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Civility and the City: 3

Photo by Ian McGrory on Unsplash

Edmonton: Canada's most creative city.

I am a Calgarian. I love the city, its people, and the magical environment that holds them more than any other place on earth. Loving Calgary, truly loving Calgary, means living in constant tension with Edmonton. Since the Northern Cree contested these lands with the Blackfood Nation to the South, the areas we now call Edmonton and Calgary have been bumping up against one another. Outsiders talk about the rivalry, but for those of us living in Alberta, the real gift of living in either Calgary or Edmonton, is having the other city. We are like siblings. At each others' throats with extraordinary passion, but protective as can be if anyone outside the province takes aim at the other.

We talk a lot of trash about one another, but one thing all Albertan's share is a love of plain language. No one can pretend that Edmonton is not the dominant creative force in our country. Toronto does a lot, but they have more people than almost the rest of the country. Montreal does more - on a per capita basis - than Toronto, but that's also with large numbers and as the result of a provincial government that prioritizes culture. Albertans get less from the Canada Council for the Arts than any other province, yet our output is astonishing. The Edmonton Fringe Festival, the arts programs at UofA and Grant MacEwan, the festivals, the film, dance, music and writing are remarkable.

It would be wrong to say that Video Games production in Edmonton is peculilarly underappreciated. It is a Canadian tradition to undervalue the contribution of Edmonton's artists and arts community. More original work has come out of that city than should be possible given their population and relative geographic isolation. Perhaps that is the excuse our country can use for not appropriately celebrating this jewel of artistic innovation and productivity. It simply does not seem possible. We often speak of Edmonton in terms of other massive contributions, such as the Edmonton Oiler's hockey dynasty, but as great as those achievements, the arts outpace sports, oil and government. The reason is simple: the arts have consistently been at the forefront of innovation while other areas go through cycles.

Not surprising then that when the history of computer games is written Edmonton will be recorded as one of the world's great centres of creativity.

A few years ago when I was working with a group of people focused on Canada's excellent new digital strategy I nearly had a heart attack when I heard that the federal government saw Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver as the centres for digital creavitity. Then again, perhaps that makes sense. When have govenrments ever been insightful when it comes to art and innovation? I joke, but how could it be that Canadians do not know about Edmonton's contributions, while the rest of the world does?

Perhaps, once again, it is something in Edmonton's character. It is a proud city, but only when celebrating actual achievement. People who create art - real art - do not need to promote their work, it is its own best argument. Others may be better at telling us how innovative and creative they are, Edmonton is better at actually doing it, and doing it repeatedly over time.

Design Week

The reason we were travelling to Edmonton, was to take part in a salon hosted by makespace as part of Design Week. The event had me speaking as part of a group of leading thinkers, creators and innovators working to build better cities. We hear a lot about this kind of work, but there is a lot of new work being done in the field and it is particularly exciting to see and hear about what others are doing as our world adapts to the digital age.

Three for YEG: Orange Hub, Fringe, and Vignettes (Slides by Owen Brierley - rights below.)

I used to hate public speaking, and I still prefer to spend most of my time alone, but nerves are not as much of a problem for me these days becaue I speak so often. Still, as a Calgarian - who is not a designer - speaking to a group of Edmonton's leading designers I had my work cut out for me.

When preparing for talks I have a bit of a routine. Step one: research, research, research. Try and read as much as is humanly possible, then adjust for emerging circumstances. Step two: muck around in images, audio and video. I like to explore visual, auditory and filmic media about the place and events to find ways to prompt my mind to think differently about the words, numbers, charts and graphs that I use during my research phase. Step three: arrange my thoughts around a sequence of images, sounds, stories or some other form of expresive media. For this talk, I went in a different direction.

I still researched the heck out of what I was doing, but when it came to the second part I asked my colleague Owen Brierley for a very specific favour. He agreed to spend the day with me musing on Edmonton and its hidden magic. I explained what I thought and felt about the city he has called home most of his life and then I made my request. I asked for three slides that would frame what I wanted to try and share about Edmonton.

