Home is Where the Walls Speak in Familiar Ways is a project in which I inquired about home, its making and its undoing with residents and workers in the Feldman Foster Home.
The following text is based on (and has been modified from) the transcription of CBC Radio One’s program 5 à 6 hosted by Patty Schmidt aired on June 18, 2005.
PS: If you drive in the city you are no doubt familiar with the long ditch or artery (depending on your point of view) that is Montreal’s main North/South inter-city autoroute. The Decarie Expressway was built just in time for Expo 67 and is the fastest way downtown but it also divides one of Montreal’s most multi-cultural boroughs Cote des Neiges/Notre Dame de Grace literally slicing the community in two.
Today on 5 à 6, we are going to look at the Decarie Expressway and the neighborhood it divides as seen through the eyes of artists. At the time, believe or not, that river of gasoline, that disastrous barrier that severs the neighborhood was considered a hugely positive thing. It’s a barrier and a channel at the same time so we thought it would be an interesting way to talk about the neighborhood, to think about its most powerful and contradictory symbol. This project isn’t a bunch of paintings on the wall it’s more like a community event involving hundreds of people participating in group-activities around the neighborhood and around the city.
The Saidye Bronfman Center for the Arts in Notre Dame de Grace came up with the idea, partly because the Saidye is only about 100 yards east of the Expressway itself and partly because it wanted to forge relationships with local community organizations on either side of the Decarie. So the Saidye Bronfman asked seven artists to work with people in the community to come up with projects related to the Expressway and the neighborhood it divides.
Montreal artist Devora Neumark spent months meeting with residents at the nearby Feldman’s Foster Home. She recorded their poetry, singing and music; mixed the sound files in studio with sound technician Andrew Harder; and physically installed it in a wall in the Saidye gallery. The result is a wall that actually sings and talks.
DN: The Feldman Foster Home is a full care facility for individuals who need assisted living. For many of the people who live there home has been a very troubled place. One part of my project was simply to inquire: What does home mean to you? What are the sounds of home? What are the sounds that are both perhaps comforting or disturbing about home?
The other part of the project is what happened in the gallery where the wall was created primarily as a wink so to speak to my aunt who lives in the facility. I wanted to be able to play with her and tell her that I too hear the voices in the wall.
The wall in which this work is contained is massive. Four holes were cut into the wall to receive the speakers, embedded so that they would be completely flush with the surface. The speakers were covered with beige fabric scanned so that the paint used on the surface of the wall would be exactly the same color. Additionally, there are phrases from conversation highlighted on the wall itself with the use of vinyl lettering (of a very similar color to the wall paint and the speaker-covering fabric). Some of those phrases are: “We are all noisy tenants.” “Home is here.” “I learned early on that different was good.”
Very often Feldman residents and workers would respond to the questions about home by singing songs that they either heard in childhood, or songs that they wrote about home such as Joshua’s “I’m a noisy tenant.” Marshall drummed the improvisational sequence in one take with no rehearsals. He came into studio, sat down at the drum battery and played without stopping for 4½ minutes. Then after laying down the drumming track and after having tried to write unsuccessfully for over a month about his experience with drumming, schizophrenia, family and home sat with me in the car outside the sound studio and wrote this poem that he came back into studio and recorded. “This song traces the circular parameters of my mind searching with shaking doubt through repetition. Hiding the pain behind circles of games and drama that I felt removed from but was expected to play.”
By engaging with artistic language and bringing it into a question of culture, participants were able to identify something important for themselves while at the same time offering insight into their experience so that others could hear their story and recognize aspects of their own family or themselves. There is something about the capacity to be simply curious about what is present, even if it is unpleasant, and to stay with it because there is something to discover in that place. And I think that this is relevant to the work as it is in my having gone into the home. Its not always pleasant, but taking the time to be there in the presence of what is simply unfolding there is always something to discover.
As with any project like this, going into people’s intimate spaces is a very delicate experience and its not just a question of entering into relationships it is also a matter of how one prepares the exit out of the relationship, or at least out of the intensity of the relationship as is dictated by such a project. I will continue to go into the house because I visit my aunt and because I have a growing affection for individuals who live there, but clearly I cannot maintain the same kind of frequency and intensity of experience as in working on this piece. I was visiting 5 hours a day every day for quite some time in the creation of this work. My time with the participants was not at all focused only on the recording of their thoughts and songs. Many times I would just sit and listen to the birds with them, I would play bingo, watch a film, or share a snack.
And although I had a lot of control over the final product – which is why I don’t really consider this a fully collaborative community art project as the aesthetic choices were not made by the collective – I did try to adhere to their instructions as much as I could about the way that they wanted their material to be used. As I took my time and presented myself in the lives of these individuals they began to be curious and want to share with me and with the community at large – something that I think was an important element for many of these individuals. They wanted their words, their songs, and their ideas to be part of the culture.
