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Bringing the university downtown

By: | November 11, 2011

Our arts columnist looks at efforts to bring artists and academics together in the city’s downtown

Aimee Wall
What We're Making provides an eclectic insight into what's happening in the arts in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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Words in Edgewise, the monthly interdisciplinary series featuring artistic and academic work, is about to celebrate two years of eclectic presentations. It’s become a bit of an institution, and is one of my favourite events in the city. And Morgan Murray, creator and organizer, is really just getting started.

Murray moved to St. John’s to study in the Humanities Department at Memorial University.

“The first day we were here, we went for a walk around, and we stopped at Needs on Merrymeeting Road and said ‘how do you get to MUN?’ And the girl couldn’t tell us. It took us like two hours to find MUN.”

The lack of a physical direct route from the university to downtown, he says, came to symbolize a disconnection of a more serious nature.

It’s not just St. John’s that has such a divide between community and academy. “I felt it before, in Calgary, as well. Campuses are kind of like a little fortress of knowledge and nothing interesting leaves without the secret password.”

It’s a phenomenon common in many places – the ides of the ‘campus’ separating the academy from the community – but as Morgan notes, it’s a little bizarre.

Murray has made it his mission to address this divide, and two years ago partnered with Eastern Edge, the artist-run gallery, to create an event that would bring the university downtown. As the website explains: “the Graduate Program in Humanities, the Eastern Edge Gallery and magpie magazine team up to present some of St. John’s most exciting and intriguing artists and academics performing, presenting and sharing their work in a variety of disciplines and media.”

In many ways, I think, this was exactly what the city needed. It’s a phenomenon common in many places – the idea of the ‘campus’ separating the academy from the community – but as Morgan notes, it’s a little bizarre.

“Especially in St. John’s, where there’s such a large per capita academic community and large per capita arts community […] Neither of them have anything to do with each other except that the odd artist will go to MUN and get a degree and come back and be an artist, but there’s never any sustained kind of co-mingling.”

So Words in Edgewise started as a way to make graduate studies feel less isolating, to bring academic work out into the larger community, to make it accessible and to give students an opportunity to learn how to do just that – make their work accessible to those outside of their field. But the feedback from participating artists was a pleasant surprise for Murray as well.

“Artist talks and art criticism in a public forum is always kind of strange, because it’s usually ‘academicized’ quite a lot. Reading a wall in an art gallery doesn’t make any sense a lot of times […] To hear the artists talk about it and say ‘I’m concerned about this particular concept and this is how I’m looking at it through this art’ and then to have a conversation about it, it’s been really fruitful.”

Artists, just like academics, can gain a lot from presenting a space in which discussion of their work has to be free of jargon.

Just a cement room

These nights at Eastern Edge usually feature three presentations, of anything from academic work to performance art to dramatic readings to musical performances. The gallery has been on board since the beginning and has become an integral part of the experience.

“I really like it in the gallery, because it’s not an intimidating space at all, it’s really cozy and laid back, it’s just a cement room, basically. I think the best thing to come out of Words In Edgewise is the discussion part of it, where you have a group of people talking with the presenter, and they’ve always been really, really high quality discussions, and so I don’t want to lose that, and I think if you put it in a theatre you’d lose that, and if you put it in a big ballroom you’d lose that, pretty much anywhere with a stage, you’d lose that. We thought about doing it in a bar, but you’d also have the bar stuff going on, you’d have half the people paying attention, half the people trying to have a conversation amongst themselves, but in the gallery everybody’s there to hear the speaker, and everybody’s engaged. You know, we sat around and listened to radio documentaries one night, and there was forty people just sitting there, listening to the radio really intently. It was amazing.”

The ethics of engagement

The sister project to Words in Edgewise has required a little more groundwork, but Murray has partnered with Dr. Jennifer Dyer, Director of Studies for the Humanities Department, to get magpie magazine off the ground. It’s a project with similar goals. From the website:

“magpie has big plans for growing into something bigger than the little magazine, books, and events we’ve been working on. We are looking to grow into a hub for artistic scholarship and radical humanities research and education, particularly, in the beginning, in Newfoundland and Labrador, in an ongoing effort to bridge the divide between scholars and their communities. At the moment this effort is mostly hopes, dreams, ideas, and conversations, but with luck and effort we are hoping to create meaningful relationships between university, community, and corporate partners to dramatically change how we think and communicate about things that matter to our communities.”

These projects, these events, were not extracurricular activities for Murray. That’s the whole point. It was an extension of his work at the university, to attempt to ‘do’ as well as study and research and think. Bringing the university into the community is not just about accessible presentations, he says, it’s about making community work a part of one’s academic work.

“I felt like I came into my research not really knowing how to express what I wanted to express, which is kind of where this fits, and it always seems like there’s this disconnect between the academic work I was doing and the community work I was doing and trying to find areas to overlap without it being like some statistical analysis of Words in Edgewise, without it being a study of Words in Edgewise, where Words in Edgewise is actually a part of the research and not the thing being researched. And so my journal, or thesis, ended up being about basically the ethics of engagement – how small-scale things, small-scale efforts to be engaged with your community can have larger repercussions.”

A community of people talking in a space

Space for discussion can add so much to the experience of hearing a lecture, or looking at art, or going to a reading, or listening to music, and Murray would say that it’s because it is productive to engage, and have a conversation about it. There are a lot of opportunities for us these days to just passively receive ideas and information, and to do this all alone, and so it makes these spaces for engagement and discussion all the more exciting, and all the more important.

“I have these highfalutin ideas of how eventually Words in Edgewise could change something about how we communicate with one another, the quality of the public discussion we have, and things like that. But even if it’s just talking about frivolous things, like heavy metal or whatever, you know, these things that don’t really seem like they’re life and death, but if you have fifty people sitting around the room talking seriously and honestly and are engaging openly with one another, you’re not on Facebook or talking amongst yourselves but you have a community of people talking in a space – I think that’s so important. And so it doesn’t matter what it’s about if you can get these people in a space and talking.”

The next installment of Words in Edgewise will take place on November 16 at Eastern Edge, and in honour of its twentieth edition, it’ll be a 20/20 – presentations of twenty images that change every twenty seconds, on anything you like.

I have a good feeling about what’s being built here, with Words in Edgewise, with the soon-to-be launched magpie magazine – and about what it will come out of these venues for discussion and engagement which help to blur the line a little between art and the academy, two communities which stand to gain so much from each other.

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