The Vancouver Design Nerds teamed up with Vancouver Mural Festival and SFU Public Square for an event where time travelling storytellers inspired participants to craft speculative time capsules from the future, envisioning what a thriving future arts and culture could be.
Problems and Purpose
People in Vancouver have mixed feelings when it comes to public art, and the topic can be contentious [,]. The Time Travellers' Culture Jam, a participatory public event, was intended to spark conversation and ideas about the future of arts and culture in Vancouver, with an emphasis on “what could be” rather than “what is.”
Once a year, Vancouver Mural Festival takes place in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood of Vancouver, BC, Canada, partnering with businesses and inviting local and international mural artists to produce large scale artwork on the walls of our cities infrastructure. In addition to producing new murals around town, the festival curates a series of events and performances that take place over the span of one week. The Time Travellers Culture Jam is one of these events, and it took place on August 7, 2019.
Background History and Context
SFU Public Square (SFUPS) hosted a dialogue based engagement event at the 2018 Vancouver Mural Festival (VMF), and for 2019 they wanted to move beyond dialogue, engaging up to 150 participants in an outdoor space on the general theme of "arts and culture in Vancouver." The Vancouver Design Nerds (VDN) were contracted to co-develop a curriculum design for the event. VMF goals for the event included creating a safe and accessible public space engagement where participants could consider important issues about arts and culture, but also to feel hopeful and have fun while engaging in participatory activities. VDN’s history of design based engagement allows participants to “think through making” .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Vancouver Mural Festival was the platform for this and many events. In addition to financial resources, VMF provided logistical support, including venue, tables and chairs, centerpieces, tents, sound equipment and volunteers for setup and take down.
SFU Public Square provided administrative, process design, organizational and funding support, and were responsible for contracting the Vancouver Design Nerds.
The Vancouver Design Nerds were contracted by SFUPS to design the process and lead facilitation of this event, including producing a guide and briefing for table facilitators.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The event was published on SFUPS’ website, in addition to the VMF website. VDN distributed an invitation to their newsletter list of 2000+ subscribers. The event was shared on social media by all organizers, and free registration was tracked via Eventbrite. Due to the common occurrence of “attrition” in Vancouver, where people sign up for free events but then don’t show up, registration was capped (and sold out) at 211 tickets sold. There was no age limit set for the event.
Methods and Tools Used
The Idea Jam or "Design Nerd Jam" engagement process developed by the Vancouver Design Nerds intentionally fosters a creative space where participants are guided through activities that promote thinking and conversation through making.
This particular event was a custom process design, bringing in elements of the Idea Jam but layering in storytelling and facilitated hands-on prototyping of time capsule artifacts from the future. The process design for this Jam was intentionally hands-on, with a focus on material based prototyping to encourage lively, crafty engagement through shared materials and ideas. See also the "Artifact Cards" linked in the data sidebar of this case.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
Participants were welcomed by a First Nations Elder, followed by introductions of the organizers and three, thoughtfully selected storytellers. The storytellers are members of Vancouver’s arts and culture community in their own unique ways. Char Loro is a Dance Battle MC, Savannah Minoose is a First Nations Storyteller, and Tonye Aganaba is an actively touring musician and host of the AfroScience podcast. These three women were invited to share stories using the following prompt: “Having travelled through time to the year 2050, you have returned to tell participants of the Time Travellers Culture Jam what has taken place, from your personal, artistic and cultural perspective, leading to a thriving arts and culture scene in Vancouver, BC.”
The three stories, including a musical performance by Aganaba, lay the foundation for the participatory activities designed by VDN. Each table group was facilitated, and facilitators were briefed in advance with the details of the activities. The first activity invited participants as a table group to write down and share a few ideas or thoughts that stood out for them from the stories they just heard. After this, the tables engaged in dialogue to establish a common framing for crafting speculative time capsules from the year 2050. For example, some tables may have decided to zero in on a future framing where technology plays an important role, while others may agree that nature will be more dominant. The framing exercise was intended to create links between the various artifacts that participants were asked to produce in the next activity.
The main activity of the event was crafting speculative time capsules representing a thriving experience of arts and culture in the year 2050 in Vancouver. Each table had a collection of upcycled materials, mainly paper to encourage post-event recycling and not produce unnecessary waste. VDN produced a deck of activity cards (available as a PDF file in the data sidebar to the left), and on the cards were various artifacts, along with descriptions and suggested crafting activities for participants to engage in. Many of the cards were inspired by elements of the storytellers narratives, which were shared with organizers in advance for this purpose. There was also a “wild card” so that the activity remained open for interpretation.
Finally the table groups came together and shared the artifacts they had crafted, and each group prepared to present to the larger group. To wrap up the event, each table had 1 minute to present their concepts or themes from discussion from the evening. These presentations can be viewed on the VDN Flickr stream for the event.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
VMF, SFUPS and VDN all have distinct yet similar goals in mind when producing events, often including simply bringing people together who might not otherwise meet, and allowing them to connect through processes designed to facilitate dialogue, idea generation, knowledge sharing and other outcomes. The influences and outcomes that this Jam was aiming for were making connections and having fun while allowing participants to share with each other about the future of arts and culture in Vancouver. It is not easy to measure the effects (such as new social networks), which potentially take place downstream from the event itself.
This event was attended by approximately 110 participants, 15 facilitators were briefed and led table groups, a number of VMF volunteers helped with logistics, countless potential connections were made between strangers, and many laughs were had (as illustrated by the VDN videos of the final presentations, available on Flickr). The time capsule artifacts that were created were photographed, and participants had the option to take them home or recycle them.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
While the event was largely intended to be "just for fun" and to create an opportunity for festival goers and others to meet each other and participate in an activity that would generate interesting conversations and ideas, it was also an opportunity for design research. Organizers considered ways to document ideas, and how they might listen to and incorporate these ideas, for example into future iterations of the Mural Festival, or other arts and cultural engagement in Vancouver. This article on Participedia, as well as photographic and video documentation of the ideas presented at the Jam, are a step in that direction.
Lessons learned from this particular event include (as always) considerations of timing, as introductory activities tend to run longer than intended. In this case the participatory activities had to be reduced in time and therefore in scope, unbeknownst to the participants. Preparing for the eventuality of certain elements of the event taking longer than others allows for flexibility in the activities, and a smooth execution of the program without disruption. Additionally, preparing in advance and allowing more space for important elements in the agenda from the start would also help to be more realistic about timelines. Feedback collected by SFUPS also indicated that there may have been a disconnect between the language of the marketing materials and the actual process itself, leading participants to be surprised by the activities and potentially expecting a different, possibly a more serious, experience. Ensuring language is clear and descriptive is an important lesson.
Vancouver Design Nerds Flickr Stream for the Time Travellers Culture Jam: https://www.flickr.com/photos/vancouverdesignnerds/albums/72157710498958642
Vancouver Mural Festival Event Page: https://www.vanmuralfest.ca/fulleventslist/2019/8/7/sfu-public-square-time-travellers-culture-jam-imagining-art-of-the-future
SFU Public Square Event Page: