(Old Post) Artists Walking Home: Reflection on the Re-Imagining Wayfinding in Yaletown Workshops

This essay was originally written in 2012 as part of my internship with Artists Walking Home. Working under the advisement and mentorship of Catherine Pulkinghorn, and with the help of my fellow interns, I co-created a public workshop with Sandy, and then facilitated it to a group of participants at the Roundhouse Community Centre in October of 2012. 

This autumn, Roundhouse Community Centre Artist in Residence Catherine Pulkinghorn is facilitating four public sessions of the Re-Imagining Wayfinding in Yaletown project. Catherine and her team of university interns Aska, Christine, Madeleine and Sandy W. have been researching current wayfinding systems in Yaletown including signage, design and urban planning elements. Sandy C. and Carter have also joined the team this autumn, collaborating on the upcoming workshops and preparing for our 2013 art programming. Thus far guest planners, designers, architects, curators and their professional organizations have contributed to our research, as well as participant Moms, Youth and Seniors who have also provided interpretations on the design and development of ideas and practices influencing wayfinding and public space in Yaletown. 

Please join the Artists Walking Home team on one or more of the four intergenerational walks and workshops to re-imagine what Wayfinding is and could look like in Yaletown!

 

Very suddenly, it all came whirring to an end. For once, I did not have to pull an all-nighter to finish my work on time: my compulsive editing had ceased a week prior to showtime, with a few minor alterations here and there. My mind, split down the centre, woke me up at 6 in the morning day of. One side was confident that by now I had memorized everything down to the Table of Contents page, the other remembering that gripping emotion and near paralysis that accompanies stage fright. Nearing our Vancouver winter (aka eight months of perpetual gray), it was silent outside, and still dark. During our planning, Sandy Wang and I had prepared for the probability of rain: the drizzling, sizzling kind, the diagonally-propelling frozen-globule wrath of the weather-gods so forget ever using this umbrella again kind – yet almost every scenario resiliently ended with us taking the group outside. So I was thankful to find the day comparatively dry (with the exception of a brief but determined hailstorm that sounded as though it was going to take my building down with it.) Despite the lengthy wait to deliver my workshop, the day came to an end with unbelievable momentum, and I feel a post-partem separation as I reflect on this adrenaline-filled event.

Way back when in June, I joined the Artists Walking Home team as a Project Coordinator. During my interview, Catherine Pulkinghorn, Director and Curator, had informed me she wished me to conduct research for her project and future walk/workshop Re-Imagining Wayfinding in Yaletown, with the Roundhouse Community Centre and Cygnus Group, as well as help with office tasks, archiving, essay writing, and, she stressed, a personal project that would both exemplify my acquired skills, and utilize my passions and strengths. A few weeks in, there was still no pressure to make a decision as to how this personal project would unfold. I hadn’t been working with Catherine for too long before she approached my co-worker Madeleine Hebert and myself with the opportunity to design a curriculum: each of the interns would have a day during the autumn of 2012 to co-facilitate a walk and workshop at the Roundhouse Community Centre and in the Yaletown neighbourhood. Working with the Students’ Union among other student organizations at my university (ECUAD), this was not my first time helping run an event, but I had never fully designed and facilitated an entire curriculum for the public before. The proposal was nerve-racking. At Catherine’s behest, each intern was required to work with a sector professional as part of our summer research, contribute to the goals of community engagement within the Re-Imagining Wayfinding in Yaletown project, and create and present a workshop in the Autumn as part of our personal project as Artists Walking Home interns.

Designing the workshop was a brilliant experience. Sandy approached the project with the intent of observing the potential for natural surroundings as wayfinding devices, while I danced a nervous rhumba between studying poorly designed signage, and examining the changing Yaletown waterline. Eventually my focus culminated in the various water systems of Vancouver: the built seawall of Yaletown, maps of the natural, historic and contemporary False Creek waterlines, the drastic changes in daily and seasonal tides, underground streams – both naturally occurring and man-made, and the vertical (rain) and subsequent water infrastructure (such as drainage pipes). Catherine’s suggestion for a marriage of two ideas turned out to be the creative spark I needed: Sandy and I combined our efforts to settle down and commit to what would soon become Nature in the City.

