My final days as the Media Archivist intern at PARC seemed to happen in a fog; everything happened so quickly and so beyond my ability to comprehend that when it was over I wondered how we had all survived production week without expiring prematurely. Of course, for the administrational staff and directors, this haze of activity and emotion is oddly familiar at this time of year, and thus navigating the madness comes easier. I, on the other hand, was lost in momentary glitches of awe and overwhelming wonderment, for in that week alone we had successfully put art back where it belongs – in the everyday and in the hands of extraordinary people.
It was clear to see that what had been produced had significant worth, which, when you begin to understand that is was created by people who were once considered by the vast majority as having little or no worth, is a fairly paradigm-blasting thought. I made friends at PARC who embodied story tellers, puppeteers, choir singers, unintentional comedians and brilliant embroiderers. I met musicians, painters, poets and writers; jewelers, historians, world travellers and harmless fugitives. The haphazard mingling of every walk and run and dance of life made a beautiful group we called Sand in Water, named after the changing shape of tiny rocks after twirling in the ocean – many types and sizes coming together on the sea bed, carried by the ebb and flow of tides.
While my drop-in days aren’t over, my job as an intern is, and I’ll float back into PARC every once in a while when I’m missing a little magic in my life. So long, PARC, and thanks for the memories.
Under One Tent: The PARC Night Market
It’s late Monday morning and I’m sauntering across Queen Street West in the heart of Parkdale, attempting to shake off a post-St.Patty’s hangover. Coffee in hand, I make my way into the familiarity of the main floor of the Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre – usually the beating heart of street life in these parts, but not today. Today there’s an eerie absence of hubbub, a vacancy where life normally presents itself in ordered chaos.
I climb the wooden staircase to the second floor to the tune of a thousand creaks as the worn wooden floor absorbs my weight and I make my way into the ‘Healing Room’, where behind closed doors I hear the hum of hungry sewing machines and the quiet tattering of voices. Through mounds of cloth, waves electricity permeate the door and glide through my body. I smile and turn the knob: this is it. Production week.
|Alice - a production team favourite - and her puppet|
Fast forward five days and although most of my week has been ‘business as usual’ I find myself anxiously anticipating its end. Stepping off the Landsdowne bus on Friday afternoon I am, unlike my past weary half-drunk self, excitedly rushing across the street and back to 1499 Queen West where I run into Michael Burtt, Director of Making Room Community Arts and the ringleader for the evening. Michael has had no problem taking me under his wing over the past seven months, integrating me into his program and consequently exposing me to a world far beyond the sidewalk life of Parkdale. Though everyone is in a caffeine fueled turbo charge, Michael seems to have met his own personal apex of pre-event frantic as he quickly delegates set up procedures and I, now completely high off of the shared craze, quickly go to work preparing the drop-in centre for a spectacle like no other: the PARC Night Market.
What comes to mind when you think of a night market? Abundance of tasty culinary delights? Eccentric figures selling you clothes and jewellery? The feel of a busy evening market is its own euphoric sensation: smells, sights and sounds blend into one and you are locked in a transcendent space where magic becomes life. Aiding in the transformation of PARC space into a night market didn’t taint this experience for me; only heightened my awareness of what it really was.
|The incredible musical photo boxes.|
And so, by 7pm sharp, we had successfully transformed PARC space into something out of a whimsically drawn picture book or ancient tale of gypsy dance and carnival characters. We were complete with a memory canning station, live band, fortune booth, embroidery table, clay puppets, hand-crafted jewellery, painted canvasses, and – the project I had the most impact on – the creation of kaleidoscope picture boxes complete with a victrola-esque music pipe. The ceiling was decorated in rags and lanterns. In the middle sat our canoe – built in a previous PARC lifetime and a vessel for memories.
