Be a part of Making Space for Culture!


City of Toronto Cultural Services launches another round of ward consultations starting October 4 and running throughout the month.  What kind of space does your neighbourhood need to make art, music, dance? To film, play, practice and perform? We’re coming to your neighbourhood to hear your thoughts. We want to know what’s needed, who needs it, and how we might work together to help make space for culture in your community.

More information regarding the consultation schedules can be found here, and the complete schedule is attached.  We encourage you to attend a consultation in your ward, and be sure to pass it through your networks!

Have your voice heard by taking our survey!

Making Space for Culture is a major recommendation of the Creative Capital Gains report, unanimously adopted by Toronto City Council in May 2011. Finding, building, and sustaining cultural space requires partners from all sectors, private, non-profit, and government. In order to make wise, long-term plans, Toronto Cultural Services has embarked on a ward-by-ward consultation and planning process to determine local priorities.

Questions? Contact or 416-392-7367


DYPP: Take A Sick Day On August 18

Take a Sick Day! is an August 18, 2012 event organized by the Disabled Young People’s Project. Read on to learn more about DYPP’s objectives, motivations and inspirations.

What is DYPP all about?

We’re all about Youth + Art + Community

Take a Sick Day! Video Trailer

Video trailer courtesy of Disabled Young People’s Project; all rights reserved. Click video to watch.

Disabled Young People’s Project centers the experiences of young people of colour with disabilities through arts based initiatives and community events. The objective of DYPP is to connect young people with disabilities. We are a diverse group of racialized people who identity with or find disability concretely relevant to our everyday lives.

It’s hard to say where the project began, it’s as if it’s always been happening but it started out with the recognition that there is an urgent need for a space that addresses the impact of disability, the ways in which it is framed and understood in our society, in our homes and within our communities as well as and the impact that this framing has had on our lives as people concretely affected by disability. DYPP is a part of recognizing that our communities have always been talking about disability but that the way the growing disability discourse as we know it is largely shaped by whiteness and the west, and white supremacy in activist spaces, in academic institutions and in global policy and actions that seek to address and measure “disability” so that it is as if we are “new” to the scene.

The project stems out of an urgent need to address the fact that disability is contested and has always been – historically, within our city limits and transnationally – and that we must began to do something about it. It’s about recognizing the past, the work that has been done by those that have come before us in our communities and moving forward. We recognize that it is an old tool of colonization and domination: divide and conquer to keep our communities as well as communities of resistance siloed and separated from one another. To that end, we seek to take action in anyway we can to end discrimination and oppression against people with disabilities. For us, this project is very much about saying that race is not a separate issue from disability; neither is queerness, neither is gender, neither is labour and work, neither is education and poverty and access to education.

Take a Sick Day! Flyer

One important thing to mention is that we recognize that we are operating in a nonprofit industrial complex within a neoliberal socio-economic system and so we are trying to think of ways to do the work that we recognize ought to be done with the resources that we have available to us. We are a very new project. We do not know how long we will be here for but while we are here we hope to create safer spaces for our communities to gather in dialogue to  and to discuss what it means to be told that we are ill, sick, or unwell and what it means to have different bodies from those around us who have claimed normal for themselves.

One of the things that we feel we can do right now is to create room for nonjudgmental dialogue and learning and education among members of our community. Many of us have faced extreme isolation in our everyday lives as we’ve tried to deal. It has been very painful, it has been very costly. We know that that this is not ok, and so Take a Sick Day! was born.

Why ‘Take a Sick Day’?

The event is called Take a Sick Day! as a way of calling attention to and honoring the ways in which many racialized, poor and working people with disabilities too often are forgotten or erased from conversations about disability, especially in western contexts. We wanted to draw attention to all the ramifications of the associations of health and disability.

We recognize that an insistence on the careful disassociation of disability from health by many disability scholars and activists is actually a very dominant theme in Euro-American white disability scholarship and activism. Overwhelming emphasis is put on separating disability from health and illness – mainly by social model advocates….We think that the initial insistence was due to saving disability from the domination and authority of medical expertise and discourse, but unfortunately it was done at the expense of many disabled people, by erasing/ignoring one of the main reasons of disablement, namely timely access to adequate health care on a global level.

We no longer find this useful and don’t understand the point of separating “health” from disability, in that they function along the same lines to oppress different bodies and impose very costly – to those labeled as such – ramifications, such as institutionalization and criminalization.

