Our city’s still breathing

The title of the event couldn’t have been more “Winnipeg” in theme: “My City’s Still Breathing” — taken from the Weakerthans’ song “Left and Leaving”: “My city’s still breathing (but barely it’s true) through buildings gone missing like teeth.”

“I’m not certain how [the lyrics] were chosen, but I was quite flattered; they asked me a long time ago,” says Weakerthans’ vocalist John K. Samson. “I also remembered, during the conference, that the epigraph I used for that song is from local poet Catherine Hunter, ‘and for a moment both of you believe/you can hear the city breathing/you are both tired, you want to be done,’ so it is actually partly a Catherine Hunter line, too. I like that.”

Canada’s cultural capital of 2010 was a hub of activity from Nov. 4-7 as art aficionados gathered for the My City’s Still Breathing symposium. Winnipeg played host to the grand event — put on by the Winnipeg Arts Council under the Cultural Capital program — which drew together experts in such fields as architecture, urban planning and economics to discuss future endeavours of urban development, city revitalization and the relationship between art and artists to individual cities.

“[The symposium] was proposed in order to share with the world
Winnipeg’s unique art and municipal successes, learn from other cities’ successes and to do some long-term thinking about the relationship between art, artists and the city,” says Alix Sobler, marketing and communications coordinator for the Winnipeg Arts Council.

A committee of artists, planners and professors were consulted on the shape and plan for the symposium, says Sobler. In the end, a lineup of over 75 speakers, artists, presenters and performers from across Canada, and even England, Australia, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago were involved in the event; of those, Toronto philosopher Mark Kingwell and Vancouver urban planner Larry Beasley acted as the Canadian keynote speakers.

Film director John Waters opened the symposium to a packed house on the Thursday night with a speaking engagement at the Garrick Theatre.
In the 90-minute or so lecture, Waters discussed growing up in Baltimore, his experiences on the set of cult classics Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, Serial Mom and Cry Baby and his fascination with Winnipeg and Guy Maddin.

“John Waters embodied the theme of the symposium in many ways; he is an artist whose work is influenced by his city and, in turn, the city he lives in has been influenced by his work,” says Sobler. “He is a perfect example of the symbiotic and essential relationship between culture and city-living, and we knew he would have wide appeal.”

Samson opened the John Waters event with an acoustic set, including fan favourite “I Hate Winnipeg.” “It was a pretty unusual engagement for me; I was nervous, but I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I’m fairly familiar with Waters’ work, but I realized that many folks there were deeply engaged with his movies and with him as an artist; I could feel their excitement and anticipation, but they were also very patient and attentive while I played.”

The “Cultural Cities” panel session held on Friday morning posed the question: What makes a city a cultural hub? Cultural economist Alan Freeman from Greater London Authority in the U.K., who now calls Winnipeg home, discussed the public role of culture and how we live in a culture that is dominated by size. From this, he explained, naturally, size becomes a signifier of competition between cities.

Panel session topics ranged from “City as Generator” featuring Montreal artists Immony Men and Maegan Broadhurst, to “City Dep(art)ment,” which saw local filmmaker Paula Kelly discuss her artist-in-residence at the City of Winnipeg Archives. “Skywalks and Suburbia” included New York architect Donald Clinton and “Performing the City” had discussions from local singer/songwriter Christine Fellows as well as Jim Lasko, core artist from the Redmoon Theatre in Chicago.

There was also ample opportunity for the approximately 150 registered delegates to get outside of the boardroom: a performance by Winnipeg’s Contemporary Dancers at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, tarot card readings by the Winnipeg Tarot Company, a preview reception of the new Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art and a bus tour explore the city’s modern architecture. Highlights on the tour included the Civic Centre Complex and the Norquay Building, led by associate professor of art history at the University of Winnipeg, Serena Keshavjee.

“Our hope was that we would create a dialogue about the essential nature of art to our cities and indeed our lives,” explains Sobler. “We wanted to make people think, be inspired and maybe even make some plans.”