Under the name of Public Studio, Toronto-based filmmaker Elle Flanders and architect Tamira Sawatzky work in public art and installation, film and photography, with a keen interest in collaboration and geopolitical engagement. Their multidisciplinary practice engages with contested publics, colonial landscapes, ecology, and urbanization.
Flanders and Sawatzky talk to Theo Di Castri about recent and notable projects, their working history and social contexts, and more.
Theo Di Castri: How did the two of you start collaborating together as an architect and a filmmaker on landscape-based projects?
Tamira Sawatzky: Elle and I sort of came together in art and life, simultaneously. We met as a couple: Elle was working as a filmmaker and I was working in an office as an architect. Our first collaboration was on a project called What Isn't There. Elle had been documenting the former Palestinian villages within the 1948 borders of Israel and was thinking about how to actually exhibit the photographs. At the time I had been designing movie theatres and there was this new product that had come out that was essentially a kind of a microfilm lightbox material. And so I suggested that we merge her images of Palestine together with this material.
Elle Flanders: Interestingly, this material was originally designed as a war technology for doctors in the field to view x-rays on a surface that could be rolled up. Of course they had started marketing it as a commercial product and I guess Tamira had seen it in one of the demos that happen often in architecture offices. When Tamira showed this microfilm material to me, I was just blown away. What I loved about it was how imperceptible and almost ephemeral it made these photographs. All of a sudden here was this technology that allowed for landscape to be as intangible and ephemeral as it often is in our vision of it.
When you work in photography or film or in the art world, technology often comes to you later. You often have an idea of what you would like to be able to do but you don't necessarily have that connection to that industrial, commercial, capitalist world in which the technologies to realise your idea are readily available. But as an architect, Tamira had much more access to that technological world, which really added to our collaboration.
TD: How do your different disciplinary backgrounds complement each other?
TS: I've always been trained to start with site and intensively research its conditions in a way that leads to the most appropriate, sensitive response. But working with Elle there was suddenly an added political lens through which I started to view sites, and landscape became something else. In one of our first projects together, Road Movie, we went to Palestine and lived there for a year. We were interested in the road system in the West Bank as an element both of infrastructure and architecture that was (and is) feeding the occupation. Elle had originally wanted to make a film about it but we soon realized that another film at that point was not the right response. We wanted to put people in the space of occupation. We wanted to build. We wanted to essentially make a spatial installation that would respond to the road system. So we ended up making a sort of three-dimensional film-installation.
EF: I am somebody who is much more used to dealing with film and the bigger lens on landscape. Tamira, on the other hand, has helped me become much more attuned to the actual practices and terms of structure and infrastructure. I was interested in exploring occupation in the everyday through people and the politics of place. But Tamira approached the idea of occupation in terms of the infrastructure: the road systems and the actual physical barriers that were in the landscape. And while both those elements were, in a way, obvious, it was only in coming together with Tamira that the infrastructural dimension of the landscape became apparent to me.
I think too, after years of working against the occupation, I was beginning to recognize that there was a limit to how much people's opinions might change in response to seeing the influx of information that is a film. As Road Movie became more of an installation and took on a third dimension, suddenly viewers could move around spatially and have a sense of place. We built the installation as three walls that sat in the centre of the gallery, with a girth and height that had a real presence. In moving through the gallery, the viewers actually had to navigate around these walls onto which the film was being projected. Making something immersive made such a difference. Because when you see the occupation on a two-dimensional screen it becomes something distant: you’re looking at those people over there living and experiencing something that is far away and separate from you. But when you bring some sense of the spatial reality of the occupation to your viewers, it gains a presence.
TD: Have you ever found your different disciplinary backgrounds to be irreconcilable?
TS: For me, I find it very difficult to think of our work outside of its built form. I need to go there kind of immediately. Which I think is often frustrating for Elle. You know, just yesterday, we were participating in a lighting competition and my first instinct was to start thinking about how we were going to change the light bulbs. Elle was ready to kill me because we didn’t even have a concept down but I just kind of go to those kinds of considerations because I hate things that don't work. I think that the success of installation does rely on its ability to actually function properly.
EF: I have no disagreement. I'd still be in la-la land if it weren't for Tamira. For me though, it's a question of "what happens, when?" Sometimes I think it can be important to not let the technical limitations of your field impinge on what we don't yet know. I don’t want to cut off avenues before we've allowed ourselves a chance to dream a little bit. The problem is that I'm sometimes not so sure how to get beyond the dream. I guess it’s a problem that faces political activists more generally. I always call myself a pessoptimist—somebody who believes in change, but who doesn’t actually believe that people are capable of it. I think it's a similar productive tension that keeps our work interesting and possible even.
TD: Despite your collaboration, you both maintain your own practices, in architecture and in film respectively . Do you find that elements or practices from your collaboration with each other have trickled back into the work you do that is more firmly grounded in your individual disciplines?
