Shifting Particles: The StoreFront Community experiment

By Ghazaleh Etezal, OCADU and Curator, The Storefront

My view of life has altered dramatically after an attempt to break the rules and sneak up to stardom. I suppose stardom is my word choice because I wanted to get back at someone, some people, some idea of doubt. Not that I doubted myself, no, doubt was all around me and that’s what made me mad. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t believe.

My emotions manifested themselves in the Bloorcourt neighbourhood, one that I had never stepped into prior to my classroom investigation. Ever heard of a think tank? At Ontario College of Art & Design there are design classrooms for it, and the teacher decides what tank you get to think in. In this case, our tank was business improvement and neighbourhood identity. Lets just sum up the story to when I got a key in my hand to an empty storefront that no one believed was possible to acquire. It was the one moment where I felt so powerful, that nothing could stop me from making a dynasty of my own after graduation. And it all ended just about the next day, where I found myself alone, confused and in need of help, in a 1400 square foot space at 957 Bloor in May 2008.

The story of community arts for me is a story of people believing in something that they have never seen, heard or trusted before. It’s like actually shifting some particles in people’s brain that gravitates to the leader, like hard-core respect. I mean, where do I begin? Have I even begun yet? I don’t even know what beginning is anymore. I thought it was when I got the key, but every time someone walked through that door and asked me what the space was about, it felt like the beginning. Like everyone had their eye on this empty space, expecting it to become something that they so deeply wanted…a gallery, a rental space, a mixed-use space, a community hub, a place where students could work with the community, a playground…and I was in charge to make wishes come true. The hundreds of people I met through this “social network” that I had built, to me, felt like art in my mind, so I tried my best to communicate it by having people physically connect.

The possibilities kept growing and my time and energy were dropping. It was a period where I felt like I was responsible for everyone else’s needs and none of my own. I didn’t know who I was trying to be and what direction I was headed. As if all the work I had done was a lie, having talked my way through the process. The adventure came to a point where I felt like I had gone too far with my emotions and stood naked on a stage. It’s when all the loving people I had come in contact with felt so connected to my courageous attempt to re-configure the model of a space, that their needs mattered to me more than me. I completely lost sense of my own identity through the gathering of minds and hearts of others, trying to figure out their collective identity, which was really the space’s identity.

Was it selfish of me or selfless? I say I tried my best, but did I? Did I really manifest all that I worked for to its full potential? Or was it all a waste of time and energy? To tell you the truth, I don’t even know. Sure, I got a Globe&Mail article out of it, got invited to speak at an Innovation Café, worked my way up to the BIA and attempted to make a site called MEconomist, but I wonder to myself if my lifestyle change was worth it. Until tonight, almost a year later from when I gave the key away after the renewed months of paying reduced rent from various resources, I haven’t come to a solid conclusion on how I feel about putting my all before four walls and a community of people who wanted to help and support me. I felt like the star of a pilot show, not knowing if I’d make it through to the next episode.

However, I have come to a conclusion on community building and neighbourhood development: No one wants to take responsibility and everyone wants structure. We want new leaders and new structures, so we’re drawn to people who break the rules and shift particles in our hearts and minds. And to end it off, that is the art part of it, not the longing for change.