A recent issue of Good, a new American magazine dedicated to the "merger of capitalism and idealism," contains an article about a project in New York called Gardens in Transit, which will cover 13,000 city cabs with 14 football fields worth of flowered decals, painted by more than 30,000 children and adults from schools and youngsters in hospitals. In steamy mid-August, AlleyJaunt will turn a west-end Toronto neighbourhood's back-alley garages into art exhibition, installation, performance and film venues. Through Montreal's In-Site project, you can log on to free wireless hot spots around town to view online art exhibitions. Rainy Seattle's bus shelters sport art, not advertisements.
Travel to any major city and you'll find publicly funded art projects dotted across the urban landscape. In Halifax? Not so much. Yes, for one summer we had human-sized crustaceans waving their fibreglass claws all over town and we have our historic monuments, too. Don't get me wrong: Commemorative art is very important—if you want to better understand the physical impact of the Halifax Explosion, take a look at the 1,140-pound anchor that was blasted 2.35 miles across the Harbour and now resides on Anchor Drive on the Northwest Arm. But history isn't static—art must go on!
Ironically, when you go to the public art section of city hall's website, halifax.ca, there's a link to muralroutes.com, a directory of public murals across Canada and the world—with no links to any murals in Nova Scotia. But that doesn't mean that art outside gallery spaces doesn't happen here. Thanks to creative minds around town, there's art on the streets—you just have to know where to look.
It's no surprise, given the number of artists living in the north end, that art would spill out of homes, from basement windows and onto the sidewalks. (Note: Sidewalk stencils are wonderful when done well, but confusing slogans about anarchy and gardening in front of people's homes are just ugly and confusing.) Perhaps it's a reflection of an underfunded and over-institutionalized cultural system, or just a realization by young artists that you don't need a gallery space in which to create: This neighbourhood is often the site of spontaneous art projects—so keep a lookout while you're moving around.
Take a walk down Falkland Street: If you're lucky, the big yellow house beside the empty lot facing Gottingen will have something going on in its basement window. A record player acting as a rotating stage, paper cut-outs, aging bananas, video installations and paintings have all appeared in this space, to the delight of those walking by. Further up the street, at the corner of Creighton and Falkland, you can't miss the giant painting of a pig (yours for $400) in the window. This house, with its stitched root-vegetable curtains and its tiny candy-pink doorstep painting, is a playful respite from the area's newly renovated homes with their carefully chosen colour schemes.
For a time, over on Cogswell Street, several basement windows in a row became dioramas. In one, for example, a small globe sat behind a row of Scrabble tiles spelling out "ANOTHER WORLD IS POSSIBLE," a hopeful message considering it appeared behind a metal-cage screen. And then one day—most likely a case of students moving on—that world vanished, too, as did all miniature galleries along the street. There's a transient nature to all these projects, so keep your eyes open and don't forget to mark the Go North! art festival on September 8 on your calendar.
One artist who knows all about the impermanence of art on the street is Brandon Dunlop. His Community Chalkboard Project began in January as a class project at NSCAD. Looking for an interactive community-based installation, Dunlop eventually decided he would install a giant chalkboard on a billboard, along with a ladder, chalk and a rag, in the empty lot across from the Halifax North Memorial Library on Gottingen Street. (There's a great DIY video on his website, www.communitychalkboardproject.shigai.com.)
"I saw it as a big, wide-open space that was underused, but had been a target before," he says. "It was really successful, a lot of people contributed, went up and wrote messages. There were a lot of kids talking to each other through the chalkboard." In fact, the billboard became an impromptu memorial to Helen Hill, the beloved animator killed in New Orleans, as her Haligonian friends attempted to deal with the shock of her sudden death.
Motivated by the success of the first project, Dunlop tracked down other underused spaces around the city—in particular ones used for corporate communications or advertisements that "could be spaces for public community forums of discussion and communication," such as a bus shelter near the idling buses outside Scotia Square and a fence near the controversial old infirmary site on Queen Street. "I'm looking at issues within the urban environment—that's why I put it by the infirmary site," says Dunlop. "There are issues with lack of discussion or lack of accessibility to the discussions. I just think that the more that goes on in public, the better."
This summer, if all goes well, you will be able to write your thoughts on a chalkboard in one of the vitrines outside the Khyber building. Dunlop says, "It's especially important in a city like Halifax where there are a lot of public contentious issues going on—especially within culture, problems with funding or lack of support—and it's something that I think should be in public, should be everywhere. It's a good way to make people aware of different situations."
Another project scheduled for this summer proves that art has legs—or in this case, wheels. The community art-based foundation 4Cs will run its Art Bikers initiative during this July and August. Modelled after the Clay and Paper Theatre in Toronto, five young artists from a variety of disciplines, equipped with bicycles and trailers filled with art supplies, will travel to various communities across Metro Halifax to engage people in spontaneous art-making, improv and theatre projects.
"It's not just for kids—we're hoping to engage whoever's in the space. Teenagers, adults or families, whoever's there," says project co-ordinator Jesse Harrod. "It could be in a park, or an empty lot where kids hang out—a lot of times you get kids hanging outside a grocery store or a drugstore—but it doesn't have to be a conventional park with benches."
In many ways the activities will reflect the space. Some of the ideas the bikers are tossing around include weaving leaves through a chain-link fence, or making tree lanterns and wind-chimes out of found materials. There could be performances or parades, but Harrod reassures that the bikers won't create any new garbage.
"It's small scale, so our involvement in that park is just for the day. We're trying to think of small, spontaneous moments—it doesn't have to be a big community event with streets closed off," she says. "It will help people to look at their environment or engage in their environment differently and also give people a sense of ownership over their space, because "I made this.'"