TS: My goal is to have one, holistic practice. It doesn't always work out that way, I mean, especially when you're working with building permits and other practicalities. But that's the goal and I think it's actually happening. It's a real process. Coming from a very traditional architectural practice, I was trained as a professional. Professions have codes of ethics and rules and associations and I think it's very hard to break free from that. I am interested in breaking down the distinction between art and design and architecture and film and in trying to inhabit that space where these things can't be slotted into one particular practice.
EF: There is a moment in which certain things are required to be what they are. So there are times when I make a film because it is required of the subject for it to be in film. And so as multidisciplinary as we get, we still think about what works where, and why, and when, and how? I find myself going back to film because of its democratic potential. To me, the art world and its "public" is becoming more and more hermetically sealed, functioning within the realm of a market, commodities, private equity, banking, etc. It is so tied up in capitalism! And of course one cannot separate film from capitalism but I am suggesting that film can speak to a public in a way that art circulating within the art world does not. For me, film has a different public and I like engaging with that public. It feels productive.
TD: The public dimension of your work seems to be central, if not foundational, to your practice. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your understanding of and approach to “public art”.
EF: A lot of our work ends up being a negotiation with the question, what is public art? For me, public art is often about calling attention to the fact that spaces we might assume are public, 99.9% of the time are actually private. Take the project Migrant Choir that we staged in the Giardini at the Venice Biennale in 2015, for example. Creative Time, an organization in New York City committed to putting art in the public realm, had invited us to collaborate with the urban theorist Adrian Blackwell. We were interested in doing a piece around migration because the migrant crisis was at a peak and racism was emerging from all corners. So we worked with a friend of ours who runs a refugee organisation in Ferrara just outside Venice. We ended up assembling a choir of twenty-one recently arrived refugees who moved through the Biennale and sang the national anthems of three European countries—Italy, France and the UK—in front of their pavilions. Even before they got to the pavilions, just having twenty-one black bodies moving through the public realm in Italy was a statement. You could tell people were looking and turning and the police had their walkie-talkies ready. To me, that was the beginning of the intervention.
The project became a very intricate and political question for Creative Time because the Biennale had actually asked them to stay confined to a theatre space. They didn't want the sort of intervention that so often happens with these things. Creative Time had an amazing line up of speakers: Mariam Ghani, Kunlé Adeyemi, all sorts of interesting people! But the plan was for all of us to just talk to each other inside of a theatre—preaching to the choir. So we decided to try and break out of that. One would think that the Giardini of the Biennale are public spaces, but the area where the pavilions are is actually owned by the Biennale. So ultimately, Migrant Choir was an illegal action.
TS: I think we’re trying to breakdown the distinction between "public art" and "art-world art." For a long time public art has existed within the domain of "civic good," urban planning, and corporate design. But I think we’re at an interesting moment because some of that is starting to change. At least here in Toronto, artists have realized that public art is well supported and it's actually a way one can live as an artist. So artists are becoming less snobby about it. But I’d like to think we've always been less snobby about it, because we've always enjoyed the democracy of public art.
The problem with “public art” for us is the constraints—the notions of longevity and sculpture—that public art imposes upon itself. A lot of it is mired in a notion of 60s modernism in which you have a sculpture that compliments a building. So that's something we're trying to change when we approach public art. We generally regard iconic pieces with a kind of disdain. We like to break things down amongst the entire site, or work with video, or propose something that maybe doesn't last for twenty years. And I think the powers that be in public art are realizing that, in order for public art to be contemporary, it has to change.
TD: On your website you describe your practice as one that engages political themes through “the activation of site.” What does that look like?
TS: I think our Moss Park project is a really good example of this. The firm that I used to work at, MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects (MJMA) were recently asked to compete for a project to design a new community centre in Moss Park, which is a large, very urban, historical park in an area of town that is being gentrified right now. It's really close to the centre of the city but it has a huge at-risk population that struggles with drug problems and poverty. MJMA brought us on knowing that there was going to be a public art component to their proposal. Instead of doing it the usual way, where the artist comes in after the fact, they wanted to bring in socially engaged artists from the beginning of the design process. I think we were all trying to break down those differences between "architecture" and "art." It's not the usual, "your public art will go here" but rather, public art becomes part of the stairs, part of the roof plan, part of the play structure—part of the community. Part of our role as artists working on this project is to almost curate others into the park. The park is situated in an area that has a large Indigenous population and we're interested in working with contemporary Indigenous artists to make space for those communities within the park. I think of our task as socially engaged artists as being less about deciding "what objects will we make here?" and more as a research project that will ultimately lead to objects and forms.
EF: Since the late 1800s, Moss park has been where all of the city’s homeless shelters were located. So there is a history of at-risk populations living in the neighbourhood. I think the reason we were selected together with MJMA for the project is that we had a program that considered all these at-risk communities and was geared towards creating inclusive spaces. I see our job here as political thinkers is to think about what is necessary in terms of "site". It's not another art object. What's necessary is to ask: how do we engage these people, to use this space and make it feel like their own? So it's everything from Indigenous place-making to providing some form of "shelter"—you're not supposed to say that because the city gets hysterical—but, you know, some form of "space." There are homeless men who sit on the edge of the park on a wall. So it's a matter of asking: can we create a space in the park for them? Can this park be theirs? Can this new community centre be theirs? So I think that is an example of "activation of site," of how to think as artists around a problem, and not just say: "here's your bobble. That should activate it!" No!