Over 200 community members and PARC staff participated in the Night Market, crowding the spaces in between exhibits and moving to the rhythm of the live music. At the end of the night and after striking (production language for 'cleaning up the giant mess we just made'), five staff remained in a bar across the street – some still in costume – staring into our beers with permanent smiles etched across tired faces. PARC – Sand in Water – had finally culminated, but in the most appropriate way possible. From across the table, Michael breaks the silence: ‘what do you think we’ll do next year?’
Taking the OUTSIDE IN at the MABELLEarts Parade
It’s approaching Saturday night, mid-February, and a classic Canadian snowstorm has fastened its frozen-hellish grip on Toronto. Through the windows of a westbound subway pulling out of Kennedy Station I can see the early brew of rough weather through the twilight of a cloudless setting sun. Tonight I am traversing the Bloor line and back – in its entirety – to bare witness to the MABELLEarts third annual inside/outside mid-winter parade. Also, I have been commandeered to help out; just exactly how I am unsure of at this point.
|Mabelle Park in summer.|
The high-rise, high-density neighbourhood of Mabelle Park, located a five minute walk Northwest of Islington Station, mirrors countless other subsidized housing projects instigated by the Toronto Housing Corporation (THC) in the 1960’s and 70’s throughout the Greater Toronto Area. Characterized by high rates of crime and living conditions close to squalor, places like Mabelle Park would generally be on a list of locations to avoid on a Saturday night. But not this Saturday night.
When a community becomes segregated from vital resources and falls into poverty, its members are either forced to live their lives hand-to-mouth or relocate (an option that is also off the table for many due to strict economic pressures). At Mabelle Park, a third solution was created after its residents became too fed up with political ignorance and social marginalization: build a new community foundation, based on inclusivity and self-expression, to allow for an outlet to ‘make art, tell stories and creatively transform the place that is Mabelle’. In 2007, MABELLEarts was founded under the name ‘Pigeon Creek Collective’ to give that voice back to the people living in the area.
|Drummers warm up before the parade.|
MABELLEarts has since unashamedly proclaimed their place as a vibrant community arts group in Toronto, holding several events each year and programming weekly with both Mabelle residents and community artists from around Toronto. On this particular night of inclement weather, we flooded onto the stoops and front doors of Mabelle Park and took the inside outside, marching along snowy sidewalks with a drum ensemble around an outdoor living room and jars of preserved memories. At the end we all enjoyed hot food and cider made by MABELLEarts members. Because our group at PARC joins in the process of transforming space and transforming lives, they were there too. It was a night for celebrating amidst the whiteness.
For MABELLEarts and PARC members, these are the things that make them feel a part of a community. The motivation to construct and plan a night of this capacity becomes the dedication of individuals who may have never before been involved in something of this scale. The passion behind everything is unobtrusively present. The lives of people right in front of you, hanging in a bed strewn under a tree or radiating around a desk lamp set in the snow. You are caught in the moments of someone else’s life bleeding into your own. It is as close to pure magic as possible.
Crafting Greatness at PARC
I’m no Barbra Streisand (both in looks and dexterity), so it’s no surprise that whenever craft time was upon us in grade school I would fake an illness, try to stage my untimely death, or eat a tube of glue to induce illness (or death). Craft time was my personal hell, and I avoided its horrid ability to prove just how clumsy and ungraceful I can be well into my adult life. And then I came to PARC.
|Which is why I only like crafts that involve alcohol.|
See, my original intention was to work in an environment that would support my background in urban studies – a field dominated by the formalities and professionalism of planners, architects, consultants, policy advisors…So you can imagine how much I started to collapse within myself after I was asked to make feathers from tinfoil for three hours. It was a whole new version of self-induced hate after I put everything I had into a dream catcher that ended up looking more like a sewer gyre.
|The 'Endless Tree' created by PARC members and staff.|
The irony of being handed off into the arms of PARC’s artistic director was not lost on me. I am the least likely candidate to support an arts program; most of the time I have enough trouble staying upright, and any feeble attempts I make to be visually creative usually end up looking like a modern Picaso if Picaso was a paraplegic. It took time for me to understand that the type of art we do at PARC isn’t necessarily about results, but process. I was the only one who cared that my art was pre-school, or that I couldn’t cross-stitch a goddamn cardboard box. We are learning together, and, more importantly, allowing our selves to flow into our craft. It is an outlet and an extension of the stories and struggles of people who wouldn’t otherwise have an outlet.
