Rewilding the arts ecosystem: A discussion paper on multidisciplinarity in the arts in Canada

by Helen Yung, in collaboration with: Clea Minaker, Soraya Peerbaye and Marjan Verstappen. Prepared for the network of Canadian Public Arts Funders (CPAF) / July 2015

The following are extracts from the full paper which can be downloaded from the CPAF website here

Artists (particularly in music and the visual arts) have a historically documented pre-occupation with trying to determine the limits of their ontological category – is THIS art? What about THIS? […] By contrast, it is a rare biochemist who spends the afternoon in the lab cooking up something to which her fellow biochemists will unanimously respond: “but is it biochemistry?”
– Benjamin Evans (2008)

Executive Summary

Commissioned by the network of Canadian Public Arts Funders (CPAF) (see Appendix I), this paper presents some insights on multidisciplinarity in the arts through a discussion of 11 contemporary Canadian artists, collectives and organizations engaged in the field.

Overall, multidisciplinarians seem to distinguish their practice by how they think inclusively about what they do. Their thinking may be intuitive or highly intellectualized; their choice-making may be organic or concept-driven – but their approaches to developing and sustaining their work are informed by a perspective that is rigorously multiple in its considerations. The framework is artistic and ecological, artistic and communal, artistic and scientific, and profitable, educational, academic, technological, sociological, cultural, feminist, activist, etc. Within the artistic mode, the thinking is theatre and folk concert and social practice, or sculpture and media arts and community discourse, etc.

This multi-perspective thinking results in actions – practices, activities and structures – that respond simultaneously to multiple purposes, contexts and aims. Space requirements and sources of support are often plural and diverse too. A single project may require multiple types of spaces and involve a variety of partners and possible revenue streams. It also creates or requires multiple abilities to successfully work in this way, be it found in a single individual or through the convening of a cooperative team.

Optimistically, the case studies suggest that ‘people get it.’ Audiences, communities, followers in the public sphere appreciate the perspectives that these multidisciplinarians enact. The public is excited, engaged and continues to grow. The appetite is there, the need is present, even if the process of attracting audiences and sustaining ties with communities does not always feel effortless.

The challenge of connecting the people to the art, and the challenge of balancing the artistic person with the administration, business and cost of living, suggest opportunities, even priorities, and affirm continued need for cultural partners like public arts funders to furnish support, directly or indirectly.

If there is one theme or image that can be used to link all the case studies, it may be the metaphor of rewilding. These artists, collectives and organizations seek a re-engagement with the wilds of practice and of society. Multidisciplinarians want to connect society with the obscure, forgotten, unusual, rare and unknown. They are uncommonly drawn to the outskirts and outside or unfamiliar elements, and seek engagement without certain outcomes. They appreciate experimentation, value the process of trying, and urge that a worthwhile artistic event can occur in strange locales and at the very small scale – between two people or inside of a petri dish.

Multidisciplinarians are successfully innovating across society, transforming Canadian life and the cultural landscape, renewing public interest and building relationships with a receptive, in many cases non-traditional arts audience. The conclusion that emerges from this inquiry is an implicit desire for funders, if they are to be partners, to shift focus: Help lift red tape, pull down caution signs and open up pathways. De-emphasize disciplinary distinctions, expand awareness and acceptance of non-traditional, perhaps even unspecified outcomes, and focus more on radical or new ways of supporting cross-sectoral efforts and experimentation. As well, consider further exploring the terrain to detail the scale and types of activities, to reach out to exemplary practitioners who do not fit or engage with existing funding models, and to ultimately support the continued pursuit of multi-purposed artistic excellence in whatever novel forms or configurations it manifests over time.

To rewild the arts is to re-enchant the country with surprising, adventurous possibilities.


For years, public arts funders have been hard at work negotiating ways to accommodate ‘applicants who don’t quite fit.’ Every funder employs different language, tools, and manoeuvres to try to offer ‘homes’ to this ever-changing line of ‘misfits.’

