Ten years after the debut of Charlottetown’s open-air art festival, Art in the Open (AITO), it is clear that it has served as a much-need bridge between nationally recognized artists, local emerging artists, and the average Prince Edward Islander. As audiences observe the relationships between installations, Art in the Open conjures an alternative landscape, one where space and history interact through art to tell stories with profound messages. During the one-day festival, artworks are not isolated or as easily navigable as in traditional gallery spaces. Instead, the observer is invited to wander, or better still, to get lost.
The curatorial staff of 2021’s festival (Andrew Cairns, Damien Worth, JoAnna Howlett, Pan Wendt, and Lisa Theriault) were mirthfully in touch with the notion of aimless wandering. The array of twenty-five exhibits were laid out tastefully, sewing the downtown landscape into a quilt of patches both playful and challenging. On account of this effort to appeal to a broad audience or otherwise preserve an atmosphere of confusion, contradictions within the festival’s portrayal of Island identity appear at important junctures in space. But these sites are made through disjunctures between history and appearance, playing off the foreboding discomfort the average settler Canadian has experienced over the last year with recent revelations about mass graves beneath residential schools and movements such as #IdleNoMore.
Through its ambitions to reimagine PEI’s cultural identity, Art in the Open succeeded in hosting an appropriately diverse selection of artists. However, given that its curatorial teams have still had a way to go in this regard, AITO moving forward is confronted with a challenge. Taking place within a community that struggles continually against the scourge of “tourist artwork,” how does AITO determine which people, stories, and ideas rightfully belong to the Island? Given that Atlantic Canada has depended on near-mythological, colonial narratives to define itself for the last several hundred years, there is a strong need for both self-reflection and forward-looking practice that deals concretely with our historic realities. How can this approach be made effective through artwork?
Among a series of works that seek an internal, nostalgic solution to the contradiction of Atlantic Canadian identity (Adriana Kuiper & Ryan Suter, Hold; Leah Garnett, Raising Rooms; Benjamin Goss, Monologue; Erik Edson, Familiar Lines), Maryse Arsenault’s Teaching Water Jugs How to Float was a striking performance piece that took place at the edge of the polluted Charlottetown Harbour. While singing the work song “A Little Bit of Rain,” Arsenault repeatedly filled plastic jugs with water one after another, returning to the shore to pour them out. Small as the audience was for this piece, it took on a poetic form in antagonism to the grand Beaconsfield Historic House next to it, a quintessential tourist location that revels in the Victorian era of colonialism. As Arsenault “teaches water jugs how to float,” she established an apologetic ritual, summoning the ghosts of old Canadian workers whose labour is embedded in the harbour. This curious performance situated the rest of AITO in intimate relation with the land upon which the festival takes place, yet left us gracefully stuck in the past.
Another such historically-minded piece is Louis-Charles Dionne’s Sugar Shack, which consists of a dimly-lit tent containing maple-flavoured vapour created by several Vicks humidifiers. Guests were given a maple leaf cookie before entering the dreamy space, which resembled the often appropriated sweat lodge of the Plains Indians while , yet alluding to the traditional Quebecois trope of the sugar-shack, affirming a mythological identity defined by a consumerist definition of our relationships to the land . Despite the comfort exuded by this sentimental musing on space and experience, its strengths lie in where discomfort is created. Emphasized by its proximity to the Black Cultural Society’s We All Have a Dream, centred on the legacy of Black people on the Island, the sugar shack was problematized for me as soon as I stepped out of the traditional, colonial perspective. I was compelled to ask, “What is the Canadian experience, and why do I belong to it?”
Nearby were several exhibits working in opposition to this kind of self-criticism, proposing technological futures that took the supposed transhistorical subject of Canadian mythology for granted. Sarah Wendt and Pascal Dufaux’s Unknown Species performance satiated audiences eager to discover uncharted digital territories ripe for colonization. Though forward-looking, it relocated our engagement with history into the personal world of the disinterested spectator, as did the simple digital intervention of Skydrop Studios’ Dragonflies Through Binoculars, a musical robot in the woods that danced, made sounds and flashed lights in response to sonic input.
In its presentations of social and ecological space, AITO had difficulty balancing “new” perspectives of the Island’s future with the necessary, critical perspectives dealing with its history. Given the Maritimes’ geographical isolation, much of the art reflecting on our past is immersed in nostalgia, making it difficult for settler artists to criticize their connections to the stolen land to which they have become attached. While AITO appropriately platformed Indigenous voices—notably the wonderful GLAM Collective, whose video series Ebb and Flow astounded me and others—it did not give proper context to its audience of how such artwork is significant to Islanders. Except for Mark Igloliorte’s Tukik Gawasgeget: Kickflip, a participatory installation at the skatepark, Indigenous-made artworks were unfortunately peripheral, occupying screens and flat surfaces. Skawennati’s excellent video, Time Traveller™, was seemingly tucked away indoors, disconnected from any relevant spatial context.
Serious criticism of contemporary structures should replace nostalgia as a means of conveying the importance of land and place to Island audiences. Art in the Open, still a young festival, offers the community an opportunity to perform this criticism outside the limits of a gallery. Because of its dedication to accessibility and community celebration, the future of AITO should aim to represent, as democratically as possible, the aspirations and feelings of all Islanders concerning their land. While the impetus to meditate on the role of space in nature in our cultural identities remains crucial for AITO, Indigenous participation in both curated installations and on the curatorial team itself should be foregrounded, allowing diverse histories to be told.