Centre and Periphery: Lancelot Coar’s On The Road/ En Route

Centre and Periphery: Lancelot Coar’s On The Road/ En Route
1 July – 31 July, 2010
Winnipeg and Surrounding areas
Project Coordinator, Natasha Peterson
review by Jonah Corne & Andrew Harwood

A collaborative art and social experiment by 5 Winnipeg artist-run centres and public galleries, On the Road featured a vintage 1976 Airstream trailer that carried works by Manitoban artists to regions where contemporary art is rarely exhibited. These included suburban neighborhoods and rural Manitoban villages. As the Airstream visited these places, their community members were invited to assist in the construction of a semi-improvised, tent-like structure that would then house live performances, video screenings and workshops for creating small art objects. Lancelot Coar, a professor of architecture at the University of Manitoba, spearheaded the project, driving the truck, creating the template for the structure and performing with Winnipeg avant-garde art troupe The Abzurbs. The itinerary included St. Claude, Victoria Beach, Peguis First Nation and locations in Winnipeg.

Each of the sponsoring institutions provided support, along with ephemera and catalogues relating to recent exhibitions at their respective home spaces. The program of short videos was drawn from the archive at Video Pool, and emphasized works by French-Canadian and Aboriginal artists. Dressed in outlandish costumes and masks, and resembling a kind of wandering brigade of burlesquers or a traveling freak show, The Abzurbs did not so much perform for the audience as they served as catalysts that allowed them to absorb the audience into their spontaneous antics.

By mobilizing all of this material into a mobile curatorial project, On The Road posed a fascinating set of questions about the relationship between contemporary art and spatial peripheries. First and foremost, how does a commitment to “bring contemporary art to people who have limited access due to geographical barriers” (as the project’s mandate reads) not fall into the trap of reproducing the hierarchy of centre and periphery, and of coming across as some sort of paternalistic philanthropy?

The project smartly addressed this issue by refusing to impose an agenda on its intended publics, using a highly provisional and open-ended infrastructure in a spirit of informality and experimentation. In the various sites where the project stopped, some residents gathered to participate while others looked on and kept moving. For those who did stay, wonderful and intimate art experiences emerged. This flexibility was echoed in the physical make-up of the temporary structure. Coars remarked that he chose the fibreglass poles because they are pliant, but only to a very limited degree.

The project seemed to have in mind that rural peoples have frequently been the content of Western art, but have for the most part been excluded from the canon as actual cultural producers. On the Road challenged this pattern by encouraging collaboration. In St Claude, a historically Francophone town in rural Manitoba with a population of less than 600, over a dozen people turned out in the morning to contribute to the construction of the structure. In the afternoon, a group of children amassed for the workshops, and made 3-D collages out of recycled cd jewel cases and — in a perhaps inadvertent, but resonantly subversive twist — repurposed images cut out from old National Geographic magazines. In the evening, several adults arrived with their own lawn chairs to watch the program of short videos projected on one of the diamond-shaped panels of the structure, which became a makeshift theatre.

It was a telling comment on suburban culture that the least attended stop on the project’s itinerary was the vast parking lot in front of an outsized Urban Barn outlet in one of Winnipeg’s fastest-growing developments, South on Kenaston Boulevard. Few people, it seemed, were willing to stray from their routine of parking and shopping. Coars commented on the powerlessness of the intervention: “Maybe if we attached a SALE sign to the side of the trailer, more people might have approached to see what was happening.”

Considered within a wider geographical context that encompasses the national and the global, On the Road might be read as an analogy for Winnipeg’s own ambivalent status as a reputed hub of artistic activity that is at the same time far removed from the major art centres of the world, a place both connected and set apart. In this sense, the urban-based institutions involved in the project do not fit comfortably on either side of the access/non-access binary that would appear to inform the project as a whole. In fact, the project examines the very notions of what constitutes the centre(s) of cultural production and reception.

After an auspicious beginning, it is hoped that On The Road will be able to continue its journey to many more destinations in the future.

On The Road was co-presented by La Maison Des Artistes Visuels, Urban Shaman, aceartInc., Platform: Centre For Photographic + Digital Arts, and Video Pool Media Arts Centre.

Jonah Corne teaches film studies in the Department of English, Film, and Theatre at the University of Manitoba.

Andrew Harwood is a multidisciplinary queen of all media (well, a few), freelance writer and curator with lazy — often pot-induced ambitions to stalk hirsute gentlemen.

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