The name Take a Sick Day! is also about the false constructions of merit and labour, the idea that sick days are extravagant, a luxury and cost in a society that has a way of devaluing the constructions of the “disabled body”.

Take a Sick Day! is one event, and we recognize that much more is needed. For some of us, this is just the beginning. Some of us are going because we’ve felt removed from the disability community or didn’t feel like we were a part of one. Others, because it would be nice to be around other youth of colour with disabilities, to learn from each other as a refreshing change. There are lots of giveaways, swag bags and art. The food, the TTC Tokens… come because you want to!

What do you hope will grow out of this event?

Community and a space for youth of colour to discuss disability amongst ourselves. We are not sure what that will look like yet.

Who are the local artists who inspire you?

There are many local artists, groups, scholars, writers who have inspired us as a collective. Aside from the inspiration we draw from ourselves we have to shout out some special people to us.

Artreach Toronto for their unrelenting patience and support for this Project, for maintaining accessible and youth friendly funding structure and for cheering us on all the way! Annu Saini at Frequency Feminisms for her extraordinary art and facilitation skills and amazing show at Radio Regent;Esther Ignani and Critical Disability Studies at Ryerson;Rachel Gorman, Assistant Professor at Critical Disability Studies for quietly and confidently believing in DYPP and creating the most accessible classroom ever for many of us; Robertha Timothy for her outstanding scholarly contribution to race and disability studies; Andrew LaRose for his amazing music from his upcoming album ‘Playground’; Leroy Moore and Sins invalid,Pauline Hwang at,Golshan Abdmoulaie, Tess Vo at the reachOUT Program, Griffin Centre,Isabel Mackenzie Lay, Darcel Bullen at METRAC (Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence against Women and Children), Jayson Gallop Photography,Cory Silverberg, Yaya Yao, Bessie Head; all the members of our advisory board and the numerous other folks who have been our friends and allies and made this day happen!

DYPP logo

Check out the Disabled Young People’s Project’s ‘Take a Sick Day’ at the AGO on August 18, 2012.

For more info, please visit

Youth Arts Pitch Contest: Call for Artists

ArtReach Toronto, in partnership with City of Toronto Cultural Services, Art Gallery of Ontario and Manifesto invites you to participate in a pitch contest. If you are a young artist or a group of artists, between the ages of 16 and 29, we want to hear from you!

We want to discover and support some of Toronto’s finest innovative talent and encourage community participation through the arts!

Win $5,000 to support your community youth arts project, start your arts business or take your career to the next level!

The arts are a powerful and motivating way that youth can be involved in their communities. Whether it’s in someone’s basement, or through a community program – young people are creating art all over this city. ArtReach Toronto, City of Toronto Cultural Services, Art Gallery of Ontario and Manifesto want to support youth aspirations in the arts. We invite you to submit your ideas to us, which could land you a spot in front of an esteemed panel of judges for a live and interactive pitch contest!

To apply:

  • You must be an artist or part of a group of artists
  • You must be between the ages of 16 and 29
  • Developing an artistic project or are serious about your arts initiative
  • Have experienced barriers and those who are increasing access to the arts

ArtReach Toronto encourages artists working in a broad range of art forms to apply, including dance, drama, music, carnival and circus, film and video, TV and radio, new media, fashion, creative writing, visual arts, crafts, hip hop, design, multi-media, urban arts and more.

Nine lucky submissions will be chosen to pitch their ideas live on Friday September 21, 2012 for a chance to win one of three $5,000 prizes awarded to participants in the following categories:

  • Community Arts (i.e. theatre groups, collective of filmmakers etc.)
  • Creative Enterprise (i.e. singers, poets, MC’s, clothing designers etc.)

Exciting runner up prizes will contribute to bringing awareness to your project or art!


  • To enter, you must submit a two page (maximum) proposal answering the series of questions listed below, pitching your idea to the committee by the deadline of Friday August 17, 2012.
  • The nine lucky finalists chosen to make their pitch will be announced on August 30, 2012!  ALL finalists are required to attend a two-part workshop series entitled How To Make a Pitch. These sessions will be held on Wednesday, September 5thand Wednesday, September 12th, 2012.
  • Finalists will then pitch their ideas LIVE on Friday September 21, 2012 making a creative, energetic, inspiring and convincing presentation, pitch or performance in less than 5 minutes!!
  • A panel of knowledgeable, high profile judges will provide on the spot feedback to all finalists and award three winners with the grand prizes of the PITCH CONTEST!