The term ‘misfits’ is a pun, of course; these applicants are not outsiders but decidedly part of the Canadian arts ecosystem.

Together, ‘misfit’ applicants and program officers have played their parts in the evolution of funding programs – advocating, explaining, listening and adapting policies to describe, honour and assess practices, projects and activities appropriately and inclusively.

Among these ‘misfits’ are artists, collectives and organizations that practice multidisciplinarity in the arts. Their activities include the mixing of artistic disciplines, community- and socially-engaged arts, Aboriginal and culturally diverse arts practices, technology, science, and the blending of for-profit and not-for-profit mandates, among others. These artists, collectives and organizations pose new and continued challenges to funding models that were created in response to different times and based on the Western system of disciplinary specialization. They engage in practices, projects and activities that respond to contemporary society differently, are informed by different cultures and traditions, diverge from disciplinary norms, and/or stand apart somehow from recognized forms of artistic creation, production and dissemination.

Recognizing the need to continuously prepare, assess and adapt, the funders ask: What are these multidisciplinarians like? What do these artists, collectives and organizations do to sustain and develop their practices, activities and structures? What are the challenges and opportunities they face? In other words, how does multidisciplinarity in the arts potentially impact the roles that funders play within the arts in Canada? How best to support these multidisciplinarians moving forward?

The Case Studies

Eleven artists, collectives and organizations were consulted as case studies for this project (see Appendix II). The first ten were selected in collaboration with the CPAF Working Group; the eleventh case study was added for regional balance and to introduce a high-quality example from a non-applicant.

1. Calgary’s Animated Objects Society (Calgary)– Established 2003; engaged in community arts projects and arts education, e.g. leading kindergarten to grade 6 classes in school-wide video animation projects each year from September to June; creates media art projects; operates a bi-annual 10-day festival of ‘animated objects’ including puppetry, masks, animated films, lectures, performances, screenings, hands-on workshops, exhibitions. Interviewee: Xstine Cook, artistic director.

2. Cluster New Music & Integrated Arts Festival (Winnipeg) – Annual 1-week long festival that aims to rethink new music and “what art forms it could relate to”; tends to program work in untraditional spaces (warehouses, galleries, old cinemas). Aims to give audiences “something unexpected, often really bizarre, something they haven’t seen before.” Interviewee: Luke Nickel, co-artistic director.

3. The Box (Toronto) – A quarterly “mixed cultural salon” since 1999 with readings, screenings, interventions, (literary and visual) objects, music, theatre, dance and other types of performances. A practice of bringing together objects and communities in an environment of artistic and social intermingling. Interviewee: Louise Bak, curator.

4. Le Bureau de L’APA (Quebec City) – A collective of two artists and invited guests founded in 2001. A studio that practices “undisciplined, DIY/tinkering/collage.” (Un atelier de bricolage indiscipliné.) Performance installation experiences involving images, objects, direct address, audience participation, and music. Interviewee: Laurence Brunelle-Côté, co-founder.

5. Eco Arts Incubator (Okanagan, British Columbia) – SSHRC-funded research initiative (2011-2014) led by professors at the University of British Columbia in Okanagan; aims to foster ecological, interdisciplinary and community-engaged art that “attaches to a place and becomes part of the ecosystem […] growing the seeds of local, place-based culture.” Interviewees: Nancy Holmes, professor of creative writing, and Denise Kenney, professor of interdisciplinary performance.

6. Liz Solo (St. John’s) – Identifies as performance artist. Theatre background, using media elements and designing installations to perform in on stage; now performing/intervening in virtual gaming worlds, and producing hybrid performance experiences that are performed and viewed in virtual and real worlds simultaneously. Also actor, plays music and works in video production.

7. Reena Katz (Toronto) – Identifies as media artist; also teacher, activist, curator. Began as sound artist, ventured into visual arts, now “dancing between all those media,” practising an “experimental approach to creation.” Installations, sculptures, prints, recordings, new media, live performances, online, in galleries, in public space.

