and activism.” (p104) Those are a lot of ingredients.

When performing artists apply their expertise to social change, they can reconnect the deep intrinsic links between concepts of artistic ‘performing’ and social action. Performing arts always involve the live presence of the body. Also, performers and people who create performances must always contend with the social – we need to collaborate with other bodies, other people on so many levels to make any performance happen. Performers and performance creators train to express lived experience in intensified, empathic, perception altering ways. Social change means behavioral change, and behavioral change often comes out of experiences of empathy and altered perception. If these shared experiences connect across cultural, class, racial (etc.) boundaries, the potential for change is even greater. Remove these ingredients of collaboration and synergy, and the power of the arts to cook up real change is diminished.

From talking about art that seeks change, to performing the change we seek
For a Complex Social Change public presentation, Rehearsing Realities, Doolittle applied the “slow activism” and embodiment recipe to the ‘expert professor gives erudite talk’ format. For the talk, she planned to make the point about the activist power of performance and embodiment by having the audience embody something, having the audience do something more than watch and listen, and hoped to connect their bodies and their minds. She used an inciting phrase from Boal’s arsenal “theatre is a weapon,” pinned large sheets of blank newsprint to the wall, and distributed felt markers. Doolittle asked everyone to collectively write down ideas about using theatre as a weapon in social change. Laughter, conversation, friendly argument and movement ensued. The activity, while limited to writing and talking, did animate the subsequent presentation about principles and practices using the volatile theatre weapon.

For Doolittle’s contribution to Dr. Bruce McKay’s Liberal Education activism class, participation replaced presentation. The class moved straight into theatre. Students, in small groups, told personal stories about challenges in student life, then selected one story to animate by sculpting their bodies into images. Finally they sculpted images of how positive change could happen – an embodied method of identifying and analyzing social problems, and imagining solutions – rehearsing new realities. Doolittle also presented, at a downtown community arts centre, an event called Corporations in our Heads, by Vancouver’s Theatre for Living, which was on a massive tour of community venues in Alberta and British Columbia over a two-month period. Master facilitator or ‘joker’ David Diamond led the whole audience in a brief warm-up and explained Boal-based Image Theatre techniques similar to those used with Liberal Education students. The seventy people who made up the audience selected and improvised individual behavioural changes and evoked larger social changes to counteract the coercive omnipresence of corporations in our lives. The desired embodied participation quotient was rising, but the brevity of these experiences, and the limited scope of cross-sector collaboration reduced the potential depth of change they could inspire.

Making art with people who want to change things who are not artists: UpStart workshops for people living with developmental disabilities (PDD)
The UpStart project focused on embodied participation and longer term involvement. It also took place off campus in the City of Lethbridge’s Community Arts Centre. An enthusiastic worker from a local NGO supporting people living with developmental disabilities (PDD), the Lethbridge Association for Community Living (LACL), approached us at a Community University Research Exchange in March 2013. We could sense great potential. The partnership we forged, which now includes the Southern Alberta Individualized Planning Association (SAIPA), and Southern Region Self Advocacy Network (SRSAN), steered us towards the issue of meaningful employment for PDD. We began ten weeks of workshops, recording and transcribing before and after interviews with workshop participants, and focus group meetings with members of the partner organizations.

Here is a description, from a focus group participant, of the social problems faced by PDD that arts activism could potentially address:

Employment currently, in our community, for people with developmental disabilities is rather bleak. There are an awful lot of unnecessary barriers in place. It’s really difficult. There are pockets of wonderful amazing things happening within our community where people with disabilities are able to find meaningful employment. But they are only pockets …It’s hard to find the match of the right employer who shares the right understanding and believes that people with disabilities have just as much to offer their business as people without disabilities. … It just leaves an overall situation that seems rather bleak for a lot of people when they graduate high school … that’s just kind of a dead end, unless you want to deliver flyers. I feel bleak about it because this is my world. This is my community and I feel that my community is failing. (Focus Group participant).

The UpStart workshops research project, we proposed, would investigate the role of embodied, expressive arts-based participation in building self-advocacy towards finding and keeping meaningful employment for PDD and as a practical teaching/learning tool for activism.

In ten weekly workshops, a group consisting of people with developmental disabilities, undergraduate and graduate theatre and sociology students, agency workers and care givers, came together to use theatre and dance to explore the theme of employment. Doolittle called it Drama/Dance 101 – participants learned all the basic elements she would teach in an introductory class in theatre or dance: Body awareness, Movement, Voice, Imagination, Stories, Individual and Group Expression. We shared life stories, we made giant lists of words around themes the stories suggested – Work, Discrimination, Self Advocacy. With Image Theatre we created many scenes of current problems and possible better futures. Here is a description of one image theatre scene:

Story/image theatre scene 1: A person with a disability enters a room. Two people, perpetrators of discrimination, take positions that exclude and shame this victim. In an intervention to positively transform the image – and the outcome, a fourth person enters, stopping the abuse by caring for the victim and, in a further image, getting the perpetrators to shake hands with the victim.

Story image theatre scene 2: This time we see an image of a victim of stigma trying to accomplish a work task. A co-worker is harassing, intimidating. The boss enters to support the co-worker telling the victim to get out – is the victim being fired? In the first intervention, a bystander puts himself between the boss and the victim and then becomes aggressive to the co-worker, taking sides with, and connecting to, the victim. Discussion about whether this is the best way to help ensues. In another intervention the boss, instead of being an aggressor, touches the aggressive worker’s arm and looks questioningly at him. Discussion about what it takes for the boss to change behaviour ensues.

