Broken City Lab

The artist collective Broken City Lab is working to re-engage citizens in the struggling city of Windsor, Ontario.

Much like its cross-border counterpart Detroit, the city of Windsor, Ontario, is having a tough time. In the wake of so much turmoil in the auto industry, the city's been left with the highest rate of unemployment in Canada, 9.9 percent in May. It's especially bad in a country that has otherwise weathered the economic downturn on the whole a bit better than its neighbor to the south.

With a population just over 200,000, Windsor represents a smaller scale version of the economic decline seen in Detroit. But unlike Detroit, which still commands some semblance of national pride for its rich history, Windsor is fast becoming the city that Canada is ready to forget about.

Bringing attention – both critical and celebratory – back to Windsor has been an ongoing goal of the interdisciplinary artist collective Broken City Lab. It started out in 2008 as a small effort loosely associated with the University of Windsor. Handfuls of students would meet weekly at the university (or a living room) and devise projects and interventions that could quickly, in some way, address the persistent problems facing Windsor, whether people not paying attention, appreciating the city for what it is, or acknowledging and acting upon those parts of it that need to change. Even – and maybe especially – those that seem most intractable.

It's kind of a DIY-ish urban activism aimed at engaging the public with the city. Early projects included small magnetic planters that can hang on chain-link fences, a large-scale projection on a building beaming messages intended to be read across the river in neighboring Detroit, a book about how the two cities might forget the border between them, and a variety of text-based interventions that overlay the descriptions and dreams of Windsor's people on its streets and buildings. The mobile phone app Drift, a recent project that guides users on a "psychogeographic walk," was recently covered by our own Emily Badger.

"Hopefully what projects like this do and what this project starts to do over time is introduce a sensibility of confidence in other people in creative intervening or problem-solving with little things around them," says Justin Langlois, an assistant professor of art at the University of Windsor.

Langlois worries that in Windsor, and many other places for that matter, there's a disconnect between people and city that perpetuates a narrative of decline. There have recently been some small improvements, construction jobs to help build a highway leading up to the proposed new bridge to Detroit, for example. But Langlois says there's still no long-term strategy in the city, and most of that falls back on a lack of effort from what he calls "fair-weather citizens," people who only engage with the things they like about their city and forget the rest.

Sitting on a folding chair in a whitewashed storefront in downtown Windsor, there's a lingering scent of drying paint in the air and Styrofoam dust covering almost everything. Langlois and Lab collaborator Kevin Echlin are setting things up in this space, the Lab's new home for the next two years, thanks to a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.

The Lab had a previous temporary home just across the street, where it hosted month-long artist residencies, inviting artists and groups from across Canada and the U.S. In one residency, artist Robin Fitzsimons responded to the newly opened and nearby Caesar's casino by learning to gamble and donating a week's worth of winnings to the local small business center. She won $67.50. Another residency featured the Toronto-based Department of Unusual Certainties, which filled the month with various efforts aimed at helping the local business community in downtown Windsor, from organizing business workshops to running a speed-dating night for local businesspeople to mapping and categorizing all the properties in the downtown area. That map was donated to the downtown business improvement association.

"It was a lot of really intense work," Langlois says of the map. "I think that's what designer-type people can do really well, is they come in and problem-solve quickly, and they're so rarely burdened by the bureaucratic nature of decision-making at any other level. That’s one of the most important things is how quickly you can get an idea up and running."

The storefront, dubbed Civic Space, is intended to serve as a blend of artist workshop, gallery and community meeting room. Langlois is hoping the Lab, now a formal non-profit, will run a recurring series of programs in the space, and also to host more artist residencies. The first project, kicking off with an opening party June 21, is what's being referred to as a letter library. That snowfall of Styrofoam dust will likely be mostly gone by then, but it’s a remnant of the 400 or so foot-tall letters Lab members have been cutting out of Styrofoam for the past few weeks (pictured above), creating the inventory for the library. The idea is that people will be able to borrow the letters, take them out into the city and create brief captions or descriptions on various locations and take pictures, all to be compiled on the Broken City Lab website, itself a library of past projects and the day-to-day process involved in bringing them to life.

Langlois sees Civic Space as a center for growing the city's concern with itself.

"That’s kind of the backdrop of a project like this," Langlois says. "On one hand what can this space do for the immediate community? And how can you develop a sense of civic ability?"

The Lab has a number of other projects in the planning stages, including a public space grading project and a letter-writing campaign to thank members of the community for not leaving Windsor.

Langlois himself is not long for this city, despite his own best intentions. Next year he'll be taking a full-time position at Emily Carr University in Vancouver teaching social practice, the sort of art-plus-real-world problem-solving he's been diligently pursuing here in Windsor. It's bittersweet, for sure, but also a perfect example of the persistent attention deficit in this, a university town with few prospects for its own graduates.

"There's a handful of people who bother sticking around after they graduate," Langlois says. "I was invested. If there's not somebody basically headhunting the handful of people who want to stick around and find ways for them to stick around, it's really a missed opportunity."

Windsor certainly needs a change. It may be a vast reorganization of the city's priorities or a revolution of its working class. More likely it's multiple smaller-scale interventions by people in the city and of the city who are disappointed enough with what's happening to try to make some sort of change. At least for the next two years while the foundation money's still around, the Broken City Lab will continue to explore these forms of civic participation and hopefully start to rewrite the narrative of what Windsor can be.

Photo credit: Nate Berg; top image courtesy Broken City Lab

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