Each of the interns pursued a sector professional to join our youth team for a day, to help gather data for our curricula. Henry Tsang, a professor at Emily Carr University, graciously agreed to present to our team on the topic of water. In particular, he spoke of his public art installation in Yaletown at the foot of Drake St. entitled Welcome to the Land of Light, and a group project between Simon Levin, Glen Lowry and himself, The Maraya Project. Henry’s eloquent presentation engulfed us in a riveting discussion concerning intuition and wayfinding, as we walked along the seawall. I felt greatly inspired by the incredible wisdom Catherine and the team managed to pool together over the summer, as we gleaned knowledge from our sector professionals and our own research and explorations.

A product of several months’ worth of planning and deliberation, back and forth negotiation and occasional fist-shaking frustration, the October 20, 2012 workshop went through several iterations before we landed on our final stage, and even then we tugged and pulled and tweaked until we managed to overcome our greatest mutual challenge: designing for an intergenerational audience. Encouraged by team brainstorms on potential facilitation events, we systematically revised potential exercises for our workshop. Together, Sandy and I went on numerous walks through Yaletown to practice and improve on our workshop ideas. It took a lot of collaboration on either part, bringing our individual ideas, then sewing them together or taking out redundancies. I can definitely remember slight pivotal moments that changed the course of our progress indefinitely. Moments that saw triumphant index finger-raising motions accompanied with curt, victorious “aha!”’s, despite nearly upending our coffees, marked points of amazing progress and the occasional 90 degree concept upheaval. Eventually we found ourselves speaking the same vernacular particular to our workshop, with one goal in mind: to educate the public on the culmination of our efforts. Sandy’s sketch exercise was a great anchor point for us, a testament to our hopes that this would harness a revolution of noticing in our participants; we knew that we had to keep it. It was the walk itself that had us stumped; there was no way we could fit her five and my four important stops, in the allotted time. We knew we had to vacate the Roundhouse by 5 pm, giving us very little time to finish the workshop and orchestrate a steady cleanup.

One particularly warm day, we were sitting at the Turntable Plaza behind the Roundhouse, staring at our third or fourth curriculum redesign, when it had occurred to us that we could scrap the premeditated tour-like lecture we had planned for our participants. Why not place the route in the hands of those actually en route? We recited games from our childhoods to each other during our brainstorm, constantly referring to the overarching goal of engaging a full audience spectrum, from children to seniors. Our combination of I Spy and 20 Questions allowed for variation in answers, metaphorical and concrete approaches, and an engaging platform for participants while practicing their noticing skills pertaining to nature. The game prompts the first person to say, “I spy…” and they can add a tiny detail: for instance, “…something that’s nature related”. Then that person leads the team toward the object/place/etc., as participants question – “is it high up?” “is it green?” “is it that hanging plant of ivy?” We piloted our exercise around Yaletown that same day, weaving between what would later become two of our four quadrants of exploration.

Relieved that we had finally come up with a solid idea that includes every objective, Catherine blessed our curriculum and helped us finesse the details that we would need to undertake to implement the workshop, prodding us for material lists, budgets, specs and logistics for the final day.As per our original agreement, we had to present a package that would incorporate the back end preparation and documents necessary for the day of. We went on a multitude of pilot walks and rehearsed our exercises. After making our commitment, we had to iron out the nitty gritty. Twenty two documents finally comprised the Nature in the City workshop, from team planning packages to participant handouts. This part went fast; details and editing, and printing, and more editing. Even after Christine and I hand-coloured the Yaletown Fact Sheet maps, I felt like there was so much more work to be done! It almost seemed comical, the amount of times I read through the words, making sure there were no inconsistencies, nothing to be left unexplained. Only when all hundred pages, still warm from the photocopier, pressed into my hands for the first time did it register for me that this was it: it was time to deliver this brain child that Sandy and I created with the help of our wonderful and supportive team. (This revelation happened again after the laminating process).

