Talking Ted-Style with the Walrus about Cities

The Walrus Talks. How to Animate a City The Walrus Talks. How to Animate a City

The Walrus Talks are a “series as conversation starter,” a chance for people to get together in the Canadian context to discuss the important topics of the day such as the environment, the nature of play, being a human being, philanthropy, etc. I was able to attend their latest, “Animating Cities” as part of the Blue Metropolis Festival, currently happening in Montreal, which focuses on celebrating literature in its varied incarnations.

The talks are legitimately interesting. The event is structured akin to a series of Ted Talks, giving each presenter seven minutes to discuss their ideas. For this specific series, the organizers did a good job in searching out people of different backgrounds and demographics from University professors to screenwriters to hip-hop artists of color, and even included a Métis perspective.

The stand-outs included Nathalie Bondil from the MMFA, who focuses her discussion on that museum’s current re-orientation on placing fine arts in the context of other disciplines, such as chemistry and law, to show how the two can interact harmoniously. The MMFA is also touring schools in the regions in Quebec in order to bring the art to them. They are creating a more dynamic experience for the museum and giving it a social purpose within society, and they are actively using their physical buildings in new and exciting ways to create community.

The Walrus Cartoonist, Seth, was also a hit, bringing in humour to his discussion of red tape versus esthetics, and how cities that are bound by regulation might not be as interesting as those with less of it, and how the esthetics of the urban landscape can bring out the best of us, or the worst.

The representative of Infinite People, the design studio that brings us those lovely swings downtown, challenged the audience to think of urban spaces differently, combining playfulness with function and giving us a glimpse of what is to come next.

Lastly, Will Straw, a professor from McGill really piqued my interest with the concept of occupying not only space in a city, but time. As a participant in a project to take back the night in Sao Paolo, he had a solid thesis, positing that the manner in which people occupy cities at night can lead to the continued oppression of women and minorities, as how much time you get to occupy public space depends on your privilege, also discussing the difficulties that city halls have in addressing these issues. He also touched on how not only nightlife, but the experience of night time workers is often ignored in the planning of city services and how this can be changed. I had never heard of “Night Mayors” before, but apparently in cities across the world, representatives are being appointed or voted in to represent those who work and live at night in the city to add their voices to City Hall. Considering show bars from the Plateau are fighting against the city right now, this is an idea that has very timely implications for Montreal, and apparently Coderre is showing interest.

As great as it was, there were two things that struck me as dissonant in this talk. Not one person discussed the use of urban space for sanitized versus political speech. Considering the massive Student protests in 2012 and the current Austerity protests and the chilling effect that P-6 has had in public political discourse, I find it unfortunate that this opportunity was missed to talk about how city spaces and public speech interact.

Another thing that was a bit hard for me to reconcile was that there was a lot of talk about respecting First Nations land, that a lot of Canada is on land that was never given to the European settlers, and meanwhile Enbridge is sponsoring the event, the company behind the XL pipeline and the proposed Energy East pipeline that would cross Ontario and Quebec. Our Métis speaker, Gabrielle Fayant, who is from Alberta, the heart of oil country, spoke of how important it is to respect the land, and I wonder how she felt that that company in particular was there, represented and having the gall to tell the crowd that they are there to “power our life.” This was a mighty large elephant in the room, at least for me, and if someone is there to represent Enbrige, I mean, what an opportunity to have a conversation.

All in all, this was a really fun experience and the best part is that since these talks are recorded, you can live stream them a week after they happen from the comfort of your own home. They are posted on the Walrus website about a week after the event, so feel free to look them up yourself and then tell me what you think.

Blue Metropolis is happening at various venues across downtown Montreal until April 26. Most events are at Hotel 10 (10 Sherbrooke W). Please see the website for details. The Walrus Talks are available here.