Nowadays, when I step into the craft room at PARC to paint a giant canvas tree or make ‘wise puppets’ out of clay, I feel a deep sense of purpose covered in a blanket of safe serenity. We begin each session with a ten minute meditation where every person involved can find that place where thoughts turn inward and creativity is born. We sing Celtic folk songs and make non-sensical voices for our made-up characters. We write stories about imaginary markets and creatures born in our heads. But most importantly, we become ourselves and embrace the various multifaceted and multidimensional forms that take shape when people collaborate to make art.
|Warming up at the Sound Choir.|
The Dirty and Untold Realities of Charitable Fundraising
It is projected that within the next two years over 100,000 non-profit organizations and charities worldwide will fail and cease to exist completely. If that statistic makes you poop yourself a little, it’s because you need to work on controlling your bowels. Otherwise, it’s kind of really terrifying to understand just how many organizations like PARC are going under because of administrational issues. Not surprisingly, the main cause of this trend has to do with the lifeblood of any organization: funding.
With public-sector financial support rapidly dwindling in Canada and budget cuts galore, the world of sustainability within charities is quickly transforming into a tumultuous sea of tidal challenges and rogue waves ready give your little non-profit and swift and deadly anemia. A tangled bureaucracy full of roadblocks that prevent access to effective fundraising methods can strangle the flow of capital that sustains the work of charitable collectives, preventing the scaling out of these initiatives. Big-name foundations seem to be the only organizations with access to these tools and outsource fundraising, hiring private groups to do the tough stuff on their behalf. I was once a part of this end of the scale, working as a professional fundraiser for a company that shall remain unnamed, and saw the dirty deeds incorporated into the realities of big-name charitable fundraisers. Get this:
1) Fundraising is a stressful, highly competitive and highly pressurizing job.
So you want to be a professional fundraiser? Interested in raising money for an organization that does ‘good things’? Cool, prepare to rip out every hair in your body.
Some fundraising organizations proclaim that you will work in a ‘low-pressure’ environment that is ‘not quota-based’ and allows you to ‘be yourself’ while doing your job. I call shenanigans. Because large charities sign contracts with fundraisers to match a certain monetary goal by an exact deadline, the people who are actually involved with finding the money must meet a daily amount to ensure the company is staying on target. Where I worked, multiple failures to meet that goal put you on probation and/or had you fired. In fact, most new employees didn’t even make it past the first week before either giving up to the pressure or being laid off because they struggled with performance. I found it a minor miracle that I survived three months.
At the end of the day, big, highly bureaucratized charities aren’t concerned about the well-being of the people who fundraise, which leads to some of the largest turnover in staff and the inability to work on the capacities of those involved.
2) Fundraising is expensive.
Charities with extra capital to throw around aren’t too common these days. It takes a massive administration with loads of dependable financial support to be able to afford a fundraising organization. Here’s why:
You are essentially hiring a private, for-profit company to do your fundraising. While you will see the money you invest return with significant inflation in the form of fundraising dollars, it still takes a serious amount to buy into this process. This is why you don’t see street fundraisers in Toronto collecting for organizations like PARC or SKETCH. It just costs too damn much.
The inaccessibility woven into a system like this is just another reason why the flow of fundraising money is extremely uneven and thrown into massive foundations instead of going to support the community-based little guy.
3) Fundraising is a Business.
However insurmountable the overhead costs of fundraising with the big guys may be, it’s the complicated system of ‘donorship’ that seals the coffin. Running a charity is a lot like operating a business, and the dismal amount of resources available to a grass-roots organization just don’t add up when competing with a foundation worth millions. Growing your little ‘save the bunny rabbits’ initiative can be hard when it’s being constantly smothered by other powerful animal rights groups who don’t properly reach out when dealing with smaller care providers.