In both of these group image scenes, strikingly, the problem of discrimination was partly solved and represented by a physical connection between bystander/colleague and victim, an embodiment of inclusion through connection and collaboration. Also striking was the high level of emotional investment the scene created in the participants. These experiential elements of emotion and enactment are key ingredients where participatory performing arts can make a difference, where arts-based methods catch aspects of issues that other methods (such as discussion) might miss. One participant described the value of making artistic images with bodies like this:

I really enjoyed image theatre with this group because we have a lot of able bodies and I feel it is a great way for everyone to be able to participate, without having to put an emphasis on text. (student researcher)

Because when you role-play something they can see how to deal with it and can see it physically and that’s, some people learn that way and I think it’s a component that we need to add. (workshop participant)

One student researcher was concerned about exploring traumatic experiences, especially when the results were to be openly shared with the whole group. She also highlighted the need for a balance between process and performance product:

I didn’t know how much intervention to do in terms of my group not understanding the task, and how much to just let it happen, because one of the participant’s stories was quite emotional and shared something that was pretty crazy (physical abuse in a work place), so I didn’t want to down play the emotions that were being expressed but at the same time I wanted to expedite the process so that we could develop a product to show to the rest of the group. (student researcher)

Counteracting the risk of trauma was the sense of trust created:

I’d say number one is trust … First it felt a little weird. … But after that I was like yeah this rocks, let’s go. (workshop participant)

They were accepted, totally accepted, I believe in that space of time with each other. All those (PDD) folks are processing the rest of reality in the world however they process it, but there they were listening to your instructions and you know, it was a trustful place. (parent of workshop participant)

Using our theme word lists, we also made a power-packed self advocacy dance choreographed by one of the student researchers, with movements invented by the participants, to the song “The Eye of the Tiger”. The physical expression of toughness and ‘attitude’ seemed to resonate with everyone in the group as they each interpreted the choreography in their own way, yet also enjoyed dancing together. We all worked hard to mesh our very different worlds. We all had fun. Comments from an agency worker who participated in a workshop session reveal deeper consequences of the work:

To fully participate – and do all the things and challenge even my own preconceived notions and barriers – it was really a fantastic experience to see that group in their abilities and what they (could) do … Some of those people I’ve known for a really long time and I’ve never seen them express themselves to that capacity before. And that was really, really cool. And so, yes I very much believe there is a place for theatre, art, dance in the community to help break those barriers (to employment). (focus group participant)

About a dozen participants and one parent did pre- and post-workshop interviews about their experiences. Additional parents and agency workers held a focus group session around meaningful employment for PDD. We are in the process of doing qualitative analysis of this data and the embodied workshop experiences, but even before this formalized analysis we have observed outcomes that are as uncontainable as youth activists at a G20 protest march, as subversive as occupying a town square. We’ve learned things that are at once heartbreaking and uplifting.

We heard about many part-time jobs, many paid at minimum wage or less, many for very short periods of time. Dishwashing, house cleaning, day care, babysitting, catering service, bagging groceries, ice skating rink marshal, wiping tables at the university food court, recycling at a bottle depot – these did not seem especially meaningful. Yet we came to understand that while the kind of work and pay mattered, the context of work – where most of us invest a great deal of intellectual, social and physical energy – mattered too. People with developmental disabilities, if lucky enough to get a job, are too often denied that self-actualizing and socializing aspect of the workplace. Too often even simple inclusion is unobtainable.

While the stated purposes of the research were to use art for social change methods to investigate building self-advocacy skills, and to enhance community partnerships with families, decision-making agencies and employers serving, and potentially employing, PDD in this community, our participants told us about many unforeseen effects; personal therapeutic benefits coincided with consciousness raising.

I learned new stuff, stuff I wouldn’t have thought that would be connected to self advocacy like all those dances we did and stuff. I didn’t know that was connected at the time. (workshop participant)

It’s a simple thing but a lot of people with disabilities lack confidence and this is definitely a confidence builder for them. (workshop participant)

The workshop actually helped me to handle the amount of stress that I’ll get under. (workshop participant)

We were focused on the process of the workshops, remembering from our Food Series performances how the demands of performance production can work against community involvement. Also, we did not want to overburden participants with stressful and unfamiliar performance demands. But the participants persuaded us to organize a final performance. On the final workshop day, we held a showing in the studio of about fifteen minutes of demonstrations of drama/dance creative exercises and performance ‘work in progress’ to family, friends and agency workers – and over fifty people attended. Sharing our work turned out to be a key element towards creating activism around inclusion. The invited audience’s response was along the lines of “wow, I didn’t know those people could do that,” or “wow, did I ever feel strongly when they performed issues from their own lives.” Again the activism embedded here is the slow type, the changing of minds and hearts through artistic expression:

We’re touching on something really important here. When you see people in a different context. We used to run into that years and years ago when people (with disabilities) were institutionalized. When you would see people in stark, empty environments, monotonous environments, strange behaviour going on in all corners of the ward, you would see no potential. …Great, well where on earth could, were would we go from here? But when you see people in more natural human settings, and diverse settings, that is when you see people in different ways. (agency worker)

In the UpStart project we all grappled with the multiple challenges of making effective social change, maintaining good community partnerships, doing good research, and making good art. Doing arts with people with disabilities is often imagined as some kind of helpful therapy, not ‘real art’, a lower quality activity that ends up instead as a make-work, a time occupier. Speaking to the employability of PDD and against society’s tendency to infantilize the disabled, a focus group participant declared “There are many things in our society that are better than gluing macaroni on cardboard.” Their comment also challenges the paradigm of community-based art creation as simply therapy. All of these misperceptions need to be upended, or UpStarted…

Near the end of the workshops, a student researcher confessed:

I’m worried that we just didn’t have enough time to really go in depth with the theatre though… I mean everyone has done a great job and are getting better and better everyday. They are really honing their skills to express themselves through image and through actions. I feel like now is the time to be digging in to jobs and how to make them a better place for people with disabilities or how to find jobs that suit different individuals needs using theatre to analyze and explore. But we can’t. We have two weeks left and that is not enough time! I really feel like we’ve scratched the surface and its just too bad we couldn’t do more. (student researcher)

As the CSC research grant funding came to an end, we are looking for ways to continue, to build self-advocacy capacity, to sustain the work and continue to support our community partners’ goals. We have begun to bring this work out of the community arts centre into our university and thus into the academic context. For the end of the first phase of the CSC project, all the core members presented together on campus. Doolittle brought the UpStarts to perform and she gave contextual information to the diverse and enthusiastic audience at the University of Lethbridge. As well, Doolittle will be offering a topics class in the Theatre Arts department in making performances with people of mixed abilities in Fall 2014, and will be producing a mixed abilities show in the department’s main season of plays in March 2015. We are accessing our community partners’ expertise, and the services for people with disabilities on campus to enable the UpStarts and other PDD to become students, to become performers in these two settings alongside university students.