8. Skwachàys Lodge (Vancouver) – Social enterprise owned and operated by Vancouver Native Housing Society, opened 2012, re-opened 2014. Boutique Aboriginal arts-themed hotel, fair trade Aboriginal art gallery, 24 subsidized residences for at-risk Aboriginal artists, basement artist studio/workspace, and healing lodge for Aboriginal peoples travelling from rural areas for medical treatment in Vancouver. Interviewee: David Eddy, executive director.

9. Teslin Tlingit Council (Teslin, Yukon) – Represents community of 500 people; Council’s mandate includes Heritage Centre (opened 2002) that offers cultural programs and small artist grants, and houses the museum, gift shop, Elders Council meetings, and community meetings. Hosts bi-annual 3-day Hà Kus Teyea Celebration of traditional Tlingit arts and culture with 3000 – 4000 attendees. Interviewee: Melaina Sheldon, community arts & events coordinator.

10. Thunder & Lightning Ideas Ltd. (Sackville, New Brunswick) – Founded in 2009, a design agency, small bar/pub, bowling alley, design studio, record label, 6 multi-functional art spaces including art studios, local music festival office, and spaces for short-term rental. The bar hosts a range of events, including music, film screenings, comedy, record releases, poetry readings, and contemporary performance. Interviewee: Jon Claytor, co-founder.

11. WhiteFeather Hunter (Montreal) – Identifies as artist and transdisciplinarian; also artist/researcher, educator, consultant and writer. Works with sculpture, video, performance, photography, textiles, digital surveillance, DIY hacking/electronics, writing and bio art. Background in textiles/fiber arts, now working with living (mammalian) tissues, using “textile structures” to create “laboratory specimens of semi-living organisms.” Pursuing MFA at Concordia University.

Reflection: ‘Rewilding’ the Arts Ecosystem

In reviewing the key findings, multidisciplinarians seem natural leaders in what might be termed as the rewilding movement in the arts: Being hardy, resilient, outward-looking, expansive and anti-silos; rejecting inherited systems and disciplinary norms; resisting institutional policies governing use, objectives or outcome; reclaiming lost, under-represented, absent, non-standard or uncommon values and relationships, and creating new ones; guided by curiosity; supported by ingenuity; pioneering frameworks; and (re)generating vitality… all the while embracing uncertain outcomes.

Journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot, author of Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea and Human Life, defines rewilding as “not an attempt to restore [natural ecosystems] to any prior state,” but as a stepping back. Rewilding is not about seeking to engineer a pre-determined outcome or return to a previous state.

In Monbiot’s view, rewilding is about re-introducing native species and permitting ecological processes to resume:

The ecosystems that result are best described not as wilderness, but as self-willed: governed not by human management but by their own processes. […] The ecosystems that will emerge, in our changed climates, on our depleted soils, will not be the same as those which prevailed in the past. (8-9)

Rewilding is a movement, not to return to earlier times, but to oppose the confinement of imposed boundaries, to resist over-domestication and to rejoice in informal, atypical, ‘undisciplined’ development. The movement to rewild is a moving toward self-willed, self-determined processes. In its most progressive manifestations, rewilding may be linked to a contemporary impulse to decolonize – to disengage from artificial, inherited systems – and to renegotiate relations together anew. The arts that emerge from this rewilding movement will not be the same as those which prevailed in the past.

Indeed, Laurence Brunelle-Côté of Le Bureau de L’APA suggests that “the important institutions are the ones that enable artists to be free.” To support the rewilding impulse is to, among other possibilities, support greater artistic freedom, enabling artists to (re)construct forms, conversations and relations anew for contemporary society.

As noted in the Introduction to this paper, public arts funders have been working for years to ‘find homes’ for ‘misfit’ applicants like the multidisciplinary artists, collectives and organizations in these case studies. In this sense, public arts funders have long since played a part in this slow rewilding process by finding space and related means – training, support, recognition – for these species to occupy, take root, thrive and propagate. The continued leadership of funders is necessary to further support the rewilding process, identify exemplary practices and help multidisciplinarians continue to move and work freely across sectors. Can you give more? Find more? Let them in. 

