Change Machine – Wreck City’s DEMO TAPE
The Wreck City collective boasts a unique take on placemaking in Calgary, celebrating and transforming derelict spaces into fleeting exhibition space for contemporary art. cSPACE joined Caitlind Brown, one of 8 Wreck City curators, to chat about their latest curatorial offering: DEMO TAPE.
If you missed the June event, here is the scene at the site of the former Penguin Carwash in Ramsay for our interview: with a melodic drone music performance (Miles Cooper Seaton) in the background, art viewers on bikes arrive from Sled Island music shows to explore works by 50 artists, musicians, and writers utilizing scrap materials found on site. Panel discussions, performances and Sled Island performances combine with a screening of the in-progress documentary of the first Wreck City project in Kensington (Ramin Eshraghi-Yazdi) to activate the vacant spaces.
With Sled Island as a partner in the project, sound is a compelling component in many of the installations. One key thread that runs through all of the art is the experiential nature. From a deconstructed Carwash office (Palmer Olsen) and interactive audio and light installations, to ‘The Cave’ (Jayda Karsten, Don Hill, Ed Keeble, Sarah Proctor, Alicia Yip), a wind-driven sparkle machine (Desiree Nault, Lane Shordee), or foaming former car wash sign (Peter Redecopp), the art is intended to be experienced in the short time it will exist before the building is demolished.
As a curatorial collective that ekes out a place in a thriving, demolition-happy Calgary, Wreck City claims space for artists in urban areas experiencing rapid change. And while this concept opportunistically makes use of Calgary’s rapidly developing spaces, it fits as a part of a broader worldwide movement to utilize forgotten spaces, with examples including the Heidelberg project in Detroit, Leona Drive in Toronto, to name a few. DEMO TAPE follows 2 previous projects by the collective including Wreck City: an epilogue for 809 which transformed a block of pre-demolition houses in Kensington, and Phantom Wing, held in the now-demolished 1950’s wing of cSPACE’s own King Edward School.
In the difficult process of securing the Penguin Carwash (provided generously by Torode Realty), the curators visited almost a dozen potential spaces, from a block of heritage buildings to forgotten industrial spaces, many with safety problems from structural, to mold and asbestos. After many arduous hours prepping the Carwash building for exhibition, Caitlind doesn’t necessarily feel bad about the building’s demise – plagued by a leaky roof, the large inner city lot will likely make way for something better, “It’s not my job to say if this is the perfect development for this property but I do think it’s better than the carwash. I can say that with some certainty about this site. I couldn’t say that about the Wreck City houses – there are arguments in both directions.” While the carwash space does not carry the same history and nostalgia as the catalyst Kensington houses, utilizing pre-demolition, soon-to-be gentrified space has provoked contention in the past;
“A space is already condemned, or it’s prepared to be knocked down, and you have a choice as an arts collective…if there is a possibility to further develop our arts community in a space that isn’t being used, do you do something, or nothing? I’m usually more on the side of something” says Caitlind. She further states “One of the artists Palmer Olsen said it best “ I love Wreck City, but I’d rather live in a city where WC couldn’t exist”…that’s an interesting statement the collective makes about changing spaces, and the kinds of things you can do in spaces that are rapidly changing”.
The Carwash’s purposefully minimal prepped space does not hold the same exact playful impulsiveness that spurred slides, swings, and rope bridges of the original project. The Ramsay building sported bay “galleries” that feel more like a traditional arts space. As the collective evolves and streamlines working processes, preserving “grit and impulsiveness” in the art-making process is a goal partially necessitated by challenge of the spaces they inhabit. While exploratory use of space fuels a collective intent to be on the edge, temporary spaces are key to Wreck City’s mandate. “The most important thing is experimenting… the less permanent a space we have, the more likely we are to be relevant and topical” says Caitlind.
“There is a quote that states ‘validity of an arts space is defined by it’s willingness to self implode’…the closer you are to the edge of imploding the more experimental you are being… and Wreck City is certainly on that edge”, she adds.
While temporality of space leaves artists on the edge of experimentation, stability and sustainability for those involved is always a concern. With no recurring funding, Wreck City’s hardworking curators are not paid, but instead prioritise fees paid to artists through one-off grants and donations. Grit, rough edges and impulsiveness make Wreck City what it is, but ongoing financial viability and sustainability is a concern of the collective. Like many in the arts, the curator group hold various other positions to stay afloat, from running galleries and festivals to arts administration.
“Just because Wreck City has glorified the temporary, doesn’t mean that is all that we believe is important – history, heritage, (past Calgary) organizations like Graceland – all this complexity is what makes a thriving ecosystem, and the more diversity you have the more sustainability you have”. Caitlind further adds, “I don’t know if permanence is something that we long for – sustainability is different than permanence.”
Back to the scene: At the soon to be demolished building, the original carwash signage “Change Machine” evokes perfectly the function that Wreck City and other enterprising art entrepreneurs play in our city’s cultural development. Wreck City’s projects herald change in neighborhoods, and seek to provide opportunities for artists in a city where constant gentrification deserves critical commentary, and necessitates the use of temporary space. A line from their mandate potently says it best: “our projects create a lasting legacy for ephemeral spaces, while solidifying the creative potential of the communities they inhabit”.
This is a posthumous article for a project complete, and demolition at the site will soon make way for high density housing. We congratulate Wreck City on another job well done, and wait excitedly for the next inevitable space to fall, and rise again, to be celebrated by the artists.