The misallocation of resources between the big business of dominant charities and smaller, community based factions equates to inadequate support on the lower end. When a small group needs help with raising money, the bureaucracy of their goliath counterparts effectively prevents access to the right tools for the job.
4) Fundraising can be Different.
Big-name charities aren’t always life-sucking evil mobs as I may have lead readers to believe throughout the course of this post, but somewhere along the way its lost sight of the important parts of the initiative. The success of a community service provider, as I’ve learned, directly relates to its ability to create connections along a wide array of small and big organizations. We shouldn’t be in competition of one another, but instead envisioning a new system that facilitates collaboration and cooperation between all of its members.
Changing the realities of how fundraising is conducted and who is involved will be no short order. The values and morals included in this process must be rearranged and a completely new and radical perspective embraced. But a world where charity is becomes a monopoly just doesn’t seem like a good idea, and this revolution is a necessarily one. So let’s chew on a new stick, because in the end, we’re all in it for the same core reasons....aren’t we?
How Many Words are 10, 000 Pictures Worth?
Photographs capture a unique moment in time and provide a still-life of some distant memory, thought, action, event – your brother’s Bar Mitzvah, that time you suggested that Uncle Lou could win in a cage fight – the list goes on. But for some, a photograph is more than just a flash and click; it represents a reflection of one’s character and emotion. As I’ve come to learn over the past month and a half as an intern at the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre, a photograph has the capacity to show great wisdom, courage, strength, insurmountable challenges and insufferable pain. For many of the members there, photos are the only evidence they have left of a life once lived and the struggles they are defined by.
The job of a Media Archivist, or so I have come to understand it, would be to find an objective understanding of someone else’s attempt to immortalize something personal. I do not have previous experience at PARC nor have I known any of the members and staff for more than six weeks, but I too feel something stirring deeply as I file through close to 10,000 photographs of people in various stages of physical and mental health. Although it is not clear to me what the significance of the picture is for those involved, I already have a connection with it on a different level because I sense it poignancy to the lives of its subjects.
|Book launch for 'Let's face It!' (Feb 2012)|
As it turns out, objectivity here is key as I filter through the more usable photographs for the purpose of incorporating them into art projects led by PARC members. My job moves beyond just sorting and digitizing as I collaborate with Artistic Director Michael Burtt (founder of Making Room Community Arts) to challenge how we will appropriately get these artifacts back in the hands of members who will use them for display in an upcoming open house in December. The goal here is not to merely show and tell a bunch of old photos but make the observer feel what is behind the picture: the individual lives, stories and struggles of Toronto’s most marginalized and stereotyped citizens. Talk about building a ‘living machine’ and showings at art gallery expos have created buzz at PARC, and no one is more nervous about finding the right material than its lone Media Archivist.
Other branching projects that will use PARC photos include a special page on the website ‘The History of Madness in Canada’ and new organizational publishing’s to follow the minor legacies of ‘Kiss Me You Mad Fool’ and ‘Let’s Face It!’.
More details to come as we make ‘progress’ on this project.
Anybody who has once worked with marginalized populations in an introverted setting will tell you that it's not the faces of the people who belong to a community but the stories behind them.
|Food Mapping session at PARC|
My intense fascination for what's happening to psychiatric patients on Queen West had led me to the front door of PARC, and soon inside the organization as I become their newest intern in September. I will get to see mental illness from a completely different perspective, all the while understanding the day-today realities of what it's like to be (wrongly) defined by one. My job here is that of an amateur historian. I am daunted by the task of the archivist: to property capture and re-tell a story through the thousands of photographs, letters and profiles I'll see, including the interactions I'll have with the members and staff within the organization.
This page endeavors to capture my experience over the next eight months as a member of PARC and the things I'll learn within its walls.