SAW City Debates: Talk about falling short

Talk about falling short

Andrew Cohen: "Things happen here that ought not to happen in a city with a strong sense of itself and with a sense of ambition"
Photo: Ben Welland

In its first City Debates instalment, SAW Gallery asks Ottawans to identify what's wrong with their city - guest speaker Andrew Cohen has a good idea what the answer will be

Venting about the pros and cons – mainly cons – of Ottawa living is a popular activity amongst Ottawans, and plenty of other Canadians who live outside its borders as well. To the far west, east and north, Ottawa is the fatted calf that continually escapes slaughter, bulging with a self-content civil service, smug politicians and a taxpayer-fuelled elite. To denizens of neighbouring metros, the self-acclaimed "world-class" buzz of Toronto and/or the sexiness of Montreal regularly overwhelm the senses and lead to a grunted dismissiveness of the national capital’s potential. But even the most bona fide local examples of innovative urban design, public transportation, political ingenuity on a civic level, and – to cut to the quick – civic engagement can be difficult to identify. What sort of statement does our downtown – comprised primarily of the world’s biggest skating rink, a bunch of wooden shacks that sell sugary treats known as beavertails and a smattering of poorly maintained buildings and streets – really make about a capital, its people and the country it represents?

The staff at SAW Gallery have a well-deserved reputation for creating thought-provoking exhibits, and with their year-long SAW City Debates series they are directly tackling the controversial design and architecture issue before taking aim at the state of the alternative press and criticism, and the future development of Victoria Island. The first instalment in the series features the premiere of documentary Urbanized. By New York City- and London-based director Gary Hustwit, Urbanized analyzes the growing migration of populations into cities, and its cultural and urban design implications. The screening will be followed by a "no-holds-barred" discussion between the audience and panel members Andrew Cohen (Ottawa Citizen) and Barrie McKenna (The Globe and Mail) and moderator Deborah Margo (University of Ottawa).

Implicit in the selection of speakers for this panel is a sense for provocation; all guests are natives of Montreal, and journalists Cohen and McKenna have been outspoken in their criticism of Ottawa’s government, urban design and culture. Cohen – an award-winning journalist, a professor of journalism at Carleton University and a best-selling author of five books (among them a finalist for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction: While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World) – even wrote a scathing article during the summer of 2011entitled "The problem with Ottawa is Ottawans." It’s quite clear that SAW Gallery won’t be warming up to the topic with some polite, generic discussion.

"I think this debate should be put on the Internet as well, and available to whoever wants to come and say what they want to say – we’re not talking about nuclear secrets," says Cohen, reached at his Ottawa home. "This subject isn’t new to me; I’ve been writing about it for several years. I also wrote a book entitled The Unfinished Canadian, which is about the Canadian character, and in that book I talk about Ottawa as a reflection, to a degree, of Canada. I’ve lived in Ottawa by and large from 2001, and this is a city without ambition. It just continues to fall short of what it should be for its size, its wealth, its history, its geography."

At one time a member of the editorial board of The Globe and Mail, Cohen also spent time as a columnist and foreign correspondent in another North American capital – Washington, D.C. After returning to Ottawa, he felt his arguments about local and Canadian culture needed an update.

"You always have new things to say about things here, because they’re always doing something that’s dumb," he adds. "For example, the debate they weren’t having five years ago was Lansdowne Park. They’ve since had that debate and we’ve missed, or apparently missed, a wonderful opportunity to make that an international showplace. They also hadn’t shut down the city due to the winter bus strike. Things happen here that ought not to happen in a city with a strong sense of itself and with a sense of ambition. This to me is the capital of complacency."

SAW City Debates
@ SAW Gallery
(67 Nicholas)

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Effective since late 2011, SAW Gallery has a new curator, but he looks quite a lot like the previous one.

Jason St. Laurent takes over at the artist-run gallery from his twin brother Stefan St. Laurent, who leaves to focus more intently on his own creative work. The twins co-produced the infamous 2006 Scatalogue exhibition at SAW, in which all of the works were made of feces, sending MP Chuck Strahl into a tizzy and engaging the public in an existential debate about art and its corresponding public funding. With the upcoming City Debates series, St. Laurent will be stirring the shit again as sensitive issues of local urban design, media, culture and ownership are illuminated by a variety of presentations and the opinions of notable guests and experts.

"Some people are seeing us as leading some kind of discussion on urban design and other issues in the city," says St. Laurent. "But in my view what we are really doing is tapping into a zeitgeist, which has been fairly recent, where all of sudden everyone wants to discuss the future of Ottawa and make it a better place. We’re having these debates, but we’re hoping they will be a bit more open and risk-taking than what we have seen thus far. Our hope has just been to pursue a discussion that has been happening on streets about Ottawa and how to make it a better place."