In a few of the case studies, there seems less interest in funding from arts councils. These cases resist the perceived burden and structures associated with public arts funding. They have found homes elsewhere, or they have constructed flexible, unusual, even grand structures for themselves somehow, someplace. It seems advantageous if the many varied species of multidisciplinarians might be brought together for some discussion of approaches and creative exchanges on cross-pollination, grafting or sharing of resources and perspectives.


The case studies suggest that inflexible public arts funding systems risk creating unnecessary barriers for multidisciplinarians – limiting them from freely engaging with society in the spaces, configurations and ways that are most meaningful.

The kind of work that a cross-sectoral approach makes possible, re-presents the artist to society, re-introduces Art throughout society. Multidisciplinarians ‘seed’ themselves laterally across society, into specific communities and situations where fruitful new configurations and relations may form. Cross-sectoral work inspires artists with possibilities, freeing them from being limited to the cycles of creation-production-dissemination and the conventional binaries of artist/audience, for-profit/not-for-profit, commercial/artistic, scientific/poetic, and the like.

The outcomes of cross-sectoral collaborations may not be altogether artistic in any traditional sense: What the artistic engagement generates are relationships and ways of thinking and working through situations together – cooperatively, with integrity and conscious thinking – deeply informed by the artistic framework, the artistic instinct, the artist’s voice. Simultaneously, cross-sectoral approaches are a vital means for artists, collectives and organizations to experience and develop sustained encounters with people different in geography, class, economy, education, temperament, interests, values, ethnicities, orientations, subcultures, etc. These initiatives enable the formation of unanticipated relations and diverse feedback loops that inform how artists, collectives and arts organizations shape their relevance, their relation to society.

Intuitively, the arts sector is engaged in a process of reclamation, of rewilding in and with the public’s interest. Modernity’s project of specialization has supplied public arts policy with language to order and organize, producing advances in disciplinary excellence and sectoral growth, while creating artificial chasms that funders and artists alike have been struggling to bridge. Can funding policies and institutions be renewed to be ever more open-minded and inclusive, to encourage interest from broad sources, and to welcome surprise, uncertainty and the unanticipated? While artistic rigour and excellence are important, new/renewed formations require new/renewed formulations of what those values mean, how they manifest, and how and who to assess this.

Ultimately, if being disciplined means building more fences, weeding out natural influence and reducing opportunities for cross-fertilization, let us all stay wild or re-wild.

Appendix III: References

Evans, Benjamin. “Five Problems for Interdisciplinary Art.” In Collision: Interarts Practice and Research, edited by David Cecchetto, Nancy Cuthbert, and Julie Lassonde, 19-33. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.

Kroker, Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. “Introduction.” In Critical Digital Studies: A Reader, edited by Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker, 3-35. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 2013.

Monbiot, George. Feral: Rewilding The Land, The Sea And Human Life. Toronto: Penguin, 2013.

Van Fossen, Rachael. Opening Up Space: Toward An Expansive Vision for Multidisciplinary Arts in Canada. A research report prepared for the Multidisciplinary Workgroup of the Canada Council for the Arts, 2007.

Wyman, Max. The Defiant Imagination: Why Culture Matters. Vancouver, B.C: Douglas & McIntyre, 2004.

