Arts Profile: Victoria’s popular interactive art display and party, Urbanite, is coming up this month
From its place beneath the towering trees of Victoria’s Rockland neighbourhood, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria keeps a stealthy profile, but three times a year the heritage-mansion-turned-gallery transforms into the city’s coolest art affair—Urbanite.
“It’s an outreach event that looks like a party,” says Nicole Stanbridge, the curator of engagement who has been with the art gallery since they started Urbanite in 2007.
Over the years, the event has evolved as they’ve experimented with how to better utilize the space.
“It’s never the same thing twice,” she says.
“The great thing about this event is that it’s built momentum and people kind of generally know what to expect of the event … but what those certain things are, no one ever really knows until they come.”
Urbanite draws inspiration from the gallery’s current shows to create a one-of-a-kind event that involves an artist facilitator and live DJ, signature cocktails in collaboration with Little Jumbo restaurant, and hands-on activities. The gallery brings in artists across disciplines—such as dance, poetry, and musical performance—which builds the gallery’s relationships with local creators and introduces them to the wider community.
Everyday art February’s event will be built around Beyond the Edges: Art + Geometry.
According to the AGGV website, the exhibition questions “dominant Modernist art histories,” and instead “favours cross-cultural and cross-temporal explorations of the possible meanings of geometry in art, and looks at the use of geometric vocabularies by Canadian artists working in the modern and contemporary periods.”
Stanbridge says they plan to play with an ’80s theme, looking back at such iconic activities as spirographs and brightly coloured string art. “I think a lot of us are feeling pretty excited because it’s a lot of things we remember growing up with and doing—the fashion as well,” she says.
According to Stanbridge, the range of hands-on activities will explore geometry’s presence in art and play on the pop culture aspects of how the shapes and patterns get assimilated into the graphic design of album covers and clothing—“all these other layers of how art and everyday life are kind of intrinsically connected.”
Local Victoria artist Laura Gildner will provide the live portion of the night, channelling ‘80s aerobic culture in a piece tentatively titled “Let’s Get Physical with Laura Gildner.”
On a cloudy Monday in December, ahead of the Feb. 16 event, the main floor is empty and silence pervades the mansion. But these grand rooms also provide the perfect dance floor, while the size of the gallery allows the event to cater to everyone.
“Urbanite is definitely a high-octane event, but when you’re in the gallery spaces, it’s quiet still,” says Stanbridge. “You know if you come to that event, you can be right on the dance floor, right by the DJ. You can be in one of the quieter spaces doing some of the hands-on things. It’s kind of got a little bit of everything.”
Stanbridge says she thinks Urbanite’s popularity over the years—it always sells out, and usually in about a day and a half—shows that there’s a thirst in Victoria for something other than a pub or a nightclub. “You’re getting a different kind of experience,” she says. “It’s a niche that isn’t being fulfilled.”
The crowd includes dedicated regulars and curious newbies.
“It’s a great way to invite new folks in and give them a taste of the kinds of things that can happen here,” says Stanbridge.
Permission to play
Urbanite’s unique format also gives attendees a chance to engage with art and just let go and be playful. Stanbridge says that as people get older, she’s noticed they think they can’t do certain things or make art because they’re not a proper artist or particularly skilled. Urbanite events try to break down those internal walls.
“We want people to feel that when they come, there’s just this opportunity to think about things in a different way and play with different materials and see what you can make from that and that it’s not about having to be a good artist,” she says. “It’s just a matter of jumping in and seeing how you respond to what’s been put in front of you and how you can kind of run with that.”
Past activities included a collaborative weaving project and a tide-pool diorama during the Water Work Space show where everyone contributed miniature sea creatures made of materials like Plasticine and paper. Stanbridge says she’s found attendees enjoy collaborative sculptural projects, but they also do individual crafts like button making that people can make quickly and take home—either way, no experience required.
“We’re kind of appealing to people who are coming at this from all different places and all different experiences with arts and culture,” says Stanbridge. “You get folks coming who may not typically go to art galleries, and then all of a sudden they’re sitting at a table with their drink and working on some activity and tapping into this creative side that they might not have.”
Find your spot
The live artist facilitators enliven the space and engage the crowd.
One past facilitator—artist Harold Hejazi—arrived in character and turned the nights into performance art, while Victoria choreographer Constance Cooke directed a dancer through the gallery with added visuals in collaboration with the DJ.
As much as Urbanite is about bringing people into the gallery, Stanbridge wants attendees to take that experience back into the community. At the November Urbanite, Nuu-cha-nulth and Cree writer Alana Sayers staged an intervention in the Point of Contact: On Place and West Coast Imagery show using Nuu-cha-nulth words and history to ask attendees to think about their place on Lekwungen territory.
“I hope that that plants the seed of ideas that then people can take out into their everyday life and share with people,” says Stanbridge.
The cultural exchange fostered at Urbanite also informs their other events and programming. “We want it to be challenging and engaging but we also want it to be playful,” she continues.
“The things that we’re dealing with as a society right now can get pretty heavy, and we tackle those things straight on, but we also need to find ways to bring people in where we’re finding some joy in how we’re going through all of it together.”
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