The Creativity of Place and the Place of Creativity – Emily Macrae

Posted by: on Jan 31, 2015 | No Comments

On an October morning in 2014, I found a community at Critical Creativities: Policy, Performance, Diversity and the Arts in the GTA, a research workshop hosted by the University of Toronto’s Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative. The community research project aimed to bring together academics and arts practitioners to discuss both the theoretical frameworks and the practical realities of engaging with Toronto’s diverse population Critical creativitiesthrough the arts. From my perspective, the event succeeded in creating space for the many voices of Toronto’s creative community to share perspectives on a range of issues. Over the course of structured discussions and informal conversations, scholars and artists challenged the binary between theory and practice.

As a Masters student in Urban Planning who is interested in festive spaces in the city, I was immediately drawn to the topic of the workshop. In a city where creativity has become a commodity, the Critical Creativities Community Research Workshop was an energizing gathering of people who were prepared to ask pointed questions about how policy, performance and diversity define artistic practices in the GTA.

Whether engaging in conversation between sessions or devoting their attention to the speakers, both of the organizers led by example to create a workshop in which listening and speaking were equally valued. Upon arrival, I was warmly welcomed by workshop organizer and PhD. candidate Charmaine Headley. Opening remarks from co-organizer Dr. Simon Coleman outlined three ways to think about critical creativity: first, the arts are of critical importance; second, creativity has the potential to critically examine social issues; and third, creativity itself needs to be critically examined. Dr. Coleman framed his remarks in relation to the work of anthropologist Victor Turner but also noted that the issue of arts in urban settings is especially relevant given the recent research of urban studies theorist Richard Florida, who examines the correlation between creative activities and economic growth.

Accessibility and Intervention

During the first presentation segment entitled “Animating Public Spaces,” Anne Frost, UTSC teacher and consultant for The Young Associates, presented her experiences in arts management to discuss cultural events in public spaces. Giving examples of how both music and outdoor bread ovens have been used to expand participation in creative activities in Toronto, Frost talked about persuading publics of the importance of the arts. I was most interested in Frost’s discussion of access and inclusivity, particularly her focus on the Accessibility of Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). Frost anticipated that as the AODA takes effect, it will be increasingly important for artists to take an intentional approach to accessibility in their work. As someone who is interested in the relationship between disability and mainstream conceptions of talent, I feel that the creative class discourse often neglects the physical accessibility of spaces that are promoted as creative hubs. In this way, Frost’s comments were a starting point to think about the barriers inherent to popular arts events.

David Anderson, the Executive Director of Clay and Paper Theatre, joined Frost and offered an in-depth example of place-based participatory art making. While Frost provided a framework to understand the relationship between art and public space, Anderson offered a case study of these issues in Toronto. He spoke about Clay and Paper Theatre’s experiences transforming a downtown public park into a performance space through participatory puppetry and seasonal celebrations. His contributions were particularly timely because Clay and Paper Theatre was preparing for the 15th annual Night of Dread. This event gives passersby and puppeteers an opportunity to literally face their fears. The evening is animated by hand-made puppets designed to embody specific fears and each celebration hinges on a different Fear of the Year. Previous themes include Bad Government and Big Business, and this year’s fear was Us and Them. Anderson suggested that this contemporary festival is an example of how traditions like Day of the Dead can be reinvented in diverse, urban settings.

Anderson’s description of the reinvention of traditions inspired discussion amongst workshop participants regarding the appropriation of cultural practices for the purpose of public art. What assumptions do artists make when they incorporate art forms that originate in another tradition? Discussant Vivine Scarlett built on this theme by drawing our attention to alternative models of audience building. Scarlett co-ordinates performances of African dance that bring a new demographic into cultural spaces such as theatres. By drawing on the lived experience of African communities around the world, these shows bridge the gap between the audience and the dancers so that both groups play an active role in co-creating the meaning of each dance. In Scarlett’s experience, dances of the African Diaspora can transform theatres into public spaces by challenging Eurocentric conceptions of performance.

In general, the discussion demonstrated the need to critically examine how arts initiatives attract and engage a public. The panel exposed a blurring of the distinctions between private and public places of creativity; although parks are becoming more highly controlled, theatres are increasingly oriented towards new audiences and diverse definitions of art.

Language and Performance

During the second presentation segment entitled “Impermanence in the Writing Process,” Sheniz Janmohamed, Artistic Director of Sufi Poet Series, shared her experiences as a poet, an educator and a spoken word artist. Her work builds on her lived experience across Canada and her cultural identity that denies linguistic and geographic boundaries. As a writer, Janmohamed adapts the classical Arabic poetic form of the ghazal to her practice in English, telling the workshop: “I write in English because I don’t have access to the language of my ancestors.” Sheniz is acutely aware of the power dynamics between languages. In examining her choice to use words from another language in English poetry, Janmohamed explored how these words can introduce concepts that otherwise could not be conveyed in a colonial language.

Janmohamed’s reflections on temporality were informed by Buddhist practices and Sufi tradition. Her deliberations over each and every word were at the core of her presentation: she focused on how the permanence of the published word shapes her writing process. She also explained how her practice of land art encourages her to confront impermanence as an artist. In addition to crafting words on the page, Janmohamed engages with the impermanence of the natural environment by sculpting found objects such as leaves and sticks into patterns that she photographs. This visual art form is separate from but complementary to her poetry. Although she cannot change the content of her books, in her land art she exercises care and intention in arranging coloured leaves, strangely shaped stones and reclaimed wood, ultimately allowing these creations to be transformed by the elements.

Race, Place, and Identity

In the third presentation segment entitled “A Walk Through: An Illustrated Journey to Re-Framing,” artist Gita Hashemi invited everyone at the workshop to question their own assumptions about place and identity. At the beginning of her session, she passed around pieces of paper printed with two questions. First: Where do you come from? Second: Where are you really from? Inspired by Janmohamed’s comments early in the day, my own responses were poetic reflections on the tensions between mother tongue and native land. Hashemi then examined intersections between place and identity in Toronto by using photographs of her neighbourhood. She reflected on her own movements within the city as a way to expose the urban settler mentality. Specifically, she traced her own migration from Parkdale to the East End as a result of gentrification. In this situation, she was critical of the ways that one group’s claim on a neighbourhood displaces other people.

The relationship between race and creative practice is at the heart of Hashemi’s own work. Commenting on her experiences as an artist, educator and activist, she asked: “Could I please occasionally get invited to speak because of my expertise and not because of my diversity?” Specifically, Hashemi discussed how access to and exclusion from safe spaces shaped her own choices as an artist. She also drew on her observations of the arts-oriented revitalization of Regent Park when she noted that minority artists are recruited to create niche experiences for cultural consumption. While Hashemi identified many key issues in the politics of art making, I would have liked to hear more about how marginalized communities can make art outside of the mainstream demand for creative commodities.

Creating Places for Creativity

From Anderson’s discussion of puppetry in public parks to Janmohamed’s work with land art, each of the speakers at the Community Research Workshop either directly or indirectly addressed the issue of place. In conversation during the discussion periods and informally between presentations, all of the participants were working to make a place for creativity in their artistic and academic practices. Hashemi challenged all of us to reclaim an identity with place by actively engaging in the arts, and together, on a crisp October day, we created just such a place.


Design by Neelam Chattoo

Emily Macrae is a Masters student in Urban Planning at the University of Toronto. She is interested in (and blogs about) urban arts events, accessibility and active transport. Through engagement with community-based film festivals, she seeks to study the ways that local events frame alternative definitions of the creative class in a global economy.


Leave a Reply