The event itself was blessed by the weather gods, as we managed to dodge the rain. Since mine was the first of our four autumn workshops, Catherine prepped us with guidance on facilitation. We had just over a dozen people pour into the room at 2pm, pass through registration, and set up shop at the opening drawing exercise. We learned quickly, as a team, that setting up chairs invited participants to sit down, rather than mingle and partake in exercises, so immediately the Team Leaders had to jump up and help participants stay engaged. We had predetermined which participants would end up on which team, but Catherine proposed last minute to fall back on plan B, which was to cut out one of the mapped quadrants. So we ended up with slightly bigger groups, but roughly the perfect size of 5 or 6 per group (plus team members). Christine Carino and Kathy Zhang (a guest and former intern for Catherine), facilitated the red team in Quadrant 1 with Carter Xin as a volunteer for the group, while Madeleine Hebert and Catherine led the yellow team in Quadrant 3. Sandy Chang ended up with me on the the blue team. We set out to Quadrant 4 through the Turntable Plaza and towards Urban Fare on Davie Street, where the participants spied trees, post office boxes, yellow umbrellas, boats, and a view corridor onto Pacific Street. We had one little girl on our team, driving the conversation to the difference of perspective/eye level, reminding us how children are far more observant of their surroundings than many adults. One of the participants shared how her granddaughter had, over the summer, pointed out a loved location for ants – an example of noticing that each of the adults attested to missing. This sparked the noticing conversation I had hoped to see in the participants’ experience of the day with us, which was very heartening.

When we returned to the classroom, we set out to draw from our experiences. First, we undertook a five minute drawing session during which we reflected on something from the walk that resonated for us, for instance autumn leaves on the trees on Davie Street. I led my group in a discussion concerning what each participant had drawn; everyone was able to recognize each others’ locations and drawings, and we reminisced about our topics of conversation at each location. But this was not the end of the exercise. Starting from scratch, with no visual reference, we had to redraw the exact same drawing – but we only had 1 minute this time to complete our task. This sketch exercise was Sandy’s suggestion, a brilliant appropriation of a Radiolab exercise, the purpose of which is to get each participant to extract the most significant details, as they do not have time to replicate the images wholly. We had a fun look at what each person considered to be the most important detail to retain in their second drawing. A few were impressively accurate! Finally, collecting all of the drawings of the entire group, we did a speaking round of sharing drawings and final thoughts, reflections, and observations before some parting words. Brian McBay from 221A, a workshop participant, spoke at length about the inaccuracy of our perceptions of a separation between nature and the city. This engaged everyone in a great philosophical discussion.

My learning process has not yet ended. I will continue to learn things about facilitation as I partake in each of our public and team workshops with Artists Walking Home. Each event has its own unique difficulties and opportunities – weather, participant energy, seating arrangements, logistics, content; these are all things that vary from workshop to workshop. Catherine has instilled in each of us how important it is to plan for multiple scenarios. If I were to redo my workshop, I would approach it with a different mindset. While I had piloted our walk with Sandy, team members, and friends, nothing has compared to the actual workshop day. Facilitation takes a lot of hard work and dedication and constant learning, but thankfully we had Catherine as an expert on hand to walk through all stages of the process with us. As I support the workshops being presented by my colleagues this autumn, these opportunities continue to help me build my own experience with facilitation, preparing me for the variables which may present themselves in future. I am grateful that my workshop went well, and am very excited to see the other workshops. (I am cheating a little – I have seen Christine’s, and it was fantastic! I am excited for Madeleine’s tomorrow.)

Thank you so much to Catherine, to our guest presenters this summer, partners and affiliates, and to the incredible AWH team. They have each been so supportive from inception to presentation. And a great thanks and shout out to Sandy Wang, who helped design this curriculum and unfortunately could not be there the day of the presentation.