TD: You mentioned engaging with Indigenous artists and communities--what is it to attempt such an engagement as ‘landscape artists’? I think, at least in the settler colonial mythologies of Canada, landscape is inevitably bound up in colonially-charged notions of individualism and domination: man vs. the Great Canadian Wilderness! Canada, at least nominally, is trying to embark on a path towards reconciliation with our colonial past. What role do you see landscape-oriented art and architecture playing in that process?
TS: I think for myself personally it's a real struggle. I definitely grew up with exactly that understanding of landscape. You know, we had a beautiful cottage on an island on a lake in the middle of the woods where my father cut down trees in the forest and built a home for us: a home for his family in the woods. Since that time, I've reconsidered my relationship to landscape.
EF: For me, in fact, it was through the settler colonial lens of Israel-Palestine that I came to confront these questions. I was asked to participate on a panel many years back in 2009 on a comparison between Indigenous and Palestinian rights here in Canada. And just listening to some of those great artists talk about some of the issues I had been so focused on in the context of Israel-Palestine but in the Canadian context—that was really eye opening to me. I did a project back in the 80s called Crossing Borders: Israel-Palestine. It involved physically making the journey across the West Bank with my camera to try and understand this other world that had been kept from me by means of propaganda and nationalist narratives. And I think that the same is true here in Canada. We both grew up in a time in which we had a completely mythologised version of Canadian history taught to us—not quite "the noble savage," but I wouldn't say that it was that far off. There was no such thing as "Indigenous Studies" at the time. I think that any kind of reconciliation must begin by seeking to cross the divide. I truly believe that Truth and Reconciliation is a settlers’ project. This isn't something the Indigenous community needs to “do”. This is about others taking responsibility: to learn, to understand, and to cross the divide. And we're only just beginning this process. It’s a slow learning process and you have to step carefully. And we will no doubt make mistakes and be called out for them and we're just going to try and learn as we go.
TS: And I think landscape is, for us, a way into this process. In a recent project we did at the Art Gallery of York University, What We Lose in Metrics—we devised a declaration of the rights of nature with our artist-collaborator, Terri-Lynn Williams Davidson, who is a lawyer and a member of the Haida Nation. It was a very utopian and idealistic project. But we have a country of vast resources that we're completely ruining and I think reimagining our land requires some kind of utopian leap.
EF: When we came up with “the rights of nature”--a declaration that accords nature the same rights as humans--we didn’t think it would actually get incorporated into the Canadian charter of rights. But I think sometimes what art can do is act as a provocation and create a space that allows things to enter into public discourse in a way that policy cannot. I was thinking about when Tanya Bruguera announced herself as a candidate for the president of Cuba. I mean, will she actually become president? Probably not. Especially since they recently jailed her. But I think that art can create a kind of container: a form that can provoke a kind of transformation. It’s a question of creating some kind of a shift in consciousness, stirred up from an aesthetic engagement. Utopian? Yes. Theoretical? Yes. But will we try to enact that in our walk? Yes. I mean, the alternative is sitting at home and watching Trump media all day, so this sounds like a much better idea to me.
TD: Your latest project, The New Field, seems to be an attempt to do exactly what you’ve just described. You've described it as a project that seeks to find “alternative ways of being in our Canadian landscape.” I'm curious to know if anything has emerged on that front yet with the project?
TS: We're still in the beginning phases of that project, but the plan is to walk the entire length of the Bruce Trail, which is a 900km trail that runs from Tobermory in the north down to, essentially, Niagara Falls. We’re interested in the trail from a couple of different vantage points, one being an outgrowth of What We Lose in Metrics and of thinking through the space of the forest. The other deals with questions of public space and "territory." The trail runs through public and private lands and we're interested in those negotiations. Because while you can walk the whole thing, you can't actually camp on the portions that run through private land. This puts into question land claims, territory, space in visceral ways. So we're having to negotiate how we'll manage to stay on this trail for the entire duration of the walk.
EF: I think the other thing about the Bruce Trail that is interesting to us is that, historically, it runs through a variety of treaty lands that we don't know anything about. So it's an opportunity to learn the pre-history of the history that the naturalists thought they were recovering. The trail was built for '67 for Canada’s centennial. We’re now at the sesquicentennial. It's interesting for us to look back at what the aspirations of Canada’s 100th anniversary were, and where it is now fifty years later. What has been forgotten in that time? What was the idealism of the 1967 World Fair Expo in Montreal? It was such a different time—the beginning of Disney, really. Now we’re seeing the fallout of Disney. We’re interested in thinking through those changes and contrasts that have occurred under neoliberalism. The proposal is to walk with different people over the course of two months. We'll be joined by philosophers and writers and students and families—a broad spectrum of people to walk with us so that we can figure out: what is this next moment of time?
To learn more about Public Studio's work, click here.