Broken City Lab co-founder and senior research fellow Justin Langlois is currently an Assistant Professor at the University of Windsor and will join the faculty at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in the fall to teach social practice.
Zachary Gough is an MFA candidate in Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice program.
The following is a transcription of a conversation between them about Justin’s work in preparation for his visit to Portland to participate in the Portland State University Art and Social Practice Wednesday Afternoon Conversation Series (PASPWACS).
ZG: What projects in particular do you want us to be familiar with before you come on February 6th?
JL: I would really like to talk about Civic Space, even though I think in some ways it’s one of the harder projects to know because the documentation of what we’ve been doing there is kind of dispersed. I would definitely like to talk about that. How to Forget the Border might also be interesting to talk about - it’s also so much a set of ideas and proposals - I don’t know how grounded that conversation might be. I think something like the Storefront Residencies for Social Innovation we did back in 2010 would be good to talk through. There’s a lot of projects that I’m open to discussing. On the one hand, I think I probably have more to say on the Windsor based projects, while on the other hand I think projects out-of-town are a little more problematized. So, if there’s an interest in exploring that, I can talk through that as well.
ZG: As an introduction: What has been your path to coming to make socially engaged art? What’s your background?
JL: That’s a good question. You know, the older I get, the further back I trace where the interests come from. I’ll say that it started in highschool when I ran a monthly alternative paper. I lived in a small town of like 5,000 people.
ZG: What town was this?
JL: Kingsville, Ontario. I was doing an internship at the local paper and they basically let me work in their offices after hours on this alternative paper. I could use their computers to do layout and I could print on their presses. I got together a bunch of friends to contribute and write this thing, and I really liked organizing it - creating that dialogue. It wasn’t the entire community, but it was a subset of a subset of the community in on that dialogue. I enjoyed the discourse and that collaboration. Then, I thought I was going to go to school for journalism and applied to go to Toronto [University], but decided against going, and instead I went into a drama and community program at Windsor[University] that I didn’t stay in either. So, I went into filmmaking. The connection between all of these things was really about working with other people and to various ranges, being involved in the community I guess. As I finished my undergrad in communications and media, I started working as an intern for an organization called the Green Corridor, which was focused on artist led interdisciplinary practices about urban ecology and how we should be designing infrastructures that are a little bit more responsive to the community. This was all based in Windsor. That fall I got into my MFA program, a studio program, and I was kind of really bored of doing studio work alone and going through these studio visits that seemed to detached. When I was working with the Green Corridor, I spent another summer going to a bunch of meetings with business owners, community stake-holders, press and the university and doing a lot of design work. Then a lot of speculating for a range of futures around the city. I realized that this is an art practice too - to go to meetings and to talk to people in that way, you can be an artist and work like that. So, the second year in my program I kind of switched gears and actually with the help of my partner, Danielle Sabelli, we started Broken City Lab and it became my thesis project. Things just made a lot more sense, if felt a lot more natural to be working with other people. Doing something in an art school that could be conveniently framed as art, but didn’t have to exist only in that space. You know it doesn’t really matter to me if it was [art] or not, because it worked. I just realized, like I was saying, that the further back I looked, the more lines I see about being interested in working with other people - working towards some kind of common direction, as a way of being in the world.
ZG: On your website you are ‘Senior Research Fellow’, how do you juggle collaboration? Or better how do you see your role with Broken City Lab?
JL: Early on those ideas of hierarchy or whatever were a way to exert a manufactured authority for the group. I think it was easier when we first started to send email to people at the city or contacts we needed to make as a Senior Research Fellow rather than a representative from a student group. That being said, the collaborative element of Broken City Lab, I want to say, it’s complicated, but it might actually be a lot more straightforward than other collaborative structures, because the ability of all members to commit can really range from project to project. So, maybe it’s straightforward in that it reflects the way we are all always doing more than one thing, and we figure out how to make that work. There are people who were involved early on who have since moved on to do other things on a more full-time basis, but are still involved at the edges. I think right now there’s a handful of us that are able to work on any given project on the table right now. That being said, I think the collaborative relationships that this smaller group has been able to establish are possibly a lot richer, because they’re more constant. I guess I feel like the work is a bit more fully shared now. Which is really great. I saw Broken City Lab as an interesting vehicle through which to explore process, but also what could we get done as a collective entity. Now, I think we’re doing it because the people around the table still find it interesting. In my role, I still make a lot of decisions but the decisions are less hinged on just my activity at the end of the day and a bit more shared.
ZG: Do projects happen at Broken City Lab without your involvement at all?
JL: Not really. I think part of it is that everyone I’ve worked with is/was, most of the graduate students I worked with. So, everyone else has been trying to juggle being a full-time undergraduate student with five classes and a job. And I think I was just always the one with the most time and...
