Elevator oaths

Posted on April 4, 2017

It’s been a while since I updated here and I have a few things to report, including some catch-up. I’ll start with a fun project I did that doesn’t really fit in the portfolio section of the site….

Elevator Oaths was an interactive text installation I did in the fall of 2015. I posted this form in the elevators of the Dominion Building, where I used to work, at Cambie and West Hastings, situated at the edge of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), the tourist district of Gastown (basically the DTES made to sound not-impoverished) and the downtown business district. I asked people to make a promise that they would fulfill by the end of the week.

I posted the forms for the first half of the week, occasionally (sometimes frequently) replacing forms and pens that were removed.

Later in the week I posted new forms that listed all the promises that had been made in the elevators, and asked people to report on whether they had fulfilled their promises. I then compiled all the responses and created an infographic. I am a graphic designer by trade but for this piece I chose to (heavily) adapt an infographic template that is readily and freely available from a website geared toward making graphic design “accessible” to communicators. Partly this was so it would not become a graphic design project, and partly in keeping with the democratic theme.

The overall project started with my interest in exploring what are called “performative utterances” — a term coined by JL Austin which means words that perform an action eg. “I bet,” “I promise,” “I claim” etc etc. One of Austin’s conditions for a “felicitous” (true) performative utterance is that the context has to be mutually agreed upon. The Dominion Building has a lot of elevator camaraderie so I thought I’d see if I could build on that to make the elevator a place where you can make a commitment that you’ll keep, with your neighbours as witnesses to your oaths.

I was also inspired by the work of Stephen Willats who in 1972 created the West London Social Resource Project. He collected and exhibited data from apartment block residents in such as way as to generate empathy and collaboration. I was really intrigued by that and wondered if oath-making could be a way to build community and empathy among our building-mates.

And I was curious as to whether a building full of creative and progressive types would pick up on language borrowed from the recent swearing in ceremony for the federal government and what they’d make of it. Whether that energy of change (even if it’s just of the Anything-But-Conservative stripe) would find its way into our promises (it didn’t seem to, huh). And of course, two years and several major broken promises later, this question of felicitous oath-making seems even more important.

I am also really interested in the Dominion Building’s specific location at the edge of the DTES and how a building full of what has been called the “creative class” is implicated in the gentrification of this area – even those of us working in the social change sector – we’re not immune to a tasty gentrified pastry from time to time, or the like. I wondered whether my office neighbours (many of whom work for progressive organizations) would make comments about social change, particularly about poverty, in light of the highly visible inequality present immediately outside our doors. This is not meant as an accusation or self-flagellating hand-wringing. I was just curious about all of those things, and wanted to explore these questions.

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