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Picturing Lebreton Flats

The idea

I am almost always compelled by place histories, and as we were asked to think about what kind of story we'd like to tell through this project in guerilla digital public history, I thought of Lebreton Flats. Having lived in Ottawa all my life, I've known Lebreton mostly as an "empty" space, eventually as the site of the War Museum, and - as a teen - Bluesfest. When I encountered up Phil Jenkins' An Acre of Time in high school, I was enthralled with the history and ghosts of this place. Especially in light of the new plans for development on Lebreton Flats, and the glimpses builders and archaeologists are finding as they install the light rail, it was important to remember that the Flats so different - busy and bustling only 60 years ago.

Stumbling across Ralph Wallace Burton, an Ottawa artist who had studied under A.Y. Jackson, and discovering his evocative oil-on-plywood sketches of Lebreton Flats in 1962-63 was inspiring. I'd never heard of him, and was fascinated that these paintings of his had been "commissioned" by friends who lived in the neighbourhood before expropriation. These moments in industrial Ottawa - mostly captured in winter and without human subjects - are both stark and peaceful. They feature characteristically Group of Seven-style trees with twisting branches, businesses, a taxi stand, a coach bus station, and the tenement homes called "slums" by the NCC.

As I searched around for more images of Lebreton Flats in the mid-century, I came across the National Film Board footage. The films were taken of "disadvantaged neighbourhoods" in Ottawa in 1948, mostly featuring kids at play in the Flats and Lowertown. It occurred to me that this earlier footage must have played a part in making the case for social reform through slum clearance and relocation. Here are children - some still toddling around - unsupervised in alleys and streets! One scene depicted kids playing in a pile of sand on the road, clearing out of the way as cars approach. Another shows kids playing tag, and another shows them run towards a laundry line hanging in the alley, and disappearing behind it.

While I tried to avoid developing the project from this single perspective, I was drawn to the idea of re-place-ing the images and the children on the Flats. Combining the black and white footage, captured to demonstrate the need to condemn the Flats, with the colourful paintings, commissioned to commemorate the Flats, also struck me as powerful and beautiful. The medium of projection mapping, and the light and colour the medium brings, also feels like a bold statement in a place deemed unsafe and derelict.

Stills from the Picturing Lebreton Flats film I projected:

still from picturing lebreton flats

still with laundry line from picturing lebreton flats

Access and Authority

I encountered several issues with access and authority over the course of this project, especially securing the use of the paintings and NFB footage. First, I discovered NFB footage of "disadvantaged neighbourhoods" on Youtube, uploaded to the "Lebreton Flats Remembered" Facebook community. I looked for it to no avail on the public NFB site (https://www.nfb.ca) and had to make an account on their archives site (http://images.nfb.ca/). A request for pricing information revealed a minimum purchase of 30 seconds of footage, at their educational rate of $15/second. As I went back and forth with the contact who shared the rate card with me, and they explained that these prices were standard for stock footage, Shawn reached out to the NFB Twitter account. This was a lesson in informal channels sometimes being the best channels, as he was able to ascertain that the shots I were looking for were public domain and free to use. I'm not sure how or why they are dealt with as stock footage, or why the two contacts at the NFB had completely different answers to this question of access, but it was a tricky hurdle. I learned from Shawn's approach that sometimes the public, informal channel can be really useful (but I wonder if being a prof helps too?)

The City of Ottawa Archives was very helpful, but had to have many discussions about permissions and conditions of use before approving my project. This was tricky, since many of the paintings had been digitized and were available through this blog (http://urbsite.blogspot.ca/2010/03/ralph-burton-on-lebreton-flats.html), without attribution. The back and forth was lengthy, and when I was offered the option for digital scans of the paintings, I was quoted $60 for processing etc. This didn't feel like the most accessible or practical option, especially in the midst of a strike when departmental funding for such projects is harder to apply for. If I'd wanted to pay the fees, turnaround time for the scans was 2-4 weeks, and we were nearing the end of term. Instead, I opted to use the images available online, and the archivists kindly offered to the digital scan for one painting free-of-charge, which I used for the final projection. With more time to apply for extra resources and wait on the scanning and processing, I would like to expand the projections to include more paintings and footage!

Another question about access and authority that made me wonder a bit was that of sharing authority, or at least sharing the project with a community who might have an interest in it. This is a living history, there is a Facebook group of people who grew up on/near the Flats and remember it together - should I have reached out early to them? Should I be sharing my work with them now? This decision is still to come. I felt comfortable making this choice because, while it is undoubtably enormously traumatic to lose your home and be forced to relocate, this is not a violent history, or one that deals with deeply sensitive issues. I walked the line between artist and digital public historian as I asked this question too, and felt that at this stage, Picturing Lebreton Flats is more art than a piece of public history with stakeholders. If I develop the site further, I'd like to invite more input, and am open to that now too in offering a contact option.

