As I turn on my recorder, Scott Saunders leans in to ask, "So, uh...This isn't gonna be coming across as anti-government, eh?"
It's a fair question. Saunders has been "battling," as he puts it, with the Halifax Regional Municipality for just under a year over his desire to curate an immersive art show in the Public Gardens. "I've always had a fascination with that space at night," he explains. "There's something very Jurassic about it for me. Mysterious, creepy. Elemental. I had visions of creatures existing in that space at night, this bizarro space."
Despite the Gardens' notorious closure during night hours and winter months---and its upfront signage limiting what you're allowed to do during its open hours (no jogging, bicycling or walking on the grass)--- Saunders actually sort of won. The result of his efforts will debut at Nocturne, in the aptly titled A Year in the Making. It's an immersive nine-project exhibition (including Eleanor King, Michael Fernandes and Mitchell Wiebe), curated by Saunders, that examines what being in the Public Gardens really means. "When you're dealing with a public space like the Public Gardens," he says, "where you haven't had any precedent before for having it open at night---it was gonna take a bloody long time."
The conversation started during 2009's Nocturne. Saunders was walking past the Gardens, while his video, *ides Comin' In, was playing on Barrington. He began thinking of what to do next year, and, in keeping with his self-proclaimed ambitious nature ("I like taking on things that people say can't be done"), he realized that the Gardens was the perfect obstacle to tackle.
"It was kind of a collision of purpose," explains Jamie MacLellan, HRM's public art coordinator. MacLellan's job, only a few years old, is to facilitate and encourage art around HRM. He was the man Saunders first approached. "Their mandate is to protect the beautiful," MacLellan says, referring to the city officials who run the Gardens. "And mine was to kind of, to challenge the 'public' aspect of it. And so that's what we did. And it's been a yearlong conversation."
The Public Gardens, though ultimately controlled by city staff, has a kind of advisory group---Friends of the Public Gardens ---that acts as a preliminary decision-making body. MacLellan approached the Friends first, and was immediately turned down. "The city in general is very status quo-protective," he says, especially since Hurricane Juan destroyed much of the Gardens' flora in 2003. "So the idea of trying to make stuff happen is kind of trumped by, 'How does this risk, how does this impact us, how is this gonna damage us?'"
The Friends' arguments were threefold: They didn't want to set a precedent for future artists to expect total freedom inside; the Gardens are poorly lit (MacLellan and Saunders are bringing in a lighting rig) and the Gardens' infrastructure is in pretty bad shape---the lighting and electric wiring is flimsy, and the budget isn't very high, making it hard for them to fix anything.
It was only this past May that the Friends agreed, unanimously, to allow Saunders in, but only if city staff approved. And they didn't at first: Saunders and MacLellan had to fight back, again and again, until they managed to finalize an agreement only a few weeks ago. The compromise means that the Gardens will be partially open during Nocturne, from the main gates until about halfway up Spring Garden Road, just under three acres, or one-sixth of the space.
Saunders sees his project as extremely significant. "Part of that is ego-based," he admits. "In the sense that I'm ambitious and I'm trying to pull something off that means a lot to me. And I'm showing myself and others what I can do. Is that a bad thing? Fuck no. Y'know? I could give a shit about what anybody thinks of that."
MacLellan, for his part, sees this as an opportunity for the arts community to prove their worth to the city. "I think this is how it has to go," he says. "So long as we can come to an appreciation that maybe these conversations are necessary. And maybe we need to open things up a bit."
Curated by Scott Saunders, Halifax Public Gardens, Zone 3