The Calgary Pick-and-Pull

More than any other artifact of modern technology, the automobile has shaped our physical environment, social relations, economy, and culture. […] Although our embrace of the automobile is often accompanied by unease over many of its consequences, it cannot be denied that the ownership and operation of cars resonate with some of our most important values and aspirations.

~ Rudi Volti, Cars: The Story of a Technology

Cities were sculpted – at first by accident, and later with great intentionality – around the mobility of their occupants. Especially in western Canada, where colonial aspirations commodified the land within living history, the century-old grids of cities reflect pragmatic and linear thinking, overlaid on a sprawling geography. In Calgary, urban sprawl creeps across the river valley and outwards into the foothills and prairies. Geographically, there is no body of water or mountain range nearby enough to impede this wicking outwards, and so the expansion of our city is limited only by one factor: just how far are people willing to travel to accomplish their daily tasks?

Road map of Calgary from 1924. City of Calgary website.

This question is answered, frequently, by their means of transportation. A car-owning family will travel further, surely, than one relying on public transportation. Subsequently, “inner city” and “suburban” neighbourhoods are increasingly connected – and separated – by a growing system of highways, overpasses, and ring roads, each intended to make the individual mobility of car-owning citizens smoother, faster, more efficient. The collateral damage of these transitional spaces have been immeasurable, whether in the sheer quantity of raw materials required to pave these vast expanses of asphalt, or in the social impact of dividing neighbourhoods, and in some cases, paving over them.

A 1950s automobile belonging to Caitlind Brown’s Grandparents. Photo by Bill Skulsky.

In a time characterized by global climate crisis, the prevalence of individual automobiles cannot be discussed without considering the environmental impact of cars on the ecosystem – particularly in a province like Alberta, where oil extraction is our dominant industry. Symbolically, the “family automobile” is a staple of capitalism in North America, part of the contemporary “American Dream.” In Calgary, our reliance on cars is used as a justification for suspending municipal action on public transportation like the long-awaited Green Line. We privilege road work at the expense of non-vehicle owning citizens and the natural environment.

Jane M. Byrne Interchange, Wikimedia Commons Image

Too often, we ignore the overlay of roadways on our everyday spaces – we view this imposition as a necessary evil. We limit our imaginations, forgetting to consider that other solutions could be possible. We fail to recognize the plants, animals, people, and sacred places entombed beneath the asphalt, not to mention the vast network of resources – many from the oil and gas industry – required to build and maintain these transit corridors.

When did we stop imagining alternate futures? How many other solutions could we, as a human species, have found to the problem of mobility? How does the ubiquitous symbol of “the car” to speak to the zeitgeist of our times?

Above: Trans Am Totem by Marcus Bowcott (left), Long Term Parking by Arman (middle), Inopportune: Stage One by Cai Guo-Qiang (right).

The automobile holds a unique position in our culture. It’s a manufactured want and symbol of extremes; practicality and luxury, necessity and waste. We can see this in the muscular Trans Am, the comfortable BMW, and the workhorse Civic.

~ Marcus Bowcott, Artist behind Trans Am Totem at the Vancouver Biennial

Cars have been utilized in art for decades, perhaps because of their prevalence and accessibility in western nations. Since Henry Ford pioneered the assembly line, making automobiles affordable to an ever-increasing demographic of people, cars have been tied to issues of mobility, consumerism, and class culture. Motor vehicles have made our lives more convenient, (arguably) more communal, and certainly more prolific. Within cold climates and geographically sprawling cities, personal cars have become staples of comfortable living, lubricating an ease of access between one place and the next – no matter the environmental conditions.

Various driving conditions, various places

But cars are also symbols of decadence: almost nothing depreciates faster in value than a brand-new car. In heavily suburban cities, cars can isolate people from regular contact with strangers, contributing to the sequestering of communities. Car culture evolved from a desire to participate in the broadest possible version of “local” space. The problem of mobility is tied to urbanization, divisions of labour, and the subsequent era of households sequestered in increasingly suburban spaces. In these sometimes remote environments, most people rely heavily on distant strip malls for the stuff of sustenance; to function productively within western cities, access to a vehicle is all but required – and artists are as much proponents of the automobile as any other class of professionals.

Race cars lined up in Monaco

Cars themselves are micro-worlds within a mobile landscape. With IDLE WORSHIP, we intend to collaboratively subvert the ‘non-site’ of automobiles to create alternative venues for ‘non-site specific’ contemporary art. While many makers have used functional cars as autonomous artworks – perhaps most famously, the art cars at Burning Man – our intention is less aestheticized and more subversive, contributing to dialogues around alternative art spaces, urban interventionism, and institutional critique.

Scan of a K-car made as research for CARBON COPY

IDLE WORSHIP pays tongue-in-cheek homage to projects like TRUCK Contemporary Art’s CAMPER or Calgary musician Matt Master’s Curbside Concerts, with the critical difference that our project intends to infiltrate everyday spaces without warning or invitation. Ironically, despite our conspiratorial approach, most parking lots are already so chaotic and multifunctional that property owners probably won’t even notice us coming.

IDLE WORSHIP runs September 24 & 25, 2022. Our route will be announced on September 23 – stay tuned!

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