Deadline for Entries: Friday August 17, 2012
Submissions are to be placed online.
The submission form is here:

If you have any questions, please feel to email us at or call Derick at 647-347-0086

Spotlight on St. James Town

This past April, Toronto Arts Foundation and the Neighbourhood Arts Network sponsored workshops for artists living in St. James Town. The initiative was part of the Foundation’s Arts Impact Study, a research project to better understand how Toronto residents interact and engage with the arts at a local level.

Art City in St. James Town Mural

Extending from Sherbourne to Parliament and Bloor to Wellesley, St. James Town is a neighbourhood at the heart of Toronto. In the 1950s the area was transformed into Toronto’s first community of high rise apartment buildings. Today, St. James Town is one of the most densely populated areas of Toronto with 19 residential towers in a 32 acre area. In addition to the spatial density of the neighbourhood, St. James Town is also an area of incredible diversity: the 15 000 tenants speak more than 50 languages and are twice as likely as other Toronto residents to have come to Canada within the past five years.  The density and diversity of the area creates unique challenges for people in St. James Town but also offers opportunities for community engaged arts.

Several arts-focused programs have made an ongoing commitment to the neighbourhood. Art City is a not-for-profit organization committed to providing free and accessible, multidisciplinary art programs to the children and youth of St. James Town (check out our previous post on Art City). Similarly, UforChange combines skills development with an exploration of the arts. Working with new Canadian and low-income youth living in and around St. James Town, UforChange uses  arts-based programs to inspire youth and give them the tools to succeed by providing support and resources to pursue higher education, volunteering, job shadowing and/or employment opportunities.

Alejandra Higuera is an artist who has lived in the area for almost five years. She is currently studying film and animation at OCAD, and works primarily in the west end. Despite the range of programs for children and youth she finds it difficult to connect with other adult artists in St. James Town:  “There are a lot of art programs available here for youth, but nothing for adults. There’s tons of potential for community projects though…there’s such a rich history here, and so many different stories to be told.”

Community Café is one example of a meeting place for artists and other residents of St. James Town.  This project started in the summer of 2011, when local residents and organizations began working toward a vision of forming a community-based social enterprise to promote social inclusion and food security in the neighbourhood. Community feasts are organized every couple of months and usually include an arts component, from performance to art classes. Miguel Camacho is an artist and NAN member who contributed to a recent event.

Community Matters is also working to create arts opportunities for adults through their Artists of St. James Town Initiative, run by local resident and artist Neudis Abreu. The St. James Town Banner Project invited residents to submit their artwork and 25 entries were chosen by a panel of local artists. They are displayed as banners attached to lampposts along Rose Avenue.

Lisa Simpson’s Banner on display in St. James Town

Banner creator Lisa Simpson is a graphic designer and painter living in the area. As a graduate of UforChange and volunteer at Art City in St. James Town she is aware of the connection between art and community development. “St. James Town needs to be upgraded: people deserve better than the current conditions. It needs more colour, it needs to feel safer…Arts events and projects would help with that, something to bring us together and showcase everything we have to be proud of.” Local artist and Banner Project judge, Iftikhar Ahmed, confirms the potential of creativity in St. James Town: “Art links us as a community, and adds colour and warmth to the neighbourhood.”

In addition to several community-engaged arts organizations, St. James Town is also home to many individual artists. Learn more about how NAN members are active in their community as winners of the Community Matters Banner Contest and as artists in a variety of disciplines.

Raj Sandesh recently emigrated from India where she worked as an Ayurvedic doctor. Now living in St. James Town, she pursues her passion for art while raising her children. Art is central to Raj’s impression of her community. “When I first moved to St. James Town, I saw a wall sketch of a dog right off of Wellesley towards the Food Basics. I just loved it.” The neighbourhood continues to contribute to her artistic practice. “I like finding different combinations within my drawings, find inspiration here (in Toronto).” Although Raj says that “I don’t have many friends who have the same interest,” she recognizes that community connections can enrich her work as an artist. “I would like to see more art classes and shows take place in the library and community centres. I would also like to have a chance to show my own artwork somewhere in the city.” Raj participated in the St. James Town Banner Project.