JL: Yeah, I think so. I guess the funny thing is that I’m okay with how [Broken City Lab] works most of the time. Obviously it can be frustrating as I sometimes want to see where things could go if there could be more constant investment across the board at all times, but I’m also a realist, I understand people have other priorities in their lives. I also think there are a lot of different forms collaborative structures can take. Sometimes, I feel a little bit of uncertainty about what it means to have a collaborative that’s contingent on my participation. I’m okay with that, but sometimes I wonder - ‘Should I feel guilty about that?’, Should I feel guilty about the structures I’m leaving behind me?’ When I go to Vancouver [in the Fall 2013], I don’t know what Broken City Lab is going to look like after Civic Space wraps up. Maybe no one will be left, and maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’ll become a distributive thing or maybe it’ll just dissolve, but I’m not sure it will continue on, in its current form, without my participation.
ZG: Which brings up the question of collaborative authorship. I think many social practice artists like to deny pure authorship, but your case as an example, without you, it not existing, maybe that’s a case for more conventional authorship.
JL: I guess I trust that each of us take out of that authorship what each of us need. It may just be personalities -- I know that I enjoy leading and rallying people around an effort and I think those personalities and roles manifest in a way that’s constrained by the frame of a conventional structure that we’re used to reading, for better or worse. I really don’t think that those things would have happened had we all not been around the table together over time, regardless of whether I felt that there was a bit more responsibility on my end at any given time or not. I also think there’s a lot of convenient and inconvenient parts of having that authorship or shared authorship that isn’t tied just to me, which informs the practice. To have other members pulling and adding stuff to their CV now, regardless of the time they have spent or are currently spending on projects, is fine by me. I also find it interesting to look at how that actually plays out. I know there’s a lot of things that I got to do because of working in Broken City Lab, but I’m also curious what sort of things will open up for other people.
ZG: You mentioned Civic Space and how you want to talk about that in our conversation. Can you talk now about that decision to get a physical space and how that’s affected the work that Broken City Lab is making?
JL: Yeah I can touch on that a bit. It’s actually the structures that had to be created and the decision to take those structures on, that I’m interested in thinking through if we discuss Civic Space. We had to make a decision to become a not-for-profit organization to get the grant to do that and there was an interesting moment where we were trying to figure out if that was the right decision. I guess it kind of came up like this: we were approached and it was suggested that it might be a good idea to apply for some funding for a longer term project. We had played with the idea of getting space a number of times before, but we didn’t quite know what we would do with it for a longer term basis. We were ok with continuing to meet in my living room, even if it wasn’t an ideal work space, but maybe this [opportunity] could be a good moment to think about how to dig in a little bit deeper back into Windsor. Maybe naively, the thought to get a space was really driven out of wanting to do more things on an ongoing basis rather than saving up for these larger projects. Now it’s managing whatever that space is on a day-to-day basis, which results in a different type of practice evolving. It’s been good because there are things that we’re doing in Civic Space, in terms of programming, that will exist after Broken City Lab stops being as active in the city.
ZG: I was looking at your website today and I came across the conference Homework that Broken City Lab had put together, that I hadn’t heard about before. Homework: Infrastructures and Collaboration in Social Practices was a four-day residency and a two-day conference. What were some of the conclusions or questions that came out of that conference? and on the website there’s talk of a second conference is that going to happen?
JL: So the second conference will happen in one form or another, it’s just going to depend on what level of support we’re able to get. We could put together a conference with the funding we received from the Ontario Trillium Foundation, but we’ve also gone and asked for a little bit more money to bring different key-notes and be able to complete some of the later stage projects we wanted to be able to do through that. So it’ll happen next Spring 2013, I guess, and it would hopefully produce some kind of writing out of it that we could get into the world a bit sooner. Admittedly, it’s funny, Homework came and went so fast, and I don’t think I had much of an opportunity to reflect on it as much as I’d hoped to. One of my favorite parts though, was on the last day of the conference was this open, big round-table discussion where we invited Greg (Sholette) and Salem (Collo-Julin) and Marisa (Jahn) to each run an hour a half session. I think in some ways it’s not all that different from the format you’ve proposed here, where they would each initiate that hour and a half discussion with a thought, with a question, and it would open up from there in a little passing back and forth. I guess if I could try to distill what I took away from it, if I could summarize it in a neat way, it would be that there’s a lot of younger and emerging artists that are interested in the ways in which collaboration, socially engaged work, and artist-created infrastructures overlapping. And I think questions were very similar to what comes up all over the place, ethical concerns, questions of what we’re trying to do over a long term, if there is any thought to a longer term, what we’re building. I really enjoyed seeing the number of younger people coming to Windsor of all places to have these conversations. That in and of itself was really great. I think going forward, I’m interested in trying to look at an overlay of the ways in which the arc of artist-run culture in Canada of the late 60s and 70s is paralleling some of the things that are happening now. And thinking about how that established artist-run culture exists today and the good and bad things that that has created. And asking ourselves, are we going to re-do that or is there something else we want to be aiming for. And I think to me those are some of the questions I’d like to pick up in the second round of Homework.
