Happy September! We’re excited for the new academic year, full of potential and opportunities to connect with and feature many more critical, forward-thinking, and creative individuals and activities in the OCAD University community and to continue to advance our collective understanding of equity from an art & design perspective.
This year the café on the second floor of 100 McCaul came under new management; OCAD University’s Student Union (OCADSU) now boasts the space as one of its most recent expansions. Aptly renamed “That Place on the Second Floor,” the café was reimagined with the collaboration of participants from the student body and members of the OCAD University community. We connected with Student Union representatives Simran Kaur and Hilary Cluett to find out more about how different the space has truly become.
[Image description: photo of the cafe counter, showcasing food options available for sale and a sign above the counter stating ‘For Students By Students’]
SITE-SPECIFIC: Why did OCADSU decide to operate the café as a student run business?
STUDENT UNION: We wanted to extend the Student Union’s reach and provide more for OCADians. The OCAD Student Union recognized a need for community space, healthier food options, and fostering student engagement. Drawing from similar local, sustainable cafes and food co-operatives, we built a vision that brought together innovation and entrepreneurship. Ultimately our approach to achieving success was multi-faceted.
There were weeks where we spent every moment researching sustainable initiatives all across Toronto, drawing as much information as possible about operation structures, food vendors, food cycles, waste management, and every new detail that popped up. I think it’s safe to say that we had no idea of the community we had jumped into. We discovered unsurmountable levels of passion for local food systems, and were exposed to infrastructures that we didn’t even know existed around us. Along the way we knew we had to narrow down on priorities, and that’s when we consulted the people that mattered most: students. We invited students to taste-test our vendor’s foods before we chose them, as well as our coffee suppliers. We sent out a poll to decide what the name of our cafe should be. All of our cafe staff are OCAD students.
That Place on the Second Floor has been a long process of consultation with students and OCAD U administration. Through discussions with senior leadership, we were able to align on goals around social and environmental sustainability.
[Image description: closer view of cafe’s set-up and beverage selection]
S: What are some of the priorities that inform the café’s practices and product selection?
“Our Food Advisory Committee meets regularly to set our cafe’s priorities and make decisions around menu options, so that we can make sure we’re always offering what our students are looking for.”
SU: Sustainability was built into our mandate from the beginning, which gave us criteria on how to select food vendors and suppliers. What we got from these partnerships was much more than healthy food, however, because we were able to adopt more sustainable operating practices as well. We had more options for things like waste management and low-quantity purchasing that enhanced our ability to participate in just food systems, and wouldn’t have been available had we chosen standard sources.
Over the summer 2014, the Office of Diversity, Equity & Sustainability Initiatives worked with OCAD U Students Rouzbeh Akhbari and Behrad, to create wood sculptures to share with incoming students and faculty during Fall Orientation. They were tasked with a challenging project: to come up with an object that conveyed the concepts of sustainability, diversity & equity through its structure or function, could be scaled to 1000 hand-crafted pieces, and was different from the usual orientation week ‘promo’ item. We reached out to Rouzbeh and Behrad to tell us more about the project.
“New ways of retelling an already established narrative, of course, is precisely the intersection of political resistance and social allegories that we explore in these objects.”
SITE-SPECIFIC: How did you come up with the concept for the wooden cubes and how does that narrative connect to concepts of equity, diversity and sustainability?
ROUZBEH AKHBARI: The idea of re-purposing scrap wood came from a constant exposure to a culture of recycling and reusing that is prominently exercised in our studio in OCAD U. Lisa Hampton, the class assistant in the wood shop, has formed a fascinating practice that revolves closely around the obsessive acquisition of wooden off cuts and creating meticulously designed furniture and objects of art that contain a collective narrative. Her continuous encouragement for all the students, including both of us, to think more critically about issues around sustainability and waste management resulted in a form of awareness that positively informed our individual practices. When we were tasked to create a series of objects that could potentially be fabricated in large quantities, tie the notions of diversity and sustainability together and hold some sort of functional value we immediately thought of the common point in our practices, which is essentially the notion of handling disregarded or rejected materials in ways that facilitate the production of objects that tell new narratives by re-contextualizing old ones.