Paul Byron’s Banner Design

Paul Byron is an emerging artist, educator and writer whose large scale paintings straddle the line of representation and abstraction. He submitted the winning entry in the St. James Town Banner Project. He is originally from Hamilton and has been living in St. James Town for the past three years. The diversity of St. James Town intersects with Paul’s interests as an artist. “I am very interested in the diversity in this building. I am very interested in language. It is really great when you can engage with all of the cultural, linguistics and different kinds of things going on…I think it has had a lot to do with my interest in presenting a more complex and specific narrative moving away from traditional portraits.” However, Paul also feels isolated as an artist in St. James Town. “I know fewer people here and there is more of an anonymous feeling. It is difficult to make acquaintances. I have a circle of associates who are active in the artistic and academic community in Hamilton.” Even without the kind of network that he was familiar with in Hamilton, Paul is interested in connecting with arts organizations and contributing to art programs in the neighbourhood. “I have been involved with the Cabbagetown Art Community Centre. I will give a workshop here or teach a class at the library…these kinds of things. There should be more art classes. I don’t even know if there are places in the neighbourhood where this service is available. I was even speaking with the people at Community Matters about workshops or even volunteering time.”

Binod Dhungana, Musician and NAN Member

Binod Dhungana is a singer in the Eastern classical music tradition who participates in a Nepalese community in St. James Town. The active Nepalese music community influenced Binod’s decision to move to the area. He explains: “We get together quite often and have cultural events every two months. There are three or four groups and they perform a variety of songs and dancing…The group was actually one of the main reasons why I moved over here. I knew most of the people from back home in Nepal. There are not a lot of Nepalese people in Mississauga.” Binod’s activities as an artist build on his training in Eastern classical music however he is generally optimistic about the arts in St. James Town. Discussing his dreams and hopes for the neighbourhood he says: “There is such a diverse community and everyone can come together for these community events.”

Banner Design by Iftikhar Ahmed, one of the judges of the St. James Town Banner Project

Iftikhar Ahmed is an established artist who is passionate about making a name for himself in the Toronto arts community. He has been practicing mixed media, collage and painting for over thirty years. Iftikhar finds that the gallery system in Toronto is limited. “There are so many artists, including myself, who are underrepresented. I just think it’s a shame that the AGO is not representing the culture within its city. Artists need freedom to create and this is impossible if the system is not supporting them.” However he is encouraged by community projects and participated in a show at the nearby Strong Communities Gathering Place.  “They really take an initiative to exhibit some local artists, which is great. It’s a small gallery in the Daniels Learning Centre.” Moreover, Iftikhar thinks that the arts play a positive role in St. James Town. “I have seen many murals on the wall. I think that there is a lot of art happening in the area. We just have to search a little bit harder than in other places. This area is very suitable for me and it would be great to do something for the community.” Iftikhar was one of the judges of the St. James Town Banner Project.

Laya Mainali’s Banner Design

Laya Mainali is an established artist who recently emigrated from Nepal. Laya has an MFA and Ph.D in sculpture and has been teaching sculpture at fine arts colleges for 25 years. He has made more than 24 portraits and busts of distinguished persons and has exhibited his paintings and sculptures around the world. Laya won fourth place in the St. James Town Banner Project. Laya’s banner shows his sculpture “Internal Peace.” Laya hopes that this image will encourage people to find peace inside themselves.

 The Arts Impact Study is a project of the Toronto Arts Foundation, in partnership with Art Starts, OCADU and York University. Funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Arts Impact Study researches how arts are created and enjoyed in neighbourhood settings. The study is part of TAF’s Creative City: Block by Block Program designed to advocate for the arts and to support and foster collaboration between artists, community organizations and local residents.

Written by Amy Goudge and Emily Macrae

Emily Macrae is the Neighbourhood Arts Network 2012 Summer Intern.

How and Why It Is: Arts-Based Research in Community Engaged Public Visual Art

CTCHC Community Mosaic Project is a partnership between Red Dress Productions and Central Toronto Community Health Centres.

Image: Four Directions Turtle

In community-engaged art contexts, we’re often asked: How do community consultations connect with the design? What is the relationship between you (the artists), contributors, and communities?

The answer – or, more accurately, the answers – are layered and nuanced. This narrative attempts to retrace and distill the collaborative process that we call “arts-based research”, or alternately, community consultation (of which arts-based research is the major component, and the foundation of our work in and with communities).

The backstory: In February 2011, Red Dress Productions was approached by CTCHC to partner on the CTCHC Community Mosaic Project. We spent the next year fundraising, imagining, and planning the project. In January 2012, we began.

Image: Research Workshop

Contribution stations with images and project information, along with flipcharts and markers and a suggestion box were installed in the centre’s lobby and the primary care area on 2nd floor to welcome ideas. Extensive promotion and outreach was done both within the health centre itself, and beyond through grassroots networks and with community partners[1].