So to return to the Complex Social Change team’s question, “What is involved with creating participation…” we answer that participation can be forged using drama and dance to analyze life experiences, creating a performance, using the tools of performing arts to build community, to generate new perspectives, to shift power. Many of us have been transformed in some way by making art with the UpStarts.

This has been an amazing experience. I’ve learned so much everyday and the
bonds I’m building with all these remarkable people who have never given
up. Who everyday give their best. (student researcher)

Perhaps we can begin to perform the change the UpStarts imagined with their art, taking to heart this comment by a focus group participant:

I find it kind of offensive that people are out there making their living talking about welcoming inclusive communities, yet don’t live welcoming, inclusive lives. It doesn’t make any sense. You’re talking the talk but you’re not walking the walk. You’re not including people with disabilities in your own life. What are you doing to encourage (inclusion)?

To address this question, how to move from understanding to action, we moved from a fairly conventional university-based performance creation, through discussion and hands-on experiences on and off campus. Finally we are making moves to keep the community connection alive as we bring the UpStart work back on campus. We offer activist, artist and academic Deborah Barndt’s “recipe” for helping “groups move from collective analysis to collective action to become active participants in shaping a more democratic and just society”3:

Community arts involves a questioning of the status quo and a commitment to social change. More than a purely ideological stance, this commitment must be deeply identified with the aspirations of the community, while recognizing the many contradictions within. On the part of the artist or research facilitator, then, it is not a rigid adherence to some predetermined vision or outcome, but rather a deep commitment to accompany people in a process of exploring their own histories, identities, struggles, and hopes – not knowing where it will lead. Such a commitment is based on respect and humility, an openness to learn and to be transformed in the process. (355)

The final word goes to the UpStarts themselves:

The sky’s the limit, there’s no set way to do things, and I think I’ve always known that but taking this class made me realize that you can accomplish anything you set your mind to regardless of what other people say because it doesn’t matter what other people say; it’s how you feel about yourself. (workshop participant)

All I can say is, the only thing that we can do with this is to go forward. Go forward with a new group of self-advocates or a new group of people and chalk this one up as a success. Chalk it up as a success and go forward. Plan on the next workshop, plan the next one. (workshop participant)

1) Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed, C. A. M.-O. L. McBride., Trans. (New York: Theater Communications Group, 1985).
2) H. N. Wilcox, Embodied Ways of Knowing, Pedagogies, and Social Justice: Inclusive Science and Beyond. NWSA Journal, 21(2), 2009. 104-120.
3) Deborah Barndt, Touching Minds and Hearts: Community Arts as Collaborative Research. In J. G. Knowles, Cole, A. L. (Ed.), Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research; Perspectives, Methodologies, Examples, and Issues. (Thousand Oaks California: Sage Publications, 2008), 351-362.

The Discipline of Design Is A Bridge

An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

The discipline of design is a bridge: it is a series of tools and processes that help people make
connections between ideas, actions, their surroundings, and one another. Because of its
attention to audience, its emphasis on visual tools and articulated processes when working with
groups of stakeholders, its fluency with multi-level information, the practice of design is an
informer for and a driver of complex social change.

The Complex Social Change category design is used to track, analyze, and explore multi-faceted
projects and processes that are relevant across disciplines, but that use tools familiar to
practicing designers. Design’s role in the project helped in parsing the data gathered from each
of the other four components: the course, the exhibitions, the performances, and the mapping,
and meanwhile, provided research material within the discipline of design. More than just
documenting and presenting, the work used multidisciplinary design and organizational tools to
help frame incongruent material into messages that represent accurate expressions of the study
on social change—disruptive, disparate, and interdisciplinary.

The design of the complex social change materials involved a conscious decision to un-use
design’s manipulative power of persuasion and reflexive simplification of messages. Rather, it
trusted the work to represent a gestalt that evolved, and continues to evolve, through observing
the interactions between researchers, projects, and presentation. It worked with, rather than
against, time and space to allow for expansion and mistakes. It specifically challenged the notion
of the visionary leader both in design and in complex change. Instead, it prioritized the random
order of collective thought and trusted the group’s combined output to reveal inclusive

Researchers in the Complex Social Change group allowed unfiltered access to collaborative ideas
and practices from different areas. The attitude of the group — curious, funny, a little bit defiant —
helped to set the stage for not just the structure and voice of the complex social change
distribution materials, but for the design research that came out of the study. Visual cues
including protest signs as blank canvases, layers, and imperfection helped remind that complex
social change is a process, not a finished product.

Design in the complex social change research project mirrors contemporary experimental and
radical practices happening in current design discourse Work by design historian/change
makers including Peter Hall’s progress on failure in design practice and Steven McCarthy’s work
on the expanding discipline of design are cross-referenced by multidisciplinary, socially relevant
practices such as Tim Devin’s community-oriented art practice, Syrus Marcus Ware’s
activist love letters, Dodolab’s qualitative analysis, and Judith Sayers’ big-picture discussion of
Idle No More. These influencers, as well as the many other participants who informed the
Complex Social Change project, are helping to shape design’s contribution to sustainable, fair
steps forward in our society.