“To bring all these pieces together again in new compositional forms allows for a fresh way of looking at the “unwanted” and the “unseen” as they rearrange and historicize their original referent (that being the original project/piece they came from) within a totally separate context.”
New ways of retelling an already established narrative, of course, is precisely the intersection of political resistance and social allegories that we explore in these objects. Metaphorically speaking, when one looks at a pile of various species of wooden off cuts, it is quite easy to respond to it as simply put “just a pile of scraps,” which instantly subjects all these materials to a certain set of value systems and assumptions about their significance in the bigger economic scheme. They are almost always overlooked and thought of as an alternative option with complete disregard for the conceptual significance they carry, especially as rejected parts of other individual’s art pieces. To bring all these pieces together again in new compositional forms allows for a fresh way of looking at the “unwanted” and the “unseen” as they rearrange and historicize their original referent (that being the original project/piece they came from) within a totally separate context. That conceptual approach of analyzing and interpreting materials in connection to the way knowledge, narratives and histories are constructed is mainly what we intend the audience to receive from looking at these objects.
S: How did you create 1000 individual hand-crafted pieces within less than two weeks?
A: To be frank, that required a tremendous amount of time dedicated to planning and figuring out the logistics before we began with even touching any physical material. After all the details were laid out in front of us we spent couple of hours constructing a few jigs, which functioned mostly as moulds for gluing up smaller pieces to fabricate bigger chunks that were more easily workable on heavy machinery. After the lamination process was actualized, all the pieces were mitered and prepared for a series of glue ups that took about 5 days to finish. To put it briefly, the whole process was a time-consuming repetition of cuttings and gluing back that allowed us to move from small off cuts to larger lumber and back to small cubes that were very close to the final results that we envisioned. After the structural construction of the cubes, we spent a few days working on the decorative inlays and sanding that lead us to the last step, which was finishing.
SITE-SPECIFIC: What does critical pedagogy mean to you? How has your art-making practice informed your approach to pedagogy? Conversely, how does your approach to pedagogy inform your art-making?
FATIMAH TUGGAR: At the heart of critical pedagogy is thinking. Learning to think critically, which should result in taking actions and responsibility for yourself and on behalf of others. In my classrooms, I encourage thinking on various levels; through production and a dynamic of constructive peer to peer exchange in order to create a community learning environment that is safe but honest. This can inspire students to view their peers and planet as evolving resources, and reinforces the skills of self-directed, life-long, independent, and collective learning. Through this students are empowered to challenge dogmas, including their own.
I am committed to teaching as a personal expression of my professional goals and values. These values include expanding the territories that art and artists explore. The goals include pushing back the boundaries of the studio and the classroom to include a greater global community. The system of mutual learning and teaching is synonymous, for me, with the creative action of taking responsibility. Creative action through teaching is my way of ensuring that there will be ongoing meaningful dialogues with other artists, and their work, throughout my own practice.
“Representation matters because meaning and interpretation depends on access to power and knowledge. Since, we don’t all have access to the same level of power and knowledge, we have to be mindful of the impact of our own bias and privileged accesses.”
S: Where do you begin when talking about the critical issues of representation in art? What about representation should artists and designers be mindful of in their practice, and why does this matter?
T: Representation is how human beings create and share meaning for both the imagined and tangible aspects of existence. It is therefore, critical to the production of all creative cultural workers including visual artist. Our relationship to meaning or cultural signification is an emotional one. There is a constant struggle for meaning and ownership of signifiers. Artist and designers have the responsibility of both using and creating cultural signification that is both effective in communicating intended meanings and at the same time being culturally sensitive enough so unintended meanings and readings do not get ascribed to their cultural productions.
Representation matters because meaning and interpretation depends on access to power and knowledge. Since, we don’t all have access to the same level of power and knowledge, we have to be mindful of the impact of our own bias and privileged accesses. We have to ask ourselves in the making process, who is being represented? How are they represented? Who is the interpreting audience and what are their biases? In other words, meaning matters in time, place, how and why. The artist has to be aware that life experiences; individual backgrounds, cultural context, beliefs, psychological states, social and economic status, etc. all affect meaning.