We met with more than 150[2]  project contributors to: inquire and listen; brainstorm ideas, themes, and motif; and experiment with visual expressions using accessible approaches to art making. We facilitated a total of 12 community consultations with program participants, community members, staff and board members at Central Toronto Community Health Centres – home of Queen West Community Health Centre and Shout Clinic.

Pastel City

At each consultation, we assume little or no prior knowledge of the project, who we are, or our approach to community art. We begin at the beginning: introductions and welcomes, a review of the project’s path and development process, where we are in the project at the time of the consultation, what we’ve heard from contributors at previous consultations, and where we were going.

Food, drink, art materials, and project handbills were laid out, and a projection system was set up. Transit tokens were made available to increase access, and, at two consultations, we had the support of an Anishinabe Elder, and a Cantonese and Mandarin interpreter. We worked hard to thread the voices of contributors from previous consultations.  On a practical level, we did this by recording discussion points and ideas (without personal identifiers), and photographing contributor-generated artwork at each consultation, which we shared these ideas and images at subsequent consultations.

Most of the consultations took place in specific programs at the centre including Four Winds, TRIP, Sketch, the Perinatal Program, Primary Care, an all staff meeting, and a Harm Reduction Open House. We also held three public consultations, which were open to anyone interested in being a part of the project.  Each consultation was designed to meet the needs of contributors, with the time amount of time available (from one to three hours), depending upon the program. We brainstormed in large and small groups, and had many one-to-one conversations. We made art with a range of materials including oil pastel, foam plate “carving” and printing, and collage.


Essentially, we invited contributors to move from spoken language into visual language. Many contributors said, “I’m not an artist,” or “I can’t draw.” We offered materials and encouragement: Try experimenting with colour, with shapes. If you move your pastel across the sheet, something will show up. We returned to our anchor questions: If there was an artwork on the CTCHC building that welcomed you and the communities you’re a part of, what might it be? What creates healthy communities? What does this look like?

 We also talked about the wall that the artwork would ultimately live on (at the front entrance of the building on Bathurst Street), and discussed public space, and other site-specific environmental and architectural elements. At the end of each consultation, we reviewed our findings from this participatory arts-based research – notes, brainstorm maps, sketches, prints, and collages – and together, we identified key words or phrases, themes, and visual motif.

Survivor Drawing

The great volume of material produced through the consultation process – more than 200 small solo and multiple artworks, 20 pages of notes, and 15 flipchart brainstorm maps  – draws clear lines between the social determinants of health including access to safe and affordable housing, nutritious food, non-judgmental health care, and community engagement. Certain images and motif repeated; however, accompanying stories and perspectives carried distinct and often multiple meanings.

Let’s look at water, as one example. Water was drawn as lake, river, stream, and ocean. Water was also suggested by canoes, kayaks, and boats; sea and freshwater birds, beavers, fish, turtles, and Turtle Island itself. There were stories of selkies, merfolk, water spirits and sprites; deep water, still waters, and still waters running deep.

Magazine collage

Water was cited as the foundation of all life: 75% of our planet composition is water, as is true for most plant and animal life. Direct connections were drawn between water, nutrition and sustenance, and environmental health and justice. Many contributors associated water to birth, motherhood, and parenthood. Some spoke of rushing waters carrying the voices of ancestors. Concerns were voiced for rising waters, diminishing shorelines, and the impact on Indigenous peoples. Others spoke of migrations across oceans to Canada.

As lead visual artist, it’s my job to produce a design that reflects contributors and the communities that intersect at the centre, and that threads visual motif, themes, stories, and nuances therein. The design must also be technically and artistically achievable in an open and inclusive studio environment, and have an aesthetic relationship to the neighbourhood – in this case, the Queen West neighbourhood. So, how is this done?

First, I don’t consider myself to be external to a process; I’m not a third party observer who translates. We exchange ideas and goodwill; the learning and sharing is mutual. I reviewed and reflected on all the ideas and notes and images in their totality – all voices, whether a community member contributed to one or three consultations. I looked for related elements, echoes, and threads. I listened closely to the quietest voices, and attributed value to those voices. I recognized differences in perspectives and lived experience. This recognition speaks to our mission as community artists: To produce original artwork that strives for innovation, technical excellence, and that elicits dialogue and creative exchange across difference.