This is an ongoing dialogue. Approaches such as crafting a visual voice, listening in order to
create, building with multiple audiences, and developing projects through design process stages
(experimentation and brainstorming, research, visualization, building, feedback and refinement,
and launch) helped to collate the multidisciplinary outputs of the Complex Social Change group.
These examples underscore and illustrate the notion that design processes are not just useful
and applicable in complex social change, but are teachable practices relevant to many

Complex Social Change committed to training students to interact effectively in changing
systems via practice-based learning. Christine Clark played a central role in the development of the website,, as well as the visual and theoretical design approaches of the project as
a whole. Kyle Dodgson developed researcher videos. The students trained the researchers as
well, becoming critical participants in the work of the Complex Social Change group, cross-pollinating
dialogue and approach, and helping to reach new and different audiences.

The project brings together a series of researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds with
a common interest— a fascination with the beautiful, challenging, confusing evolution of our
society. We are all keenly aware of change happening around us, of people who are working
passionately for human rights, for economic change, for equality, their shining examples, their
dismal, head-shaking failures. We want to look at how the expression of social movements are
carried out in our own disciplines, and compare notes. What strategies in dance and art and
liberal studies are commonly effective? How we can share our experiments and observations in
new media and women’s studies with members of our community— for real? The final outcome
of our study is a template for social change that can be applied to any topic. Design contributes
to the dialogue both in helping to parse information from its companion research areas and in
generating new approaches and techniques in its own backyard.

A Geographer in the Gallery: Reflections on Making the Invisible Visible


An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

Challenging exclusions
Is there value in making sexual difference visible? If so, what is the value of this type of visibility?

One goal of this exhibit was to provoke conversation on these very questions. As well, it suggested the stakes of invisibility in a place where propriety and acceptable speech preclude acknowledgment of sexual difference.

The exhibit, and the archive of local lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans* and queer (LGBTQ) oral histories from which the exhibit was produced, counter the omission of LGBTQ stories from the local historical narrative. They challenge an inaccurate telling of the city’s history and a homophobic public discourse that designates LGBTQ people as unmentionable second-class citizens.

After all, documenting histories entails more than “holding a mirror up to the past and reporting on what is reflected back.”1 To document histories, one must reckon with the absences embedded in the existing historical record. In the collective story of Lethbridge, as in the historical record of any place, the absences inscribed in the “common sense” account of the city are not innocent. Rather, they are systematic exclusions that reveal long-held perceptions and attitudes about whose stories matter.

This project takes one set of systematic exclusions as its starting point. The research that formed the basis of “The Value of Making Sexual Difference Visible” exhibit began in the fall of 2010, aiming to record the social geographies of sexual difference in Lethbridge. The LGBTQ oral histories that have been collected comprise a new archive2 that includes narrator transcripts, audio recordings, and ephemera such as images and organizational newsletters. At the conclusion of the research, the archive will be donated to the Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives in Lethbridge, where it will be preserved and made available for public use.

As of this writing, the archive includes stories from 26 people, ages 20-67, who share their experiences of place, community, activism, faith, and so many rich details of their contributions to, and observations about, the growing city. Its very existence disrupts the local historical record, in which local LGBTQ communities and contributions are almost entirely absent.

Indeed, during the four years I lived in Lethbridge, the queer presence in the city was limited in the extreme. It was not the absence of a gay bar or a gay neighbourhood that denoted the limits of queerness. Although these are signs North Americans often look for to prove a gay presence, LGBTQ lives are hardly limited to these contexts.3 Instead, the limits to queer life in Lethbridge were apparent through a combination of myriad elements of daily life, such as the surveillance of non-normative gender performances, which in turn was made possible in part by the dearth of gender performances that disrupted the norm. Queerness also seemed hemmed in by the hyper-visibility of religious discourse and iconography in the urban landscape, from the gendered apparel of Hutterite shoppers to an ever-present Christian billboard on a dominating landmark—a converted water tower—all of which mark Lethbridge as normatively Christian. Two Billboards are in continual roation: one popular account of the water tower4 depicts the incongruous set of billboards, with an advertisement for truck sales on one side, a housing developer on the other, and the crucifixion scene sandwiched in between.

Of course, queerness and Christianity are not mutually exclusive categories, and many in Lethbridge’s LGBTQ communities are also members of faith communities. Despite such links, and in spite of the sizable number of LGBTQ people who call Lethbridge home, city streets and public discourse largely obscure the local LGBTQ presence.

A geographer in the gallery
Geographers are, for the most part, trained to think about data in two ways: as text or numbers. For those who collect numerical data, the accepted wisdom suggests that scholars should represent their data spatially, and most often this means depicting findings in the form of the map. Graphic representation is less common for those whose research materials are primarily text-based. Instead, geographers who read archival documents or conduct interviews are expected to share their findings in print.

The logic of this expectation became clear as I worked to translate the archive of LGBTQ oral histories into a visual display. Compare the measurements of the physical gallery space (two walls that are eight foot in height; the length of one was seven foot and the other was sixteen foot) to the amount of data the project has produced (the twenty-six oral histories alone equal approximately twenty single-spaced pages of text each, or approximately 520 text-filled pages!) This may explain the reaction that one visitor shared with me at the opening reception: she said, “It feels like walking into a book!”

Yet, creating a visual format to share the voices of the narrators became increasingly important as this project developed. Lethbridge is at an important historical juncture. The city’s population is growing and changing. As a signatory member of the Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination (CCMARD), the municipal government has committed to making Lethbridge a “welcoming and inclusive community”. Likewise, Lethbridge is partnering with the provincial government for the Family & Community Support Services program, which prioritizes social inclusion and cohesion as one of three key policy areas. Principles focused on helping all residents foster a sense of belonging are reiterated even in the City’s planning documents.5

At the same time, much work remains. The inclusion of LGBTQ people in these policies and plans is often implicit: at best, LGBTQ experiences are quietly included—a singular, non-specific reference in a forty-page policy document, for instance. At worst, LGBTQ voices are absent altogether; we are covered by a blanket description, diverse populations.

