The Arts Unite: Cultivating and Harvesting Earthquake Resilience

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By: Eileen Chen

Photo credits: Noriko Nasu-Tidball, Kerrisdale Community Centre

It shouldn’t be surprising that people rebound from a shared catastrophe by bonding with each other in their community. It may be more provocative to suggest that art is a key factor in healing and community-building, but if you’re a reader of The Colloquium, you shouldn’t be astonished either. Is it possible though, for resilience to be incubated in a population that, on a whole, hasn’t yet been crumpled by destruction? Does resilience bear the same weight in such a context, and can this activism reach enough people?

The Arts Unite: The Arts and Earthquake Resilience was an experimental event that invites answers to these questions, among many others, and its attendance rate posed a favourable initial response. Brought forth jointly by Kerrisdale Community Centre Society’s Community Engagement Committee (KCCS) and Vancouver Arts Colloquium Society (VACS), in an effort to deepen the ongoing Kerrisdale Earthquake & Emergency Preparedness (KEEP) initiative, the event took place successfully on Sunday, November 17, 2019 at the Kerrisdale Community Centre.

Preparations for the big day began months prior with the production of two VACS original earthquake documentary films, the first on post disaster healing and the second on art and resilience (with a spotlight on Japan). In advocating awareness of who we are or who we could be in times of crisis, the VACS team captured some remarkable stories and artworks throughout history and across cultures, featuring artists who re-imagined and recreated the social and cultural fabrics of their communities in crisis. 

“We attempt to challenge the inertia in Vancouver and start a conversation about how we can collectively envision a resilient city through our shared history. Earthquake survivors left us abundant lessons and hopes from which we all ought to learn time and time again,” says Dr. Keiko Honda, the producer behind the film series and founder of VACS, who grew up in Japan, where earthquakes are all too common. 

In addition, the VACS team and community contributors tirelessly racked their brains over what activities to use during the event, and planned the agenda through down to the minutest detail. Needless to say, this is one of the grandest production yet during my two years at VACS.

arts unite 2As a transcriber during the event, I had the least to do, but had the unique chance to closely admire participants’ responses by catching ideas in the room. Ideas which were literally thrown around. During the “Snowball Fight” icebreaker, everyone wrote on a sheet of origami paper in response to the prompt “one thing that makes you feel connected to your neighbours,” and crumpled the paper up to throw around the room before picking up the anonymous answers of others to read. What I thought was a fairly narrow prompt yielded diverse results that ranged from powerful one-word concepts like “awareness” and “acceptance,” to heartwarmingly specific examples like “knowing their dog” and “car-pooling the kids.”

The wholesome activity was sandwiched in-between screenings of the two weightier earthquake films. On a big screen, the grand-scale destructions were especially poignant, and although subtitles were occasionally difficult to read for segments that were spoken in Japanese, the touching efforts made by the victims and artists (two identities that often became interchangeable at times of disaster) were worth craning our necks a little for. Each piece of art unveiled the passion and grief of individuals or collectives, and bore testimony to the notion that trauma can be transformed, but not forgotten.

After that, it was time to make seed ideas actionable in a lesser-known but highly effective activity called Pro-action Café. Participants assigned themselves to different tables, each with a “caller” who proposed a seed idea for making our city more resilient. The callers were diverse, including Tofino-based artist Pete Clarkson, Vancouver’s Chief Resilience Officer Katie McPherson (attending off-duty), SFU’s museum research associate Jurian ter Horst, and UBC Anthropology Ph.D. student Jonathan Eaton, among several others. Surprisingly, many participants shared their emerging ideas and questions on the spot and served passionately as impromptu callers.

arts unite 4After three rounds of table rotations in which ideas were challenged and furthered by different people, the ideas accumulated were remarkable: emergency gathering spaces for accommodation, amateur radio training for communication, story circles and block parties for knowing your neighbours before an emergency strikes, heritage preservation in addition to post-disaster rebuilding… Nobody had any illusions about how deadly an earthquake would be, but every group’s presentation carried a firmly rooted sense of optimism. There’s no doubt that such like-minded hope would survive and pass itself on, even if the ground that it rooted itself on was violently shaken.

Soon, everyone was given an opportunity to implement their shared ideas in a hands-on village-building activity entitled “Harvesting Failure,” led by community architect Varouj Gumuchian. For the activity, Varouj prepared a remarkable array of discarded materials, including takeout containers, nails, tiles, fabric, cut-out lines of poetry, and sticks with leaves attached, arranged in the fashion of a flea market display. The task was to each create a miniature structure using only discarded materials and a glue gun, given the premise that Vancouver is struck by tremendous earthquake and needs to be rebuilt.

Before the activity, Varouj already had on display several of his eccentric structures, as well as collages themed around natural disaster.

“Should I tape on the back only?” I remember asking him as I helped put the collages up on the wall (because the tape was bright green).

“Oh, just do whatever,” he said with a fleeting glance. “You know my style.”

I’m not entirely sure I knew his style before this, but that line was definitely dropped with style. It takes a big heart and a certain creative boldness to make functional art out of junk, and the participants soon caught on to that spirit.

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Using no more than half an hour, every participant ended up with an upright structure, and even more, every structure came with a story or specific functions. One participant built a greenhouse using a plastic container, designed to grow emergency vegetables. Another built a lighthouse that served as a landmark for shelter with sticks and meshes, while somebody else built a park by surrounding a branch with straps of nail gun nails.

Other participants were more metaphorically minded, such as Pete Clarkson, who built an abstract structure resembling a large wave – perhaps in reference to a tsunami, to which his own disaster art is heavily related. Another person glued colourful plastic sampler spoons to barren twigs to symbolize “growing hearts,” because “we never stop growing and bonding with others despite the circumstances.” One of my favourite structures was an iron-mesh nest with a pair of scissors as its centerpiece – what inspired it was something of which the author herself wasn’t even entirely sure!

arts unite 1Built on the same long table, the pieces made up quite a busy village indeed. You might still be able to catch a glimpse of the creations at the main lobby of Kerrisdale Community Centre.

In chatter, exchanges of contacts, and snack-sampling, the eventful afternoon drew to a conclusion. Special thanks naturally go to dedicated KCC staff and youth volunteers who made the event possible, gracious community contributors, and a driven team of VACS members who assiduously worked long months behind the scenes on research, video production, and designing of this community forum.

Are we a step closer to forming a resilient community after these four hours? The energetic word clouds and unconventional village on display certainly suggested a bountiful harvest. To return to the phrase “harvesting failure,” it not only signifies the transformation of tragedy into productive power, but forces us to become aware and take ownership of whatever has “failed” or is “failing.” The Arts Unite: The Arts and Earthquake Resilience acknowledged risk factors not just in our geography, but in our community, and dug for solutions born from the very community itself. In this sense, it was truly an immersive and unifying experience.

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