I looked for related elements, echoes, and threads. I listened closely to the quietest voices, and attributed value to those voices. I recognized differences in perspectives and lived experience. This recognition speaks to our mission as community artists: To produce original artwork that strives for innovation, technical excellence, and that elicits dialogue and creative exchange across difference.

Inspired by contributors, I also conducted more text-based research on subjects including native and drought tolerant flowers and shrubs; tree physiology; Mississauga First Nations unceded territories (upon which Greater Toronto is built); the Law of Conservation of Energy; sky lanterns (also known as Chinese lanterns); Atlantic and Pacific salmon; migratory birds in the City of Toronto; and archival footage of Queen Street West from Trinity-Bellwoods Park to Augusta.

Mosaic: Writer

CTCHC Community Mosaic, 2012, detail

Finally, I walked about the Queen West neighbourhood, and took many photographs. This field-research was inspired by a young self-identified homeless contributor who said: “Look up. Look down. A lot of people forget to look at their environment. A lot of people don’t want to see me.” I allowed this contributor’s voice to guide me:  to enable me to see more, and differently. I saw: cranes and condominium towers; grasses and Eastern Red Columbine growing out of concrete; shoes strung on hydro lines; discarded coffee cups, feathers, and cigarette butts; sewer grates and birds nests; weathered paint, vacant storefronts, and many new home décor boutiques; and a lot of graf art and tagging.

Closeup of Dog

CTCHC Community Mosaic, 2012, detail

Through the consultation process, contributors shepherd Red Dress Productions’ artistic leadership team, and I steward the progression of this arts-based research into a cohesive design – one that makes room for multiplicities, difference, and echoes.

We presented my first-draft design to 60+ contributors at our final public consultation on April 4, 2012. We invited feedback, which was offered and incorporated into the final design. Shortly thereafter, the studio was opened.


CTCHC Community Mosaic, 2012, detail

Consultation, of which arts-based research is the anchor element, is a collaborative dynamic process. It’s not a linear here to there event. It’s cumulative and circular. It loops, doubles back, and stretches forward to make room for more of us.

It is cultural democracy at work. It is how we make real our belief that all people should have opportunities, access, and tools for shaping their neighbourhoods and communities.

– Anna Camilleri

Lead Visual Artist for CTCHC Community Mosaic Project

Red Dress Productions, Artistic Co-Director


More than 350 community members contributed to the creation of the CTCHC Community Mosaic Project, which was unveiled on Wednesday June 20, 2012.

The CTCHC Community Mosaic Project has been made possible through the support of the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council, and the City of Toronto: Public Realm, Transportation Services, and the TD Bank Group.

(Queen West Community Health Centre and Shout Clinic) mission is to act as a resource to improve the health and quality of life of the people and communities we serve. CTCHC achieves this through health promotion, harm reduction, education, community outreach, engagement, development and advocacy, as well as through the provision of innovative primary health care, counselling, support and dental services.

To find out more about CTCHC (168 Bathurst, south of Queen St. West), visit or call 416-703-8482

RED DRESS PRODUCTIONS (RDP) is a Toronto-based, not-for-profit, professional arts company that creates and disseminates interdisciplinary art and performance projects and works with/in communities on community-engaged public artworks. Since 2005, RDP has: directly engaged 2000+ contributors in the conceptual development and building of 7 community engaged public artwork projects; produced 5 original interdisciplinary stage performances; toured to more than 8 urban and rural Canadian communities; and created 17 paid apprenticeship positions for youth under the age of 25.

To find out more about Red Dress Productions, visit us online at

All images are courtesy of Red Dress Productions and project photographer Katie Yealland.

[1] Community partners include: Sketch, Meeting Place Drop-in (St Christopher House), Scadding Court Community Centre, YMCA House Residence, Youthlink, Supporting Our Youth (Sherbourne Health Centre), and Bleecker Street Co-operative Homes

[2] The 150 contributors cited here are specific to the consultation phase, which informs the conceptual development of the artwork.

Photography and Emancipatory Communication

This article is an excerpt from a paper presented at the Canadian Communication Association’s 2012 conference on Thursday, May 31. I was part of a panel called Body and Affect in Visual Communication. Though there were quite some gaps between the substance of our presentations, it was still a great pleasure to present alongside Sara Martel, Tess Jewell, and Gary McCarron.