Our stories, our lives, are too important to be lost or concealed within an ambiguous banner of diversity. The exhibit was one effort to push the monolithic use of diversity by highlighting LGBTQ voices and showcasing a more complete range of our experiences. By linking narrators’ stories to maps of Lethbridge, the exhibit asked its audience to reconsider the experience of being in, and moving through, this city: it underlined feelings of safety and fear, it presented myriad methods used to carve out social spaces, and it demonstrated that efforts to create community are as varied as the community itself.

In other words, the exhibit refused the re-silencing of LGBTQ lives and experiences that occurs when LGBTQ people are implicitly included in the banner of diversity. In effect, deploying diversity without an attendant discussion of sexual difference sends yet another message that LGBTQ lives and experiences do not matter. Further, it works to essentialize LGBTQ experience: it disregards the diversity of experiences among LGBTQ people, and ignores the ways that sexuality is produced, performed, and perceived in conjunction with other markers of difference. The experiences of difference and othering are shaped through both individual experiences and systems of power and privilege, which means that for some, being gay is unremarkable, whereas for others, sexual difference shapes every aspect of their daily lives. When LGBTQ voices are silenced, our lives are characterized as marginal, exceptional, and one-dimensional.
Exhibiting the archive

The exhibit emphasized complexity and resisted a narrow representation of LGBTQ experience. It was structured around three themes that have emerged through the oral history collection: Policy Matters, Being & Feeling In Place, and Keeping It “Normal”. Narrators’ voices were showcased within each topic, as well as in the exhibit introduction and overview.

Policy Matters highlighted the significance of laws and policies as they affect experiences of school classrooms, workplaces, homes, and public spaces. They may be a little-noticed sub-text of daily life, but laws and policies include everything from local regulations like school board decisions that dictate “acceptable speech” in K-12 classrooms, to corporate policies that create equal benefits for heterosexual and same-sex partners, to provincial and federal laws. Thus, these rules and regulations shape dominant understandings of, and interactions with, our cities and communities.

The stories featured in this segment of the exhibit focused on high school and post-secondary experiences, on the relevance of, and response to, equal marriage legislation, on the fight for equal rights in the workplace, and on facing down discrimination in sites as diverse as the cafe and the doctor’s office. They underscored the relationship between the need for policies that address homophobic behaviours, and the reality that policies by themselves are never enough. Compare these two narratives, for example:

“I went through a lot of really bad teasing and bullying [in high school]. Fortunately it was never physical, but often verbal– just calling me ‘fag’ or ‘faggot’. I got that all the time. And there were three boys specifically that did it. I don’t really remember their names but I remember that that’s who they were… Luckily, I had fantastic friends in high school, which really saved me in some classes, and certain teachers. If I hadn’t gone to certain classes, it would’ve been like the end for me. If I didn’t have the Language Arts class that I loved because the teacher was great, my art class teacher was fantastic, and also the concert-band I was in. If I wasn’t in those three classes, I would’ve been a dead man. I wouldn’t have even wanted to go to school, or live, let alone school. But those three things literally saved my life, those three classes and those three teachers literally saved my life.”
Narrator: E (pseudonym), 30s6

“Even at what I found to be not a welcoming [Lethbridge high] school, they have stuff—there are posters about coming out…The disservice I see being done is I don’t think any attention was drawn to it and there wasn’t an inclusive language policy. So fine, you slap that poster up there but if you don’t do anything about it– …So it’s good that you’re seeing the posters and the message being there, but if it’s not actually addressed, kids don’t look. They’re not reading them. So if you don’t make it an issue to say like ‘No, you’re not allowed to say that in class’–”

Researcher: Then what point does it have?

“Yes, exactly. There’s no impact. Like to have that poster up at school, maybe would make you feel better as a young gay student, you’re seeing that and you’re thinking ‘Oh, ok.’ But when you get into practice in the classroom, if the other students are still being rude and being disrespectful about that, then I mean, how safe do you really feel?”
Narrator: L (pseudonym), 20s

In the first interview excerpt, the narrator, E, exemplifies the effect of bullying at school. He asserts that three things literally saved his life: friends, certain teachers, and certain classes. The second excerpt suggests that some high schools have taken the threat of homophobic bullying seriously, at least to the extent of developing signage that tacitly supports gay youth. As the narrator notes, however, signage alone is insufficient in its ability to prevent or respond to bullying: other steps like an inclusive language policy and daily classroom interventions are essential. It is also important to remember that LGBTQ students are not the only ones who are targets of homophobic bullying, nor are they alone in the effects of bullying: according to the 2011 Egale report, 58% of straight students surveyed, or roughly 1400 students, “said that they too found it upsetting to hear homophobic comments.”7

Being & Feeling In Place explored how narrators describe their sense of belonging. Often, it is only when confronted with feeling out of place—when our bodies, our presence, or our actions somehow do not fit the norm of the place—that it becomes possible to articulate how it feels to be in place. As geographer Tim Cresswell writes, though, places do not have inherent meaning;8 we are the ones who assign value to places and the actions that occur within them. Public displays of affection, for example, are framed as acceptable or not-acceptable only because we define them as such. What becomes defined as “normal” or in place is then defended through discourse and practice. The threat of being shunned by the community is what narrator R [40s] refers to in this quote: she says, “[The fear that some in Lethbridge have of being known as gay] is about losing your job, it’s about losing your place in society, it’s about losing your sense of belonging. And the opinion of others that allow you to belong.” In R’s words, having a sense of belonging is directly linked to the perceptions of others, who are the gatekeepers of belonging.

Cultivating a sense of belonging happens at multiple scales: it happens within families, within school communities, and within cities. In this excerpt, the narrator, C [50s], talks about how her sense of belonging in her family shifted as a result of her sister’s advocacy. She comments:

“Well, my mom had asked my sister why [she thought] my mom and I weren’t very close. And my sister said, ‘Well, Mom, you have to accept whoever C. brings into the family the same way you’ve accepted my husband, your other daughter’s husband, your sons’ wives. That’s what you have to do to get C. to be close to you again. You have to accept whomever she brings into the family as a full member of the family’. And it helped. Having that little chat with mom helped.”

