Responding to Town Square

HALIFAX – The process by which Rank Inc.’s new business super-complex, Nova Centre, was approved by HRM Council has lacked significant public input since the early stages of development in 2005. The investment of over $50 million dollars per government has, over the last year, prompted community interest groups, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, journalists, and Halifax MP Megan Leslie to direct attention to the lack of due public consultation, especially since the majority of those polled are against it.  The unanimous municipal, provincial and federal funding raises questions about government responsibility to public interest.

HRM Open Projects gave artist Scott Saunders the space and means to address this conflict. His installation of Town Square, 100 mannequin figures wearing business suits strewn across the rubble foundation of the former Chronicle Herald building, is an artwork that is not a solution to the outcome of private wheeling and dealing, but is one response to it.

Arresting and effective, the public interest in Town Square reminds the public of its relationship to space. It is a call to participate in it. In discussions with over thirty passersby, almost all were receptive to the site with critical interest. “It’s very intriguing to think about what it means,” one woman said. “It’s very interesting to look at,” said another. While some find the site  “creepy,” “strange,” or “morbid,” others find it to be a statement about potential “dystopia” and “the role of business in public planning.” It’s a “warning.” Most, however, think the project is “really great.”

Liam, a busker and songwriter new to Halifax, said that the “desolate scarred lot filled with faceless, anonymous suits in a space over which there has been a lot of controversy has artistic as well as economic importance.” To him, the artwork implies misplaced priorities in government spending and represents the outcome of prioritizing business over community. Town Square encourages people to think about the development of  “such a central and high profile location.” Saunders said the number of people who take pictures or ask to speak with him about the project is overwhelming. There is a “perceptible interest” in public art, and Open Projects deserves recognition for its support.

At the site, however, there is no signage describing the project. “There doesn’t need to be [a sign],” Saunders said. “It’s open to interpretation because I’m interested in creating dialogue.” The absence of signage also challenges the notion of private ownership. Over the summer the site was used for advertising, and sponsorship has been a recurring theme in City projects this past year.  As it is, the public can wonder about Town Square‘s meaning in an unadulterated way. “What does it suggest about us?” one man asked, “What are the consequences of being unheard?”  The project is an invitation for new discussions, and also a reminder that it is in all of our interests to be interested in our city.

Since mid-December, Saunders has spent over 150 hours on the project. He monitors changes to the figures due to weather or public meddling. He said only one figure has been stolen so far, potentially or coincidentally because it was wearing a “pretty cool” 1970s vintage jacket. “But even vandalism is part of [the project,]” he said, “I’m interested in that, too.” Responses to the site suggest that public art can be a tool for public engagement, even if there are “polarized reactions” to it. Perhaps that’s the point.  “If everyone loved it,” Saunders said, “I’d be doing something wrong.”

Moreover, the interest in Town Square highlights a lack of public art space in Halifax. This puts the impetus on local artists to demand more opportunities that the City should supply. Public art like Town Square connects people to spaces and encourages reflection. This actually seems obvious.  “I think this is just great,” one man said, taking a photo,”[the City] should fund more public art, especially with the way NSCAD is going.” From small to large public installations, for “any and all art projects, we have to keep asking, we have to keep chipping away,” Saunders said.

Sanctioned by all groups involved, Town Square is subversive in nature.  It is also an opportunity to interpret the future of the site. One woman asked, “Is he saying that we’re all just flopping around out here, uninterested?” Maybe. Are we becoming uninterested? Can art make us interested? Town Square is not intended to solve any problems, but it does suggest that the lack of public input on developments is a problem. “[The project] is definitely a response,” Saunders said. There are promises of public consultation for Nova Centre’s design, which is a better-late-than-never offer, but an offer nonetheless. Open Projects will begin accepting new proposals this spring.

Adria Young lives in Halifax. 

Photos by Scott Saunders

5 comments

  1. Interesting article and revealing interview with the artist, Scott Saunders, who should be lauded for his desire to make a bold statement on a highly visible piece of real estate in the Downtown core. Not surprisingly, his project has received mixed reviews and no end of speculation on what it really means. I would suggest that what people interpret the art project to mean says more about their own views, than what Scott intended to say.

    It is interesting that this story makes rather pointed comments about the “private wheeling and dealing” behind the convention centre and “lack of due public consultation”. Public consultation around the convention centre’s design will come, and has always been part of the mandate established by the province. HRM gave funding to the convention centre, and also were the ones that funded this art project. The private developer gave permission to use the site.

    So, are developers and the government only to be chided when it’s a real estate deal, not when it’s art?

    Paul MacKinnon
    Executive Director
    Downtown Halifax Business Commission

  2. Mr. MacKinnon,

    thank you for your thoughtful comments. You make very valid and interesting points, and I hope that future public consultation will be of value to the project as a whole. I would only like to say that I think there is a significant difference between privately approving a few thousand dollars for a temporary art installation and a $150 million dollar investment into permanent infrastructure. I don’t mean to ‘chide’ the government; I think Open Projects, as a municipal appendage, is doing great things with public funds, and HRM should be congratulated in that regard. I think that one of these investments deserves much, much more public consultation than the other, however.

    Adria Young

  3. Instead of critiquing the installation I just want to offer up an example of one sort of installation art piece that I think strikes a stronger chord. Artist David Czerny from Prague crafted an installation as a response to the city’s static relationship to the former cite of its Stalin monument. The monument was demolished but the space itself remains unchanged. Worth checking out http://www.davidcerny.cz/EN/stalin.html

  4. I came to Halifax to visit my friends…I am from europe and i traveling a lot but I never saw something like that before!
    Shame for this city (people who controlling this) Halifax should make a lot of money :invest in tourism;–UAE Dubai 25 years ago it was just desert!people there they need few months to build buildings why here(best connection for europe city-Halifax)is different. If no one cant handle this here make changes and get NEW PEOPLE responsible for this and future. I hope in 2012 this city will get some changes…Good Luck and everything best for Halifax

  5. While visiting Halifax I couldn’t help but notice the quaint 1945 city urban planning. What’s Up with the dummies in the vacant city lot? Is that a reflection of the morons running this city. Looks like future planners and private developers are fed up with the incompetence of city hall.
    Sorry but the Mayor has to go! Hire somebody with vision!! The infrastructure sucks, modernization sucks and the downtown core is dead, dead, dead.
    Those who caused the problem are insufficient to solve them..Albert Einstein

    No imagination, no culture, no vision stuck in the 1940’s..OMG
    You people have a gorgeous city with huge potential run by idiots and more idiots like 7-12 years to put up a new building…JOKE FIRE THODE IDIOTS!

    Everyone around the world knows Halifax will double in population in the next 5 years. Does anyone have the vision to lead this city into the future??

    SHAME!!

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