ZG: Artist-run culture is really a Canadian culture, and something that I’ve had to adapt coming here to Portland, and making art at all, particularly socially engaged art, has a different taste, a different feel because there’s no Canada Council for the Arts. And being introduced to the art world in Canada knowing that that is there, and that there are things like the Trillium Foundation. There’s provincial, municipal, regional and federal funding for arts in Canada that is not here. So my next question then is, there’s a lot of excitement around social practice here in the US, especially on the west coast, but I’m wondering how you see social practice developing in Canada, and in particular with regards to How to Forget About the Border Completely, how does your work act in relationship to the United States?
JL: That’s kind of a funny question only insofar as I think How to Forget About the Border Completely was so concentrated on the relationship between Windsor and Detroit and in some ways trying to imagine the ways in which the two cities could have, should or one day will amalgamate and become this one mega failing city. I think in another way it’s also, I mean a lot of the work is so personally connected in a way that I don’t think How to Forget About the Border Completely tried to assert itself as a response for everybody. Or maybe it did but it really came out of crossing the border when we were kids and our parents locking the car doors and just driving out of town to the freeway to get to someplace outside of Detroit, and I think that’s on both sides of the border. It was like how could you reframe the relationship more at a neighbourhood level? And some of the more entertaining things that we did, that we had fun with was thinking about all these smaller pedestrian scale crossings or doing things like trying to imagine some of the ways the Canada Border Services might change their practices. But to address the first part of your question, I think that the work we do is absolutely informed by that history of artist-run culture because the funding models that we’re now able to apply to came out of that. And, there are some really exciting things emerging in Canada, also on the west coast, at Emily Carr where I’ll be teaching in the fall, that focuses on social practice and community engagement as running in parallel to a lot of their other programs. At the same time, when I go over to the US the things that I find interesting are that there’s more alignment with community development corporations or small social entrepreneurship startups that recognize something in [socially engaged artists’]work that they like more than other artists connecting with us. And so - maybe I haven’t been out to the west coast enough - but I think that that’s an interesting over-lay in the way in which the entrepreneurialism of the US kind of points to certain things that might be interesting or viable that have a much different look [in Canada]. Overall, the most interesting part for me of what’s come out of a project like Civic Space is an understanding that the Ontario Trillium Foundation funded a space that was not necessarily closely aligned with what they’ve normally funded in the past. And so, while I’m sure that there’s numerous other projects all over Ontario that have been funded under a similar model, from here on out, there’s a new line, at least regionally. Now this [type of project] is a fundable project, an artist run space that’s focused on thinking about how creative people might be able to act as leaders in a community is now fundable by a provincial foundation. There’s a lot of questions around change that come up, especially in thinking about the work that is focused on Windsor that we’re doing. “What are you guys changing? How did you know if it was a success or not?,” and all of those things point to an immediate and really legible model of not-for-profit activity that obviously works in certain situations. And for me, we’re not changing anything on the ground as we do these things, but by deciding to be a non-profit, by deciding to try to go through these funding channels, by deciding to make certain partnerships with the city for different projects, those create different precedents that will hopefully change a longer term view of what’s legible activity, what’s artistic activity in the region.
ZG: Awesome. I want to ask you about your project Reflect On Here that you did at Kitchener City Hall with CAFKA 2011, mostly because that’s my hometown, that’s where I grew up, and I grew up a five minute walk from City Hall. I remember when they built the new City Hall and I personally have been chasing art all over the place to the east coast of Canada to Halifax, and now farthest away on the west coast in a whole other country in Portland, Oregon. And for me to see a really exciting project that you did in the neighbourhood I grew up in, socially engaged art, it really makes me question the way I’ve been living my entire life, of seeking out something elsewhere, and I think that’s a really important part of your work at Broken City Lab has been investing in Windsor and I wonder if you can remember when you decided that that’s something you wanted to do in Windsor and why not in Montreal, or Toronto, or Vancouver, or New York?