“….When I began my research, my interest was in community arts practices that deployed camera-based practices: so rather than, say, community theatre or community murals, I was interested in sites that employed community video or photography. However, as I quickly came to find out, camera-based practices are rarely found in isolation, but rather co-exist with those built upon community theatre, community media, and other interdisciplinary, multimodal, and grassroots traditions. There’s an important specificity to photorealistic, camera-based practices in community arts that I will only be able to touch on obliquely here; so, for the purposes of this paper, let me just suggest that they are an important engagement tool and media production method comparable to others in the field.

Kris and Elinor shooting houses of dreams and memory

Kris and Elinor shooting houses of dreams and memory; image courtesy of MABELLEarts

In what follows, I’ll try to weave descriptions of some of these organizations and practices into the arguments I’ve proposed: first, that community arts helps shift the ground upon which critical social action might occur, and secondly that community arts helps expand the repertoire of forms and gestures those actions might take.

The practices and organizations with which I’ve been involved exist in a variety of situated and transitory spaces. For example, MABELLEarts, which is an organization working with and physically based in the high-density, low-income Toronto Community Housing complex called Mabelle Park in an otherwise affluent Central Etobicoke. Over the past four years, MABELLEarts has put on recurring, registration-based workshops, as well as weekly drop-in sessions. It has also put on less fixed events – whether temporally, such as seasonal events coinciding with Ramadan or with winter – or spatially, such as performances and parades that occupy park space or that transform live lanes of traffic into spaces of celebration. It has documented many of these interventions in photos and video, and has used camera-based methods to generate a variety of more pictorial, less documentary material for these and other events.
Making Room – an organization working with members of and neighbours living near the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre in the heart of that Toronto community – also hosts weekly drop-in sessions. Over it’s four year history, Making Room has tried to find ways to engage residents and guests with Parkdale: with its histories, its stigmas, and its proximity to other, perhaps for some, more desirable spaces, such as the lake shore. It has used cameras and photorealistic imagery in ways similar to MABELLEarts: for both documentary and for more creative, pictorial purposes.

These and other practices are marked by a number of spatial interventions: for one, participants are invited to be in familiar places at unfamiliar times; secondly, they are invited to be in unfamiliar places proximate to those more familiar at a variety of times; and thirdly, they are invited to navigate spaces, both familiar and unfamiliar, in novel and non-habitual ways. As I have suggested, camera-based practices are deployed, both by facilitators and by participants, in all kinds of ways and at various moments during these interventions.

Streets of dreams and memory

Streets of dreams and memory; image courtesy of MABELLEarts

Some examples: in the first case, as an intervention into being in familiar places at unfamiliar times, MABELLEarts crafted pinhole cameras out of cardboard, tape, and aluminum cans with some residents. Given the unique optical characteristics these cameras possess and long exposure time they demand, pinhole images are generally unpredictable and difficult to envision. Two afternoons with these cameras in late January resulted in impromptu photoshoots at units where people let us borrow their balconies, as well as in areas of the park and apartment grounds that participants thought “might look good as a pinhole photo.” As bad weather took hold on the second day, the pinhole plan had to be scrapped for lack of light, and a back-up plan of timelapse videos shot with digital cameras.

Greg working on time lapse video; image courtesy of MABELLEarts

Greg working on time lapse video; image courtesy of MABELLEarts

In the third case, navigating spaces in novel ways, Making Room incorporates meditation into their weekly sessions. Artistic Director Michael Burtt is careful to note that this is not merely a cerebral activity. Thus, the opening meditation activity, what he calls a 10-20 minute “sit,” is meant to heighten a participant’s awareness of their bodily presence within the everyday, within the material goings-on of their community, warts and all, rather than to claim a separation from it. This kind of holistic activity acknowledges rather than supresses the complexity of a community, one historically portrayed as at-risk instead of in greater need of support and resources. The meditation also fosters a kind of open awareness, one that encourages playful encounters with the Parkdale neighbourhood, and has been integral to a process that has resulted in a portfolio of projects and performances that includes large-scale still photographic portraits wheat-pasted onto local buildings, as well as mixed-media sculptures selectively developed and installed adjacent to conventional social service agencies, and the launch of a boat into Lake Ontario – designed and built in-house, led as much by skilled boat-builders as by active residents. The launch is scheduled for mid-June.
The examples described, in short, shift the grounds whereby interpersonal communication can occur, both by opening spaces and by reconfiguring relations within and across existing and familiar spaces. Further, by engaging with space in asystematic and non-habitual ways – for example, by meditating as a group or by being in a public park legitimately after dark – through such engagements, both directly with the space and with one another in such spaces, distinct conversations occurred. I wouldn’t claim that camera-based practices “made” these events any more than other media and non-media practices did or would have, but they certainly enriched the way such interventions unfolded, and contributed to the complexity of discursive and non-discursive communication that occurred in such sites.