Recognizing LGBTQ family members sometimes requires a change in practices, as C’s quote suggests. This idea can also be extended to the city. LGBTQ community members are, in essence, part of the city’s family, which means that City government has a role in cultivating a sense of belonging for members of their community. The raising of the Pride flag at City Hall and the participation of City leaders and staff are two affirming practices that are helping some LGBTQ people in Lethbridge to feel a greater sense of being in place. Narrator V (pseudonym), 60s, highlights this point, while also implying that these changes are not without struggle:

“I was a little worried the first year of Pride Fest three years ago when we raised the flag at City Hall, that there might be protests, that there might be weird things happening with that. But people were driving by and honking and, you know, there didn’t seem to be an issue…We are up to three years now. And lots more people from City Hall came out and the police were out and a lot of people from the Aboriginal community are coming out to those events. I think that in City [government], there’s an [effort toward] ‘Let’s make this a more friendly, safer community, and that means accepting everybody.’ Even if it chokes people to say the words, to say ‘lesbian’ out loud.”
Narrator: V (pseudonym), 60s

The shifting norms of place pointed to by the previous narrator take centre stage in the Keeping It “Normal” segment of the exhibit. The norms of place are not static; however, taken-for-granted expectations of what is acceptable in public discourse and public space are firmly entrenched in Lethbridge. Here, the experience and effects of social difference—feeling different, being made to feel outside the norm, observing the treatment of those who are read to be different, our own treatment of those who appear different from ourselves—has not been welcome within public discourse. Moreover, the costs of being pegged as non-heterosexual or at odds with gender norms have been high: legitimate fears of losing homes, jobs, families, and communities have compelled some to hide sexual or gender difference. One upshot of these trends is a strong investment in normalcy; narrators across all age groups emphasized the importance of being understood as normal. Yet there are certain tensions embedded in the reliance on normalcy: what does being normal look like in practice? Who gets to make this claim, and at whose expense? What bargains do we make to be read as normal? If making our differences invisible is a price we pay for the promise of normalcy, how does the invisibility of difference shape the construction of what we come to think of as normal?

This segment of the exhibit brought to the fore this complexity by representing narrators’ voices invoking various notions of normalcy. The fourteen quotes were literally mapped onto the city: together, the quotes take on the shape of Lethbridge.

The following quotes were included in this map of Lethbridge. When read in conversation, these stories delineate how the pursuit of a perceived sameness is valued in certain contexts (for some), while (for others) refusing sameness is an essential antidote to feeling invisible or unaccepted.

“The difference between Lethbridge and Vancouver or Calgary is [that] it’s an agricultural farming central point. So we come together no matter what our background or sexuality because it’s the only game in town. It reminded me of the church out at Enchant where I grew up. They didn’t have enough Catholics or Lutherans or Mormons to make a church, so they said Evangelical Free. We will build one church for the community for all religions to attend. We don’t talk about our differences, we talk about our community and how we are similar.
Narrator: O, 50s

“I’m very polite, so troubling [the norm is] if somebody says, ‘oh my husband and I de-duh de-duh,’ and I go, ‘Yeah, that’s true; [partner’s name] and I find that too’. You know? So I will insert parallel examples. Whatever heteronormativity is happening in terms of description of ‘what I did last night’, or ‘where I am going tomorrow’, or the family, or trouble with kids, or whatever, I insert—deliberately, consciously—I insert my life to make it visible. Because I didn’t for forty years. I just was silent. I passed. I [pause], yeah. I passed. Sometimes I probably still pass.”
Narrator: M (pseudonym), 50s

“You can agree with me or not, it’s just that’s how it is for me. I have never been denied anything because I’m gay because I didn’t make an issue of it. But I won’t walk down the street holding hands with [my partner] either. Well, I can now. I’m old. Seriously (laughs). People don’t put a sexual thing on it, because we are old.”
Narrator: B, 60s

“When we talk to queer people from different towns, it’s like, ‘You’re out in Lethbridge? That must be scary!’ I mean, there’s really no queer community in Lethbridge compared to bigger towns, but I think we’re doing pretty good for where we are in the Bible Belt, you know?…Lethbridge has a Pride celebration, and now it’s a week long and everything… And [we’re] being more out and just trying to integrate ourselves into the general community. I think that’s the only way you’re going to gain acceptance, is by saying, ‘I’m not going to be okay with not being accepted.’ You have to put it out there, and I think sometimes people will surprise you. Like, I was surprised by my eighty-two year old grandma. So you can be surprised by people who you assume aren’t going to accept you, but if you don’t give them the chance, of course they can’t accept you. You just have to put yourself out there and hope for the best sometimes.”
Narrator: J, 20s

“Quite frankly I am a person, that’s what I am. If you need a term to define because it makes it easier for yourself, ok. But I’m going to define myself as a human being, but my sexual preference, my god, that’s such a small part of who I am. And it seems like yes, I can certainly define myself as a lesbian, but I can also define myself as…a musician, a teacher, a gardener, you know? I guess it all depends on, like I say, who it is and how anal they are about being able to fit things in little boxes.”
Narrator: H, 40s

These quotes denote the complexity inherent to questions of the visibility of sexual difference, where normalcy is navigated in and through visibility. By itself, though, visibility does not produce social change. Rather, visibility must be understood as a symbolic marker within a larger framework that accounts for creating spaces of belonging across social difference.

Hopefully, the exhibit contributed to this framework, serving as an intervention into a local conversation about the value of making sexual difference visible. Its attention to stories and context that may seem too local or too specific to be representative—spaces on the side of the road9—nonetheless offer critical evidence of the uneven pace of social change. Yet, there are many important stories from the research that were not on display in the exhibit, and there are many memories that have not yet been recorded. Equally as significant as the materials displayed on the gallery walls, then, are the stories that have yet to be told. Some of these, perhaps, will emerge out of conversations sparked by the exhibit.

The impact of the exhibit
For universities today, research impact is a key concern: there is heightened scrutiny about (certain) research outputs and dissemination, and a greater emphasis on making research outputs accessible to communities beyond the university. Yet this formulation of impact is problematic in that the hierarchy of research dissemination remains unchanged: conversations among scholars, or scholarly publications, retain primacy while community engagement is prioritized as a distant second. More work must be done to alter the value of community engagement and the focus on research dissemination that centrally involves being in conversation with communities outside the university.
Creative, community-based dissemination like the exhibit is at the core of re-formulating research impact. In fact, this archive will be a community resource and, in the best case scenario, a tool for community building. Thus, the stories should be shared in a way that will make a difference to the narrators’ lives. The exhibit made this effort by giving LGBTQ voices and experiences space and visibility not often afforded in the Lethbridge region. Additionally, it allowed narrators who have contributed to the project thus far to get a sense for how their stories and their experiences of queer place-making compare to others’ stories and experiences.

Indeed, while creating an archive may constitute a significant impact, it is only in making use of the archive that its full value is discernible: assembling the materials in multiple forms and in ways that become available to both narrators and a wider set of audiences. The exhibit accomplished this by showcasing excerpts of every one of the narratives collected to date, and by transforming the oral histories—what might be otherwise understood as dry social science data or, worse yet, dusty historical materials—into a living, breathing display of intimate, daily experiences.

The fact is that most of the narrators who have contributed to the archive won’t be interested in reading a scholarly research monograph, even if it is priced and written to be accessible to a more-than-scholarly audience. Moreover, the LGBTQ community in Lethbridge has much in common with queer communities in other cities: what may appear to be one LGBTQ community in Lethbridge is in fact many communities, divided by the usual factors (e.g., generation, class, race) as well as some additional features (like one’s status as a local or transplant to southern Alberta). As a result, while stories of queer place-making and comfort and safety are certainly shared among friends, the opportunities for dialogue among LGBTQ folks in Lethbridge are limited. Seen in these terms, the exhibit offered a new entry point for narrators (and allies) to consider the opportunities and challenges of queer place-making in and around Lethbridge.

Taken together, these elements demonstrate that creative dissemination is fundamental to generating research dissemination that is meaningful, including to the communities engaged in the research. The exhibit’s capacity for impact was significant if (mostly) intangible. As it temporarily performed the archive, the exhibit created a social space of queer oral history, which celebrated the diversity of LGBTQ experiences and educated its audiences about the role of (real and perceived) social difference in our laws, policies, school spaces, work spaces, and daily interactions. Such spaces are infused with possibility according to anthropologists Horacio Roque Ramírez and Nan Alamilla Boyd, who argue that “something transformative seems to occur as new knowledge is produced”10 in the social space of queer oral history. It remains to be seen what new knowledge is produced from displaying queer oral histories in the space of the gallery. Whatever emerges must reckon with the high stakes involved in disseminating the stories of LGBTQ lives, as the following narrator intimates:

“Queer history is specific as I understand it. I’m always taken aback by the propensity to erase that history for the sake of universality, and I’m really not into that. I think it’s important for people, even if they’ve never been to NYC, to understand what Stonewall was, or what early Pride Parades looked like, or what dyke marches were about in Toronto or Montreal…and all those things added up to this outness that we can explore today…It didn’t just come out of nowhere. And we have to be responsible for sharing that history, because if we aren’t, then there will be lots of other people who will say our cultural experience is something else, and it won’t be as generous or accurate. I think there is some urgency to getting our heads around that.”
Narrator: D, 30s

The very act of making sexual difference visible through the exhibit disrupted the entrenched norms and taken-for-granted truths about Lethbridge. The exhibit refused the systematic exclusions that conceal stories about LGBTQ lives and experiences in Lethbridge and region, and created an opening for LGBTQ voices to be acknowledged and valued for, not despite, their differences. The research as a whole shows that the invisibility of LGBTQ stories has dramatic effects for individuals, their communities, and the Lethbridge region, whether those costs are to individual mental and physical health, or to the expenses associated with the city’s inability to retain local graduates and a talented labour force. Seen in these terms, the value for making sexual difference visible in Lethbridge is indeed quantifiable, and more interventions like the exhibit are essential to reshape the existing public discourse.

1) Leonie Sandercock, Introduction to Making the Invisible Visible: A Multicultural Planning History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 6.
2) Narrators are not included in the archive without their consent. They must elect to participate in the archive at the time of, or subsequent to, their oral history interview. Narrators may participate in the research project without participating in the archive.
3) See, for instance, Podmore, Julie, “Gone ‘underground’? Lesbian visibility and the consolidation of queer space in Montréal,” Social and Cultural Geography 7 (2006): 595-625 and Lewis, Nathaniel, “Moving ‘out’, Moving on: Gay men’s migrations through the life course,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers (2014).
4) Image from The text of the Christian billboard is reproduced in this column.
5) For instance, see the City of Lethbridge Integrated Community Sustainability Plan/ Municipal Development Plan.
6) On identifying narrators: In this research, narrators decide whether to be identifiable: many have chosen to allow their oral history to be public and others have opted to make their oral history transcript available with the use of a pseudonym. In all cases, the oral history interview—typically between two and four hours in length—is transcribed, reviewed, edited, and returned to the narrator for their approval. The approved copy is then annotated and indexed in preparation for its submission to the Sir Alexander Galt Museum & Archives in Lethbridge, which will take place in 2014. Because narrators are at different stages of the transcript-approval process, and even those who agreed to make their oral history public need to approve their story before identifiable quotes become publicly available, I used limited identifiers in order to maintain a consistent format for the quotes. For the purpose of this exhibit, narrators are identified by the initial of their first or last name and the age bracket they were in at the time of their interview. Pseudonyms are noted when used.
7) Taylor, Catherine, et al. Every class in every school: The first national climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. Final report. (Toronto: Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2011), 10.
8) Tim Cresswell, In Place/Out of Place: Geography, Ideology, and Transgression. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996) pg#.
9) Kathleen Stewart, A Space on the Side of the Road: Cultural Poetics in an “Other” America. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996) pg#.
10) Roque Ramírez, Horacio N., and Nan Alamilla Boyd, eds. Introduction to Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 2.