Technology and Execution

The project involved lots of strategizing about hardware and logistics - the basics about how to get this to work inside, and then outside without access to power. Our HIST 5702 class, thanks to Shawn, had access to an Optoma short-throw projector. We had the chance to play with this in class, and it was really straightforward to use. I needed to get my hands on an HDMI connector, and then could experiment with projecting from my own machine. Since I decided early-on that I didn't need sound, this saved me the need for a speaker hookup too. Solving the problem of power outdoors required lots of googling, as well as texting friends who might have access to a "PowerPack" portable car booster. I talk about that more in my devlog here. Once I had done the projection from battery power once, it was so straightforward to set up and take down again and again in different sites.

From a software standpoint, the trickiest thing was to figure out MapMap, and I talk about that here. When it came time to project on the Flats, I had my video made and loaded into MapMap, already set to fullscreen display. It took a bit of finicking to situate the projector on my backpack and mittens to get the right angle, and then dragging the mesh in MapMap to set it up right. This was super exciting, as there was a performative element to the projection mapping as well.

Here is a shot of the set up in action:

on the elec box

I should also mention that while there were very few people around to witness this act of guerilla digital public history - which is both a testament to the reality of the Flats as unfriendly to people/pedestrians, and to an exceedingly cold April - placing the art and footage there was still important. Creating the website and filming the events preserves the moment and records the "guerilla act" as it happened. A note on the experience itself too - we talked about "danger" in doing something "guerilla" - I had a definite sense of this as I set up and ran the piece on the Flats. What was allowed and what was forbidden? Was seeing a glimpse of the War Museum or new Holocaust Memorial okay? Would I be asked to leave? I was also a bit worried about how political I could get - especially in a critique of the NCC. As this stage of the project wraps up, I am deciding that I'll get into that critique more in the next stages.

Building the project website

My initial plan in generating the project website had been to create an image-heavy static site based on the template TWENTY by HTML5Up. I talk about changing that plan here and choosing the STORY template by the same author. This is a single-page site, but its highly customizable - if you're curious, you can play around with the sample site here. I downloaded the site template manually because it's not synced up with Hugo, which I'd been using before. This meant customizing and creating a Hugo-compatible theme, and I learned a lot through this process about file structures and basic html. This also reinforced my love for static sites and looking under the hood of something (like a website) that I've taken for granted will work like magic. Discovering the moving (or static) parts is so cool, and I love Hugo and its built-in server to see instant changes as the site is populated or changed. I wanted to create modal windows to provide more information about the Flats expropriation and about Ralph Wallace Burton, and this was a big learning process with Shawn and Rob as we played with different bits of code we found around the web. I wrote more about modal windows here mostly for my own future reference as I have temporarily abandoned the plan. Instead, we figured out how to nest other single-page sites inside the first site as a way to customize the template further. This was awesome to learn, and something I'll definitely expand on later this summer. As it stands, I've removed the site buttons linking to other pages as I just wasn't happy with what I had on there. I'd like to do more research, especially at Library and Archives Canada, to develop a more clear picture of Ralph Wallace Burton before putting it on the web and attaching my name to it. I'd also like to look at involving former residents of the Flats in the narrative of the expropriation, because what I had relies on NCC perspectives and newspaper articles (without interviews!) The initial prompt to build the 'Picturing Lebreton Flats' website was to offer passerby/witnesses to the projection mapping the chance to refer to something to explain the idea, sources, and course. Instead, I decided along the way to film the projection mapping itself, which I felt was relinquishing the ephemeral nature of the medium that had first appealed to me. I realized that this wasn't really the case though - the projections themselves were still unique, and the videos don't capture all the feeling that came with being there. But, for the purposes of longevity and sharing this beyond the time frame of a single semester, the films have been uploaded to Youtube and embedded into www.picturinglebretonflats.ca.

A quick aside on creating films

This was another huge learning opportunity, and forced me to ask different questions and make new choices. I wondered about how "fancy" to go with editing and splicing clips together, having projected on 3 different sites around the Flats (the white construction hoarding of the LRT station, an NCC exhibit about Flats industrial history, and an electrical box at the intersection of the parkway built as part of the Greber Plan after the expropriation and demolition.) In the end, I decided to keep it simple to maintain the integrity of the loop of paintings and footage I had created. The video also got some text at the intro and credits at the conclusion in case it is ever seen separately from the website.

Failures and conclusions

Wondering about the potential failures and shortcomings of this project probably won't end with the end of this term, especially as I plan to continue to develop this project. I am a bit insecure about a lack of "history work" visible on the site, or in this notebook. Is the project shallow? Conceiving of it as a work-in-progress helps with this. I think the process of digital public history making will always challenge training too - that it's imperative to have thorough research and documentation before putting anything "out there" is a hard thing to get over. It's been clear though, through this course and other work in digital humanities at Carleton this year, that openness (early!) is always worthwhile. I am also wondering about the community engagement/participation part, but will deal with that in the same way - this is a work-in-progress. The openness through devlogs, this paradata, and accessibility through the contact page is helpful in addressing this concern too. A final thought that I'm still rolling around is about nostalgia - is the project built on it? Is that a bad thing? I don't necessarily think so, but this speaks again to the conflict / juncture of art and public history, and nagging questions about what's "allowed" or not... Picturing Lebreton Flats has certainly given me the chance to develop tons of new skills, explore new avenues of digital making, and reflect on what it all means.