Historic Buildings, Embodied Energy and Placemaking
Embodied energy. For anyone working to save a historic building from the wrecking ball in their town, this preservation term has likely come up in the fight— it powerfully illustrates the fact that buildings are literal repositories of the energy, labor and materials that they took to be constructed.
I love this image of energy just bubbling under the surface of our old buildings. It also makes me think about the stories, relationships and imagination that our historic buildings hold within their walls. For a long time I have wondered: How might creative placemaking be a strategy in activating a building's embodied cultural energy – even before a permanent solution is found for its reuse? And how might many small creative gestures lead us to authentic and compelling reuse of the building, and attract responsible stewards of both the building's cultural and physical embodied energy?
In Fergus Falls, our former state mental hospital, or the Kirkbride Building, has been front and center as a key community and economic development issue since 2005. Last July, the narrative of this complex problem began to shift closer to a renaissance, as a new developer and the city finally began the complicated process of working out a purchase agreement and redevelopment plan.
There is still a lot of work to be done and I admire the individuals behind the scenes who are working out the complicated web of tax credits and other things I don't fully understand. As the rest of us wait to see if the building will finally have a new life, small acts of creative placemaking through our community's Imagine Fergus Falls project have been helping the community step back ever so slightly from the preservation fight, and focus more on temporary animation of the space and artist-led storytelling about the building.
Our first official activity of Imagine Fergus Falls, a project funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts Our Town program, was a community picnic this fall in front of the hospital's administrative tower. The picnic featured our community jazz band, The Lakes Area All-Stars, who played from the same sheet music that was used by the hospital's resident band, The Happy Ramblers. Our community college choir also performed. A local photographer created a lovely (and hilarious) photo booth with costumes for friends and family to pose in, and another visual artist facilitated a community history collage with photos both of the buildings history and the preservation efforts in more recent years. We even had a camera obscura booth set up in front of the tower, made from a portable ice fishing house.
This event was a hit, and a way to demonstrate to the community what we had in mind with using the arts to foster interaction about the building. But this winter, the magic has really taken hold as we have been forced to take our creative placemaking efforts indoors, and unable to do activities at the Kirkbride Building itself because, well, we would freeze there. The average temperature here in west central Minnesota has not risen above zero for several months, which makes creative placemaking in an abandoned building near impossible.
As it turns out, indoor creative placemaking, slightly removed from the place that you are focusing on, is something really special too.
In early February, Springboard for the Arts facilitated a workshop for individual artists about creative placemaking, and spent the day learning from community stakeholders about their role in the state hospital's past and future, and putting our hearts out on the floor in the form of our own personal stories about the building. From this workshop, artists will be able to propose small creative placemaking projects that continue to foster interaction about the building over this spring, summer and fall.
Also this winter, we held a call for art inspired by the Kirkbride and launched an exhibit, Essence of Memory and Space, which showcased everything from large scale, whimsical pastels by a former nurse, to photos of decorated cakes shaped like the Kirkbride, to rarely seen artwork made by former patients. Our Artist Development Coordinator and curator of the show, Naomi Schliesman, put her heart into digging as deep as she could into the community to find each piece and learn about its story. During the opening reception for this exhibit, every seat at the downtown restaurant we had partnered with was taken, and Naomi's introduction of the exhibit led to impromptu storytelling from the artists that attended, and an amazing feeling of collective memory and consciousness – artists, former employees of the hospital, and city staff—filling the room.
During this weekend, the community also had the chance to get to know two talented and extremely thoughtful theater artists, Ashley Hanson and Andrew Gaylord, from PlaceBase Productions, who have begun gathering oral history interviews and organizing story swaps that will transform into a community play this fall. Their involvement has taught me that while it's crucial to be committed to the local artists in your community in creative placemaking, some sensitive topics really do need outsider perspective to help illuminate patterns. Their new questions and ideas have added a much needed therapeutic to the creative placemaking process.
Our hope is that this continuous activity will help keep the momentum going with developer agreements, all the while keeping the community's attachment and history of the place at the front and center of those involved in the building's future.
I am sharing all of these stories to illustrate that the key to our sanity, and more importantly to the community ownership of the project, has been in taking the smallest steps that we can possibly stand (which is admittedly hard for artists who are so great at seeing the big picture), and believing in what those small steps can set in motion and who they might inspire that was not engaged before.
We also hope that these small projects and events will continue to illuminate the little shimmers of synchronicity that we know are out there and that could lead to innovative and sustainable solutions for the community as a whole, and the Kirkbride specifically. We don't know how exactly the stars will align, but we do trust that they will. The way I think of it is that the stories are already out there, and our job as artists is to chart them, like constellations, and to remember and celebrate that there will always be new ones to make and discover.