A number of the practices I just described also relate to my second argument – namely, that community arts functions to expand repertoires of social action, and possibly critical social action. As I see it, this happens in several distinct but not necessarily discrete ways: first, by augmenting personal capacities for acting; secondly, by collectivizing social action; and thirdly by providing spaces in which collaborative practice is encouraged and normalized.
In terms of personal growth, community arts encourages a whole host of individualized skill development. Some practices encourage fine arts or performing arts or media arts production skills, others develop self-help or entrepreneurial skills, still others experience in pedagogical facilitation, anti-oppression teaching, and so on. Although these outcomes are seldom the product of an explicit pedagogy, community arts nevertheless tends to foster various arts and crafts, popular education or social justice skills for which little systematic training is otherwise elsewhere available.
Michael Burtt from Making Room, for example, is aware of his participants’ comfort and seeming expertise in welcoming and hosting new participants to their sessions. The same is true of Phyllis Novak – the Artistic Director of Sketch, a multi-purpose studio located in a space adjacent to Parkdale near Queen West, and geared toward at-risk and street-involved youth. Novak claims her organization is making explicit attempts to enact literature on “the art of hosting” into its mandate and practice, particularly in the peer-leadership and mentorship work that they support. Regardless of the depth to which such training occurs, the effect is that participants are invited to engage in organizational activities and processes – as facilitators or decision-makers, for example – and to also acquire the skills demanded by these roles.

This kind of organizational model in particular – a model which values leadership skills development amongst participants – relates to the second aspect of community arts’ contributions to expanding social and cultural repertoires: namely, the collectivization of social action. Despite the seeming concentration of power embedded within the designation “Artistic Director,” community arts often deploy fluid organizational hierarchies that decenter the authority of its Artistic Directors. Of the examples I mentioned, for example, youth are often invited to shoulder organizational responsibility as peer leaders. Similarly, senior citizens are invited to share accumulated wisdom, both with younger generations and with peers from distinct cultures. In my experience at least, Artistic Directors serve less to authorize, control, and legitimize such practice – how could they and still have a community with which they work? Rather, Artistic Directors often shape and cultivate practices, acting to redistribute rather than devolve responsibility and control onto participants.

Indeed, in these and other cases, this is a kind of democratization of practice that amounts to more than simply a way for communities to “buy-in” to what community arts claims to offer. It is a direct rather than a representational democracy of sorts: altering the nature of what community arts can accomplish by attempting to incorporate community-derived beliefs and values into the aesthetic and discursive systems within which community arts practitioners operate. It is to this politicizing action that I earlier referred when speaking of the potential contribution community arts may make to understandings of emancipatory and decolonizing communication….”

Comments on this paper, as well as criticism, are welcome. Some rights reserved: cc by-nc-sa 2012 Kris Erickson. To check out the full text of this article, visit the thinking practice blog about ‘photography, learning, creativity, and other matters’. Kris Erickson can be reached at

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TUFF: Silent One Minute Films for an Urban Public

This September the 6th annual Toronto Urban Film Festival will reach over one million daily commuters on Pattison Onestop subway platform screens across the Toronto transit system.

Five Tips To Get You Started

Previous TUFF participants share their ideas about how to create a silent film in a city filled with sound:

“Think in small chunks: a moment, a feeling, a thought, something you saw happen out of the corner of your eye from the street car…” Melissa Levin, Under Construction Winner: Best in Category, 2009

“Know your audience. It’s all about the people on the subway platforms. Down there, time has a different meaning and your one minute film could really change someone’s day.” The Ferguson Brothers, Big City Winner: Best Comedic Film, 2009

“Just because your piece is silent doesn’t mean it can’t have a beat or rhythm.” Steve Reinke, TUFF 2007 Guest Juror

“One minute can feel like a very long time, especially without sound to help move things along. So keep it visually stimulating and coherent.” Vuk Dragojevic, The Spit Winner: 3rd Place, 2009

“Make what you would like to see. Cross your fingers. Use your heart.” Elizabeth Belliveau, Anchor Your Heart Winner: Best in Category, 2008


Submissions Now Being  Accepted for TUFF 2012. Final Deadline July 15, 2012.

To learn more about the Toronto Urban Film Festival, and how to submit a film, visit their website at: