The Politics of Art at PARC

The Politics of Art at PARC

By Michael Burtt
For nearly four decades, the Parkdale Activity and Recreation Centre [PARC] has been a place where people rebuild their lives. In the early days, members were given membership cards, but today PARC folks will proudly tell you that you become a member by simply walking through the door.

Ink and colour sketch of PARC façade with "Welcome" above door and pictures depicting activies in windows
Over its impressive 30-plus year history, PARC has become a unique experiment. It remarkable that this experiment has sustained itself over this length of time, through succeeding waves of federal, provincial, municipal and local change. Also extraordinary is the quality and volume of powerfully moving art work that has come out of the PARC community since its earliest days.

PARC’s survival and the central place for its art-making as a radical form of storytelling are in fact closely connected. Over and over again, PARC artists describe their work as a form of survival not as a hobby or a profession. In this way PARC artists share much with “outsider, vernacular and underground” artists, people whose work passionately expresses individual and collective experience in a less than friendly world. The contemporary art scene has much to learn from PARC artists in this regard.

Whether in poems, stories, paintings, music, craft-work or performances and installations, one of the most noticeable qualities of art at PARC is how the personal and the shared narrative intertwine. The creation of a shared narrative, out of an alienated, fragmented one, is an essential building block in the path to recovery, or to use the title of a favorite Music Night from PARC’s past: “The Road to Soul.”

It is possible then to read, see and hear PARC artwork as a history of how one community has responded to de-institutionalization over the past forty years. Unlike much of the scholarship, journalism and government reports written about both PARC and this larger story, in their art the members are the centre of their own story and tell it in a way that they want to tell it.

This “storytelling” has many sources, including the Music Group, led by the extraordinarily talented Zepheniah James and his band; PARC’s Poetry Nights; the longstanding Writing Group (now in its twenty-fifth year); the numerous exhibits and shows of the Tuesday Night Art Group. In partnership with Making Room Community Arts, PARC members have created a handmade canoe, a giant art raft, wall-sized portraits, lightboxes and the “Market” that celebrated PARC’s 32-year history through a number of installations and performances. The Knitting Group can be found at work both in the drop-in and as part of local events such as the recent Roncey Rocks and the Parkdale LabCab Festival. Recently, long-time PARC staff person and artist Bob Rose wrote a series of five short stories documenting some of the incredible lives of those he had met at PARC over the years. Finally, The Living Archive Project (LAP) has created a number of videos that tell members’ stories in their own words and images.

To find out more about these stories and how they contributed to PARC’s history, click on the narratives in the right hand menu.