A Temporary Village

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Bent over my desk on a cold day in February, in the heart of the battle of finishing my thesis, I came across an interesting call. Two artists, Thomas & Guinevere, were looking for “collaborators” on a large-scale installation based on the lives of the civilians who were touched by the war of 1812. After working so long in isolation, the idea of collaboration was like another season. I sent in my brief application, and in a few weeks I heard back that they would be delighted to have me.

Over the next few months, I stayed up until 5am almost every night working on revisions of my poetry manuscript, padding down the stairs to sustain myself with cheese and crackers while the rest of my roommates were softly breathing in their beds. The Encampment, named for the hundreds of white tents that would contain the individual installations, was put on a shelf in my mind.

As spring neared and the magnolia buds swelled, the process for The Encampment began to warm up. A story bank was opened, containing hundreds of online biographies of the merchants, militia, politicians, native peoples, nursemaids, slaves and servants whose were living during 1812. When available, there were portraits, like scarred avatars, blurry and staring off into a distance.  Sometimes all that was pictured was a plaque or gravestone demarking the main events of their lives. There were well known names, like Laura Secord, Brock, Tecumseth. Browsing and sifting through each bio, the shape of their lives came to the fore like a developing photograph. Moved to Fort Niagara. Became tutor of two orphaned nieces. Drew a pension for his services in the war of 1812, a captain’s half-pay. These small details made the texture of the lives more real.

The workshops began in mid-April. I walked down from the bottom of Bathurst street, across the bridge. I’d never visited Fort York before, seen the inside of the long barracks. As I walked through the gates, I had a feeling of sinking deeper into the ground, an impression given by the metre-high earthworks and stone that ringed the buildings. Above, half-finished condos peered down at us, and to the south, I could hear swoops of traffic passing over the Gardiner. I noticed the smell, right away, of soil and moss, cold stone and fresh cut grass.

Inside the blue barracks was where the weekly workshops were held. Meeting more people in Toronto, particularly artists, was one of the reasons I’d signed up, but I’d forgotten this until faced by a room full of strangers, many already seated and flipping through coloured duotangs provided. I found an empty seat and a took a folder that would outline our process for the weeks to come. Inadvertently, I had sat down next to a woman, Leslie, who had chosen the sister-in-law of the “character” I’d chosen, Catherine Brant.

I had underestimated the time commitment that the installation process would require, but it was a process I couldn’t help diving into. After such a long sojourn in the land of language and poetic devices, I relished working again with materials, fabric, objects that had a weight in my hand. Thomas and Jenny, with their endless generosity and sensitivity, guided us through thinking about the historical individuals whose stories we’d be mining for our installations. Thomas called it a reverse archeology, and the result would be a kind of archeological dig, a temporal village.

Things began crowding my room– pieces of leather, lengths of chain, coloured mylar. For Catherine Brant, who was always described in her husband’s Joseph Brant’s biographies as an imposing, handsome woman, I wanted to create the feeling of her closet, someplace she would be disassembled. Handstitching moccasins and knitting gloves, I gained an appreciation over the length of time it must have taken to make clothing two hundred years ago. Her installation was laborious and detailed.

For Joseph Brant, a privateer and merchant sailor who grew up in Liverpool, Nova Scotia, I knew almost immediately what his tent looked like. He had been known for treating prisoners on his ship well, and he’d been taken prisoner himself. A hammock would echo a ship’s sleeping berth, chains, bread and water would help the viewer imagine his own imprisonment during the war by Americans miffed and embarrassed by his capture of hundreds of ships off Cape Cod and New York. He and I shared the same birthday, and I imagined that as a Piscean like myself, we had both felt the calling of the sea. I put in half-burnt birthday candles, as a private joke between us.

Hundreds of tiny connections seemed to connect the stories together. There were husbands and wives, servants and masters, cousins, love affairs, people who cheated others. As I sat in one of the tents that had been pitched for us to draft our installations, I braided together what would be Catherine’s clothesline, a kind of lifeline, and bits of grass were woven into the yarn. The sound of rain dripping down the sides of the tent made me feel like I was a sleeping soldier.

When the two hundred tents were finally pitched on warm June day, we moved our furniture and looms and chairs inside, helping each other cart them across the perfect grass. Over the next few weeks, we were asked by Thom and Jenny to spend a few evenings when the installation was open, to guide the public and to answer questions. I explored as many tents I could manage, awed by some, forgetting where favourites were. Some nights I biked down with a roti and a few beers, eating dinner on the lawn that overlooked the groundhog entrances into the hill, watching the gulls devour the junebugs. Friends and roommates came to visit, finding it uncanny that I remembered where certain tents were. It was possible to see the rows of tents like houses on streets, with numbered tags on the bottom marking their temporary address.

I’ll always remember the slow light moving across the tents. Photographers couldn’t get enough of the sight. Every night there were more of them, capturing the same landscape. The tents, inside, slowly changed. Fabric fell down in Catherine’s like she had gotten undressed, the bread and water disappeared in Joseph’s as he had drunk it. I knew it’d been knocked over by visitors, but it was eerie that I had to keep filling it up. Grass was trampled down from the people who wandered inside, and mushrooms sprang up. Windstorms would break the tent pegs and rip the canvas ties, and we went around with needles sewing them back into place.

I won’t write about the day the tents were emptied or when they came down. The night before, after closing night and the last visitor had left, we lit a bonfire, and handful of us slept in the tents. It was still cold, and a little damp, but a fitting way to say goodbye. Like a travelling circus, the tents had moved on. And yet strangely, we were still living in them.

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