Owen and I rarely fight when working, but things got a little testy that day as I tried to reign in all the stories he wanted to tell about his city. It's not that I did not want to hear them, it was that I needed something specfic. Edmonton is not my city. I have lived there, and I still consider it one of my homes, but I do not know it the way Owen and his fellow Edmontonians do. For me to offer something to those working at the heart of that magical place, I knew I had to keep it simple. I had to pick three examples of why I love, and cannot understand the great city to the north of me.

But it gets worse.

Not only do I not understand the city, I do not understand design. Broadly speaking, those working in design have a far more advanced knowledge of visual and spatial communication than I can ever hope to access. The task was clear: get in and get out without making a fool of yourself. Not to avoid embarassment, but because the city and the people at makespace deserve better.

I am a big fan of trying to stick to what you know, and to recognize when you are out of your depth. Over the past number of years when looking at our world I have come to believe that the most dangerous people on earth are not the evil geniuses, it is those who are not that clever, but believe themselves to be brilliant. By way of example, I give you federal politics...pretty much everywhere.

Temenos: Using Intention to Make Space Sacred

The three slides Owen built came from my desire to address Edmonton's ability to access temenos. Temenos comes from an ancient Greek word that refers to the ground adjacent to temples. In my work, I came to know temenos from Douglas McCullough. McCullough is a globally recognized designer who taught us about the ways in which we can choose to make a space sacred in order to do our best work. He connected these ideas to the practice of Drama, and it remains one of the most powerful ideas I've ever encountered.

When we come together we can choose to treat our meeting place as sacred. Think of the Christian idea of gathering to worship, or the acknowledgement of land in many indigenous traditions. For creators, we connect to space as our primary collaborator. Whenever I direct a show, or prepare a workshop or talk, I try to get into the space well in advance so I can sit there and listen to what that space says to me. It may sound esoteric, but the number of times I see people try and put on shows in spaces they did not consider when designing their work is surprising.

As I tried to come to terms with the unique generative nature of Edmonton and its people it occured to me that much of the greatest work I have experienced came from spaces that we might not consider beautiful. Grant MacEwan's Orange Hub is probably not going to make anyone's top ten design list, but the amount of beauty generated in that building over the years is breathaking. Even now, after MacEwan has moved on, the building's new inhabitants are finding ways to break new ground and fill the air with magic.

Similarly, the Edmonton Fringe Festival is a force of creative construction. The second largest festival of its kind in the world, Edmonton's fringe brings audiences extraordinary work in patently ordinary spaces. They find magic in the city that is in front of them - they bring temenos to their city through intention.

More recently the Vignettes Design Series repurposed old constructions to make a new aesthetic contribution by doing what Edmonton does best: keeping the best of the old and reworking it for the present day.

Renaisance When teaching, I often advice my students that if they want guaranteed success in creative practice they should follow the proven model that underpins the Renaissance. When we hear that word we often think of the Italian Renaissance, or the English Renaissance that gave rise to Shakespeare, but there have been many periods described using that term. Renaissance means rebirth, and it refers to the practice of connecting to the past and transforming it so that it speaks to contemporary audiences. Edmonton gets that.

Embedeed in my approach are a couple of ideas that I hold dear. The first is that when attempting to engage complex ideas choose a simple frame. I was out of my depth when working with the good people of Edmonton Design Week and out of my depth when trying to talk to Owen about a city he knows down in his DNA. What I knew was what I did not know, and that allowed me to be just smart enough to ask for help trying to doing a good job. I take that to be the primary job of an academic. Learn enough to know how to collaborate with those with the expertise you need. The second idea is an epansion of the first:

We are living in a Renaissance. The work that has been done - and is being done - in computer games, digital art, and in city building is as good as any work that has been done in our world's history. I believe we need to talk about these achievements more, and particularly so in a city like Edmonton, Alberta where companies like BioWare have given the world a new way of drawing the best from the past and reworking it for today.

Thanks to makespace, to Edmonton, and to my fellow panelists that day. It was glorious to be with you and to pretent, just for a moment, that I belonged. You folks are making the world a better place, and I am particularly greatful that you keep on doing so even when so many of us fail to tell you how truly great you are.

Oh, and the picture of the lion cubs at the top? That's Edmonton and Calgary. We're young, adventurous, and playful. We fight to hone our skills. We don't take it seriously because our battles are in jest. Of course, if you're not part of the family...

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