Review: Building a new Arts Court revealed in Cultural Engineering video project

This is the opening shot in a video prepared by Cara Tierney called Melt In. To Spring, part of the Cultural Engineering project.

In this age of broadcast lives, when newborns may later look back and find their every moment shared and chronicled on social media, it’s fitting that the birth of a new Arts Court has been lovingly, publicly documented.

For two years the Cultural Engineering project has been commissioning Ottawa artists to produce video contemplations of the construction of the new building, which is slated to wrap up later this year. Funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, the project has just published its ninth and final online issue. As with many group shows the results are uneven, but overall the videos offer a revealing insight into what the building — which houses the Ottawa Art Gallery, SAW Gallery and other arts organizations — means to the city and to many people in it.

The title, says project co-ordinator Michael Davidge, “pays homage to the work of Tom Sherman, fine arts professor, video artist and former head of the Canada Council’s New Media Arts Section, who has made astute observations on the relationship between government, technology, and the arts.”

The principal artists in the project, run under the auspices of SAW Video, have been Tim Smith and Meredith Snider.

In Issue 1, Snider’s video is simple audio of passersby who’ve been asked whether they know of Arts Court, and too much of it is variations on “no” or “I’m not from here,” a point that could be more effectively made in less time. The latter section has people who know the building and explain why they’ve been there, and it too seems more routine survey than art. Maybe that’s the point? She’s more successful in Issue 9, where she asks passersby,  “what is culture?” People struggle for a definition, but their consistent eagerness to try reveals that culture means something important to them,  even if they’ve never given it much thought.

Snider’s one misstep — literally — is her look at the building’s underground tunnel, a video that made me wonder if it’s a parody of, or homage to, Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks. She’s at her best when anchored to an independent subject, where her empathy for her subjects shines through. In one video, her camera follows the irrepressible artist and retired cultural bureaucrat Lilly Koltun, who disrobes, piece by many-layered piece, throughout the building, as if exposing herself, as a final goodbye, to all that the old Arts Court means to her, and to other artists.

Tim Smith uses time-lapse videography to document the past, present, and rising future of the institution. Vintage photographs merge into current shots from the same angle, which is a common trick these days, but one that Smith pulls off deftly. In another issue, he captures pedestrian flows around the Arts Court site, and turns every individual into a marching, single-file, uniform group. There’s something mesmerizing about it, in the permanence of the structure towering over the flickering passage of human lives.

Elsewhere, he focuses on large excavators being removed from the construction pit by an even larger crane, and reveals the industrial choreography that goes into a project of this scale. In another, almost comic video, workers jitter in sync to construction noise, and raise questions about who is serving whom, or what.

Most issues include a guest artist, with mixed results. Rachel Kalpana James begins by offering directions to various occupants of Arts Court, which quickly becomes tiresome, but then she asks people who work there to close their eyes and imagine looking at the building and its surroundings, as described by her in fine detail. There’s much to be seen in the faces of those whose art, and livelihoods, are so dependent upon the changing structure.

Jackson Couse offers six grating minutes of an air compressor recorded in the building. A look at the aggravation that comes with working in a construction site may be observation, but it’s not revelation.

Guillermo Trejo is seen covering the “Justitia” bas-relief at the entrance to SAW Gallery, which he does, he says, because most people “had not even noticed that it was there.” (I never have.) “The idea for this project was to make its existence evident, ironically by covering it up.” It’s fitting that an individual is covering and uncovering the symbol, for “justice” is a human construct, and individuals must choose to see it or to remain blind.

Cultural Engineering will be turned into the inaugural exhibition at SAW Video’s new space, once the construction is complete. See the videos online now at

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.