[The following text is adapted from Cynthia Hammond and Thomas D. Strickland, “Biting Back: Art and Activism at the Dog Park,” originally published in On/Site Review 30, Ethics and Publics (Fall-Winter 2013): 6-11. The full essay with references and additional images may be downloaded here.]
In 2010, pouf ! art + architecture (Cynthia Hammond and Thomas D. Strickland) began a site-specific project under the rubric of Urban Occupations Urbaines (UOU), a neighbourhood-based curatorial platform located in the rapidly gentrifying, post-industrial neighbourhood of Griffintown, Montreal. Curator Shauna Janssen envisioned UOU as a way of engaging artists in the history and future of a postindustrial space that had entered a phase of dramatic and irreversible transition. The site of pouf !’s intervention was a well-used dog run, known as Parc Gallery. Yet beyond the humans and dogs who frequented this green oasis every day, this space was little-known and thus vulnerable to the swiftly encroaching development in the area.
Parc Gallery was privatised in 2007 in preparation for condo development, a move that was – according to civic bylaws – illegal, but which had been approved by the City of Montreal. Our three-year collaboration with the users of Parc Gallery asserted the publicness of Parc Gallery as a civic space, using art and outreach to show its history, present use, and future importance. Our motivation was to assert a counter-argument to city officials’ and developers’ claims that the park was “empty space”. We also wanted to create, as artists, a compelling rationale for saving the park. In Elizabeth Grosz’s words, our approach “made visible” Parc Gallery’s inter-species vitality, its significance as shared space, and its surprising heritage.
Griffintown’s urban morphology and social history are part of Montreal’s larger transition from a hub of industrial production and shipping in the nineteenth century to its current emphasis
on leisure and consumption. Since 2005, the re-purposing of Griffintown’s industrial urban landscape for waterfront parkland and upscale condominiums has signalled this shift. In the late- nineteenth century, labourers lived and worked in this heavily industrialised district. Separated from the city’s salaried and professional classes by a steep slope and several railway lines,
the impoverished living conditions of French, Irish and English immigrant workers inspired Herbert Brown Ames’ 1897 book, The City Below the Hill: A Sociological Study of a Portion of the City of Montreal. pouf !’s intervention took place on a lot that was once at the centre of this district. Archives indicate that after the Ogdensburg Coal and Towing Company closed towards the end of WWI, this rectangular piece of land was abandoned. Heritage specialist, David B. Hanna notes that Irish community activists fought in the 1930s to create the first public green space on this site, called the Basin Street Playground. In 1945 the City of Montreal purchased the land and it became known as Parc Gallery.
Economic decline and depopulation followed the closing of the Lachine Canal in 1959. In 1962 Griffintown was rezoned light industrial and the City no longer maintained social services in
the area. By 1967 one public document described Parc Gallery as abandoned. Despite the City shutting down lighting and water sources, the park remained in continual use as a baseball field and, by the 1990s, an official dog run. In 2010, when we first encountered the park, we also met people from across the southwest of Montreal, who brought their dogs to this space for fresh air and exercise. The chain-link fence that surrounds the park to this day marks the exact borders that activists created almost a century ago.
Rosalyn Deutsche argues that publicness is not a given or a natural feature of urban parks and squares. For Deutsche, it is only when space is the site of conflict, not consensus, that its publicness is exercised and thus meaningful. Taking this critical stance as our guide, pouf ! called upon park users to resist the City’s decision to strip Parc Gallery of its public status and to insist on their collective ownership as citizens of Montreal. In this way, the moment when the imminent loss of the park entered its users’ awareness became the moment in which its “publicness” began to actualize.
In September 2010, pouf ! took a team of graduate students from Concordia University to interview park users about their knowledge of and experiences in the park. In exchange, we offered photographs of the dogs (who proved to be charming subjects). This delightful day led to the accumulation of interview matter from twenty-five individuals and hundreds of photographs of dogs, dogs and people, and the park itself.
pouf ! then did archival research about the history of the park, through which we discovered its activist origins. To keep the project in circulation during our research phase, pouf ! built a blog: fifty posts provided updates, links, photographs and archival findings to the growing community of concern about the future of Parc Gallery.
As time went on, we diversified our efforts. In addition to creating a petition, launching a letter-writing campaign and producing several documents for the City of Montréal’s Office for Public Consultation (OCPM), pouf ! designed, wrote and published a bilingual exhibition catalogue about the park’s history and present use, detailing the uncertainty that threatened the park’s future. The catalogue was published in French and in English – digital copies of both may be accessed here.
In all cases, we undertook these initiatives as artworks; the visual and symbolic aspects of everything we produced had intentional aesthetic qualities, designed to give continuity to all facets of the project. These vectors aligned in our August 2011 exhibition, dog parc gallery, a selection of twenty-five dog portraits, enlarged and printed on weather-proof vinyl, and hung on the fence so important to the park’s morphological and activist origins. The opening event brought over sixty people and just as many dogs to the park, above, reinforcing the fact that it would not only be humans who would lose this special place if condos were built here.
Park users began to extend the activities that pouf ! had begun; an inter-species community began to self-identify and mobilise around this half-acre of grass. In 2011-12 we accompanied a core group of park users to meetings with politicians and supplied materials —images, publications, powerpoints — to the community in their outreach efforts. As one regular park user, Jessy Fuchs told us, “before your project, we didn’t know we were a community. With your photographs, you helped us to see what we had in common.”
From the beginning, pouf !’s aim was to foster and eventually hand the project over to the community. As the community solidified and gained confidence, we were able to step aside, ensuring that official response would be to local taxpayers and voters, not to us. We saw in real time how community forms; not, as Rosi Braidotti points out, around some essential idea of shared identity but rather around a matter, object, or place of shared concern. The Parc Gallery dog run was and is one such place.
dog parc gallery is a success story in many ways. In 2012 the city, in agreement with developers, responded to our pressure and re-zoned Parc Gallery as public, green space once again. On 4 July 2013, borough representative Véronique Fournier addressed a press conference in Parc Gallery to announce that this land would continue its existence as a dog park for the foreseeable future.
However, by making the park’s history of activism and current-day vitality visible, pouf ! unwittingly contributed to a celebratory discourse on post-industrial redevelopment. The major developer in the area, Devimco, plagiarised one of our publications to promote their heritage-conscious, “green” approach.
In that same year, Hammond and Strickland co-authored a text for the journal On/Site Review (now Site Magazine), in which they explore the politics of appropriation – both their own, in the form of the dog parc gallery project, and also on the part of capitalist forces, which are designed to absorb and instrumentalise any resistance that they cannot crush.
Despite the intensification of capitalist processes around the park, and indeed the complete erasure of the neighbourhood’s working-class pasts, it is nonetheless true that here, the collaborative efforts of artists and resident-activists prevented private development on this citizen-created place.
For us, dog parc gallery has inspired an ongoing reflection on the process and consequences of community-engaged, site-specific work. While one cannot ignore the risks of interventionist spatial practice, the rewards in this case inspire us to continue to work through the ethics and rewards of the ongoing creation of truly public space.
With thanks to the students who assisted with this project: Nuria Carton de Grammont, Evan Kirkman, Marie-France Daigneault-Bouchard, Louis Perreault, and Maya Soren. And with very great thanks to all the users – dog and human – of Parc Gallery, who made this project a joy in every way.