I had no way to know whether my aunt would visit the gallery: she doesn’t often go out of the house. In the end, she actually did ask to go with me and hear the wall. She stood in front of it and heard voices she recognized and knew that I could hear the voices too. With a huge smile on her face she said: “I’m very curious and I’m very well satisfied. These voices are really coming from the wall aren’t they?” It was a really noteworthy moment for both of us, but I think it is also important beyond the two of us as it points to the power of being flexible enough to meet people where they are, not we expect them to be or where we would like them to be. It has been my experience that once we meet others where we are, once we are met where we are ourselves, a different kind of conversation is possible, one often with a lot of humor however difficult the circumstances.
De Visu - Toucher son but
The following are selected passages from Bernard Lamarche’s article that appeared in Le Devoir (Saturday May 14 and Sunday May 15, 2005)
La galerie Liane & Danny Taran du Centre des arts Saidye Bronfman présente actuellement un des projets les plus stimulants de la saison en arts visuels. Projet d'art communautaire, l'événement est une version en quelque sorte humanisée de cette esthétique dite relationnelle dont on entend parler plus intensément en art contemporain depuis une décennie bientôt. En parfaite adéquation avec la mission de la galerie qui évolue dans un contexte de centre communautaire, l'exposition et les performances qui gravitent autour cherchent à interagir avec leur milieu immédiat, la communauté qui est le plus susceptible de transiter par ce lieu qu'est le Centre Saidye Bronfman. [...]
Sept oeuvres réalisées sur commande sont nées de l'invitation du commissaire John Zeppetelli et des co-commissaires de l'exposition: Gabriel Doucet-Donida, l'ancienne directrice du centre Sylvie Gilbert, Isa Tousignant (autrefois assistante de la direction, aujourd'hui à l'hebdo Hour).
Bien que la plupart des oeuvres prennent place à l'extérieur de la galerie, les cimaises de l'établissement ne sont pas vides pour autant. [...]
Devora Neumark -- chez qui la pratique de l'écoute active est un des moteurs de la création -- a rapporté en galerie des paroles et des extraits sonores de gens du quartier, dont des résidents et des membres du personnel du Feldman Foster Home, une résidence située à proximité du Centre des arts Saidye Bronfman. [...]
Notre enthousiasme face à ce projet pourrait surprendre. De fait, en matière d'esthétique ou même sous un angle historique, chacun des projets qui forment l'événement Décarie apporte peu sous le soleil. Recettes de performances à partager, projets photographiques de groupe ou encore interaction avec les membres de la communauté: les chemins de traverse empruntés par les artistes participant au projet Décarie touchent à des sphères connues.
Toutefois, l'autoroute qui donne son nom à l'événement est une lézarde qui déchire le quartier et qui est devenu, certes, un personnage important dans la configuration des relations sociales dans ce secteur de la ville, un agent de dévastation. Il n'y a certainement pas d'autres mots pour décrire ce fleuve de béton. Dans ce contexte, l'idée est plus que louable d'organiser un projet qui chercherait à mettre en relation des individus du quartier pour recréer, au moyen d'interventions artistiques, les liens entre membres d'une même communauté et entre cette communauté et le centre culturel qui s'active en son sein.
En ce sens, les intentions des organisateurs de l'événement semblent se démarquer, ne serait-ce que légèrement, de celles qui habituellement imprègnent les projets concertés d'esthétique relationnelle. Les pratiques relationnelles, qui cherchent essentiellement à créer des situations plutôt que de proposer des objets d'art, si on nous permet de résumer rapidement, ont souvent le don de ressembler à des laboratoires esthétiques où le public, de qui on est censé se rapprocher, a tout autant le statut de cobaye, observé qu'il est dans des expériences pour lesquelles des résultats sont attendus par des observateurs, essentiellement du milieu de l'art.
Au moins, le projet Décarie, mené par le commissaire John Zeppetelli, a ceci de méritoire qu'il cherche clairement à permettre à l'établissement pour lequel Zeppetelli travaille «d'accroître son rayonnement et de fidéliser de nouveaux publics». Pour ce faire, il a été choisi de développer des «relations de travail» entre les artistes invités et des individus, des groupes ou des organismes du quartier.
This drumming is a relic narrative I’ve played for 20 years.
A cry for help, An attempt to draw beauty and order from within. The song traces the circular parameters of my mind Searching with shaken doubt. Through repetition and hiding the pain behind circles of games and drama that I felt removed from but was expected to play, Hoping someone would hear it And teach me my need for a comforting place to call home.
When I was 7 and my father became ill, he gave me a set of drumsticks, a snare drum, and a cymbal. Drumming was the only gesture with which I could conjugate myself into worthiness, And keep the assumption of his love for me alive. His dying left me an uncomfortable eternity to play.
The residue of his passing caused a schizophrenic atmosphere. Feeling and being treated as the eye of the storm, I became it. I am it. Breathing alternately between terror and bliss, Trapped in the revolving door of health services, In and out of the house my family kept In time, it came to searching for a home in schizophrenic stillness.
I am placing hope in the cracks that left me homeless.