JL: Well, Windsor was the right timing. It was 2008 and there was just this sensibility in the city that things were kind of dire, not as dire as things in Detroit, but things just really felt like there’s not a way forward that’s being articulated. There was just this sense of pause, the city was paused in that moment, and there didn’t seem like there was a way that it was going to move forward. So, [by] just being so immediately available to do the things that we wanted to do in Broken City Lab - to translate small scale but also larger scale projects into something viable over a span of a couple of weeks, I don’t know if I thought if this was possible in other places. It was really exciting, the scale of Windsor and the sense of wanting to do something because it seems irresponsible to not have some kind of response. It seemed like the right mix of conditions and since then, the greatest part has been that we were able to meet with people we probably would have never met in another city, whether that’s somebody on city council or whether that’s the cultural affairs officer - people who have some authority to act on changes proposed as an after effect of digging in here was really rewarding. I feel we were able to go to meetings that we probably wouldn’t be invited to in other places and actually talk through ideas in an interesting way. But early on it felt like there was really not a reason not to respond to what was happening here, it felt really urgent, I guess. And it was so naive, right! I’m saying that it felt really necessary to respond and then the response is to make an art collective and make little critiques of the way the city’s infrastructure was reacting or not. If anything, the idea of Broken City Lab shifted from a way to articulate a critique of the city’s lack of action or specific actions to a real interest in ways to make - like Broken City Lab is maybe really Broken Citizenship Lab. How do you begin to example or offer these moments where people can feel engaged in a place that hasn’t really asked for their engagement, that nothing about the design of it suggests that you’re supposed to feel engaged, and that’s what become the most interesting thing. What does it mean to try and forefront creative activity when you’re thinking about the direction of a city and not in a creative economy way, but in really creatively responding to the place you’re in and allowing that to be more of a baseline rather than a reaction.
ZG: This one has been coming up a lot, in relation to people talking to me about my own work. How do you gauge success in your projects, in terms of what you said before Broken Citizenship Lab, is it the interactions with new publics there in Windsor that makes your projects successful, or is it more like concrete change which is mentioned in your mission statement? How do you measure success?
JL: The idea of success is the weirdest thing. I feel that it’s important to be doing something and not just being passively in a place. I think whatever you decide to do it’s important to be able to act on that rather than reacting or choosing to just pick up your toys and leave. Success, though, suggests that there’s a point at which you are not successful. And that that activity, no matter how important it might be to you, could actually not be relevant by virtue of trying to measure it against people who tried to do it before you. So, here’s what I think: of course it’s a great thing when more people show up than less people. And it’s a really cool thing and it has been a great experience at Civic Space to be able to do projects where I hardly see anybody I know coming out to things like the Letter Library. There’s a kind of accessibility to these projects that allow people to enter it but also to experience some of the things we were hoping to develop in the project. Which is the ability to demarcate something on the city in front of you. So, I guess I would say that I don’t think there’s a lot of things I would describe as ‘that wasn’t successful’, I think that, and maybe it’s overly personal, but I’m still entertained by the things that I decide to do on a daily basis that are attached to Broken City Lab. I think that’s the only measure that I’m really concerned about. And when it’s no longer challenging or engaging it’ll just mean that it’s time to do something else, not that it wasn’t successful. When we look at not-for-profit funding or expectations, I think it’s a huge freedom to be able to enter into certain conversations as an artist, and not have the same type of responsibilities as a social services organization has, and that’s not to say that there’s no responsability, but I think that our responsibility is to engage critically and creatively with the thing in front of you. If that thing is a discussion about how you keep young people in the city, or about where is the school going, or if it’s about why are we building this mega pool in the downtown when there’s all these community pools closing, I think that there’s a lot of people who are trained to provide certain answers for that and being able to be an artist in that situation just helps to reframe the conversation that’s being had. Not that everyone has to be convinced, but it would be a wasted opportunity to keep entering the problem in the same way.
ZG: Do paradoxes or loopholes play into your work, or do you seek out loopholes in some way?
JL: I think there’s a connection there insofar as the structure of BCL itself is a way to get around things, and I think earlier on it was like the idea of being a lab and being self-connecting to the University a bit, and trying to figure out ways to step on the other side of what’s a legitimate activity in the context of an art school or in the context of trying to encourage participation. I think that the forms and the decisions that we’ve made as a collective and the funding we’ve gone after, and the longer term projects we’ve gone after, are really about trying to tease apart and trying to find loopholes to operate in and out of. More and more though, I think there’s been so much capitalization about loopholes as a way to act and move through the world. It almost feels like, I don’t know what isn’t a loophole. Every decision we make is trying to get around an obstacle, and at what point isn’t that a loophole? Maybe I’m simplifying what a loophole is, and the more I say it, the funnier it sounds. I think it’s kind of a strange thing. If the world you’re encountering is kind of a series of varying complex problems to work through or work around, I think it’s very hard to solve things. I think it’s about maintaining the right distance from the problem at hand. [...]
ZG: I almost wonder if these sort of structures, or social practice at all is an adaptive model of working in the world. Almost in Darwinian evolutionary terms, because it works, it keeps going. One of it’s criticisms is being vague, you know social practice as a term, but that also allows it to shape shift a little bit and fit through these holes. You can spin it in different ways as you need to. I think the way this section of the journal section is taking shape is, well it was supposed to be theoretical, even in duchampian terms if anything can be art, then that’s the biggest loophole of all. But it’s becoming more logistical in terms of getting shit done.
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