Appendix IV: Project Team

Helen Yung, principal consultant

Artist-researcher Helen Yung practices Marginalia by designing interactions, installations/environments and interventions. Her practice has been supported by Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Arts Council, Le Fondation Tenot (France), and L’Institut international de la marionette (France), Performance Space (Australia), Harbourfront Centre, Dreamwalker Dance Company, Theatre Direct, Critical Path Choreographic Research Centre (Australia), Oboro, Festival Accès Asie, Centre d’art Marnay Art Centre/CAMAC (France), Gladstone Hotel, Dasein Dance, and Puppetmongers Theatre. Helen was previously regional peer facilitator for the Stand Firm Network (Central Canada) for Canada Council for the Arts, founding community engagement manager for Culture Days (national office), national coordinator for the Canadian Arts Coalition, and programs and services coordinator for the Canadian Dance Assembly. She has given talks at conferences convened by the International Association for the Study of the Culture of Cities (2014 & 2013), American Comparative Literature Association (2013), Ontario Museums Association (2010), Magnetic North Theatre Festival (2010), University of Toronto’s Teaching & Learning Outside The Classroom Initiative (2008), and University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for Drama (2006). Helen is currently researcher-in-residence with Dreamwalker Dance Company (since 2014), artist-researcher with the Culture of Cities Centre (since 2012), a member of the Centre for Social Innovation (since 2010), and volunteers as advisory council member of the Ontario Nonprofit Network (since 2009) and member of the Board of Directors (since 2011) for hub14, a 100% self-sustaining artist-run space for art and performance.

Clea Minaker, associate

A performer, designer, and director, Clea Minaker collaborates bringing the language of contemporary puppetry to creations in theatre, opera, dance, video, film, and live music. Trained at the International Institute of Puppetry Arts (2002 -2005) in Charleville-Mezieres, France, Clea’s original creations evoke a poetic quality. Situating clandestine manipulation within ever-evolving scenic spaces, she strives to produce a ‘total’ image. In 2009, Clea was awarded the Siminovitch Protégé Prize for Theatre Design by Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett. From 2007-2008, Clea created and performed a shadow puppetry stage show for Feist, The Reminder Tour, touring internationally. She has created ‘carte blanche’ performances with Leslie Feist at the Montreal contemporary puppetry festival, Casteliers, with Candas Bas at IF! Istanbul Independent Film Festival, the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, and most recently at with Hajra Waheed at Art Dubai. In 2013 she created shadow puppetry for Salomé a Canadian Opera Company production directed by Atom Egoyan, as well as for Tales of Odessa, A So-called Musical, at Montreal’s Segal Centre. This summer she performed and designed for the Luminato premiere of Kid Koala’s live puppetry film-performance, Nufonia Must Fall, directed by K.K. Barrett. Clea’s first full length solo performance, The Book of Thel, based on the poem by William Blake was presented in 2013 at Festival Artdanthé at Theatre Lachpelle in Montreal. 43

Soraya Peerbaye, associate

Soraya Peerbaye is an arts consultant specializing in creative, career and community development for dance artists. She was the Dance Officer at the Toronto Arts Council from 2004 to 2012; prior to that she was the Equity Officer at the Canada Council for the Arts, advocating for artists of colour and diasporic artistic and cultural practices. She is currently the Director of Development for adelheid dance company, and works on an ongoing basis as an advisor with Anandam DanceTheatre (Brandy Leary) and Dreamwalker Dance Company (Andrea Nann); she also supports the development of Compañia Carmen Romero, The Triana Project (flamenco), Mafa Makhubalo (gumboot), Allison Toffan (tap), and was the producer of the inaugural Body Percussion Festival. She also serves as a creative collaborator with artists such as Sharada K. Eswar and Nova Bhattacharya, and companies such as The Independent Aunties. Soraya is a poet and the author of Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (Goose Lane Editions, 2009), nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award for first poetry collection. She graduated with a BA in Theatre from York University and also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph.

Marjan Verstappen, associate

A sculptor, draughtswoman and installation artist, Marjan Verstappen is interested in the vastly complex ways humans, plants, objects and animals move around the globe. She sees huge similarities in artistic and scientific practices because they both seek to know the material world in ways for which there are not yet words. For Marjan, drawing is an exercise in holding the world still, and caressing it with her eyes and her hands. This impetus for stillness in movement continues to inspire her practice, where she renders the banal with care and consideration, using her skills to make it precious and interesting. Marjan loves weeds, insects and the unexpected complexity created by urban ecology. Her passion for artistic and scientific observation has brought her around the globe from rural southern New Zealand to downtown Toronto where she has recently completed her MFA at OCAD University.