Funding support for this project has come from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, the University of Lethbridge Research Fund, and the University of Lethbridge Internal SSHRC Grant. Thanks to the project’s Community Advisory Board for input on making data visible, to Chris Clark for design expertise, and to the many research assistants who have participated in research process. Most of all, THANK YOU to all of the narrators who have shared their stories. I am privileged to work with you to bring this archive into being.

Liberal Education and Complex Social Change

An excerpt from the publication: Complex Social Change (2014)

When research, learning, and teaching are stirred together with students in the pot of a classroom, wonderful things can happen. This was the case in the Fall semester of 2013 in the Liberal Education course I coordinated on the topic of activism.

The first ingredient was a hallway conversation with Josephine Mills, Director of the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery. Every Fall term the Liberal Education program in the faculty of Arts and Science offers a seminar on a topic that is broadly interdisciplinary (including elements of science, social science, humanities and fine arts), relatively “hot” or newsworthy, and of interest to concerned citizens in civil society (what we would like our students to become). The Art Gallery and Liberal Education had successfully worked together on a previous occasion around the topic of food in a parallel examination in both the classroom and the gallery. Josie asked what topic I might be thinking about for the future. I offered that I had been thinking about activism as one possibility. This idea clearly resonated with her and by the time we went our separate ways, we had a number of ideas from a fruitful brainstorming session. One thing led to another and another and another. The richness of the stew that resulted was very satisfying.

Liberal education aims to find a balance between, on the one hand, educating young people to be able to participate individually and collectively in the social, economic, and political milieu of their place and time (which students often reduce to: “I want a post-secondary education so I can get a good job”) while, at the same time, educating them to think and act freely, critically, and effectively to change the social, economic, and political milieu of their place and time (which might reduce to: “I want to be an activist and to make a difference”).

This particular class was populated with an interesting mix of students, some wanting to strengthen and expand on their already impressive activist experience, others wanting to understand and learn how to participate in anarchistic expressions of activism, still others prepared to critique and resist extremist activism, and all aiming to satisfy degree requirements of one kind or another. My own aim was to facilitate their development in the four pillars of liberal education: breadth or interdisciplinarity (by having a variety of guests speak to the class from a range of disciplinary perspectives on activism), critical thinking (by requiring structured student facilitated questioning and discussion round-table sessions after each guest visit), integration of a range of views (by requiring them to produce a synthetic paper on an activist issue of their own choice), and civic engagement (by requiring each student to participate at some level in some kind of action). Rather than follow an established recipe for educating activists, I kept stirring the pot, adding ingredients, and simmering the whole thing with the intent that students would take from the mix learning that was interesting, meaningful, and useful for them.

Was it a successful stew? Yes, as much as any one-pot meal can be so. There were a few students who felt they didn’t get as much out of the course as they would have liked; they reported they didn’t really learn anything that they didn’t already know. A few others felt that the course didn’t go deep enough with some of the topics, like the Idle No More movement for example.

However, most students in the course reported that they did develop a more nuanced understanding of activism and a greater appreciation for the different flavours that activist work comes in. Initially many felt activism only involved violence, destructive riots and police brutality. However, after hearing from a range of guests working in such areas as anti-oppressive social work, environmental and disability rights, gender equity, and international development, they came to see that social change could also be created by effective action within existing social organizations and social structures.

The biggest challenge, in fact, was to encourage the students to develop a taste for actual action. Most began the course describing themselves as participants (activists) in a number of on-line campaigns for a variety of causes. But when I insisted that they physically take part in some kind of an event or a meeting about an issue where they would need to meet and engage with other people, many struggled. They struggled to find time and energy. They struggled to find a cause with which they connected, and they struggled to commit.

Many of the students also felt that activism had to be big in order to be effective. They felt they wouldn’t be making a difference if they weren’t involved in something huge, well known and already successful in making change. Many were doubtful that any small activity they did could do anything to make change.

By the end most students reported some change in their views. Most reported that they could see how even small actions could contribute to larger change. However, as students, their lives were busy and full, their means to contribute somewhat limited, and their commitment to any particular cause restricted by the demands of their other courses and, for many, the necessity for employment. However, my hope is that, after having a taste of activist work, and when their situation allows, they will be willing and able to join with others to work with greater intensity and focus.

The richest part of this course for me was the mixing of research with teaching and learning. Colleagues from the Complex Social Change project were able to provide fresh insights from their own work when they visited the class. One class had a panel discussion which enabled the students to be included in the sharing of research amongst the members of our team and to be part of the dissemination of our work to a wider audience. In another class, Lisa Doolittle’s workshop got them up out of their seats and experientially embodying what change might look and feel like. The Theatre for Living presentation of “Corporations in our Heads” provided an opportunity for students to savour experimental theatre at the community arts centre, CASA, quite different from the test-kitchen of our classroom. Plus, the simultaneous University Art Gallery exhibition “Acting Out,” featuring the work of Wendy Coburn, General Idea, and Tiffany Muller Myrdahl, provided a broader context and gave students a chance to connect with more critically playful engagements with complex social change.

In summary, it was certainly rewarding to be stirring the pot in this classroom. The lively discussions, thoughtful presentations, and rich reflections provided by the students showed that they too found the experience satisfying. I’ll be back for more, certainly, the next time activism is on the menu.