In 2016, we began developing a new public artwork for Edmonton’s Brewery District, a newly re-visited historic space in the neighbourhood of Oliver. Constructed in 1913, the original Molson Brewery survived a construction fire, 7 years of prohibition, two Worlds Wars, the onsite announcement of the trade of Wayne Gretzsky, and 94 eventful years in service before closing in 2007. The building sat vacant for several years, an unoccupied landmark sometimes referred to as a “Beer Castle,” before new plans for the space developed…
The property was purchased by First Capital Realty and Sun Life Assurance with the intention of building a mixed-use Brewery District for Edmonton (not unlike the impetus behind the Distillery District in Toronto). Designed around the historic Molson Brewery, the project is intended to “build on the inherent qualities of the historical buildings to create a ‘developed over time’ character” (according to DIALOG, the architects).
As artists, we’ve worked in many spaces perched in the interstitial space between historic + forgotten. How can a development like the Edmonton Brewery District balance the tension between heritage + futurity, preservation + ambition, conservation + development? We were initially drawn to the Call for Proposals because we were enticed by the heritage quality of the Brewery buildings, and the possibility of responding to that history.
Above: As Above, So Below by Caitlind Brown & Wayne Garrett, a two storey installation in the historic Barron Building, Calgary’s first skyscraper. Photos by Kelly Hofer (left) and Caitlind Brown (right)
However, as we learned more about the public art site, we soon became interested in something else. While the site is in the heart of Edmonton’s Brewery District, it is not especially tied to the historic brewery buildings. It’s situated on the corner of a pedestrian walkway between the parking lot and South Street Burger Bar, which (from our understanding) is a contemporary recreation of a historic building.
While buildings surrounding the public art site are constructed from brick (like the historic brewery) the aesthetic of the new shopping centre is by far the most dominant presence. The site is literally on top of an underground parkade, straddled by streets – very much a “car friendly” space, designed for easy-access and commerce.
When developing artworks, we like to feel the essence of the site and think holistically about its context, acknowledging the quirks and cultures of the space. Unlike gallery work, public art doesn’t exist in a ‘white cube’. Public space is dynamic, complicated, and uncontrolled – which is why we like it!
The Brewery District is a mighty commercial context, and because of this, we didn’t want to design an artwork that is too beautiful or too delicate. The space requires something powerful, subversive, dynamic, and compelling. With this in mind, we became interested in another presence that occupies the space daily: cars.
The Edmonton Brewery District is full of mundane, functional automobiles – all sizes, models, makes, and colours. These cars hold all sorts of people, passing through the district towards all kinds of destinations. Cars are often considered a non-space, a tool to travel from one place to another. However, in practice, cars are something else entirely: microworlds.
Our upcoming public artwork, CARBON COPY, was developed by thinking about the relationship between cars, commerce, mass-production, consumer culture, surrealism, glitch aesthetics, and everyday spaces. Literally built from the body of a 1988 Plymouth Caravelle, CARBON COPY is designed with strong ties to Edmonton and the broader context of North American car culture. Ultimately, the work will become a wayfinding device for patrons of the Brewery District – whether they’re travelling by foot, by bus, or by car, the sculpture will become a familiar fixture in a landscape that has changed greatly over the last hundred years.
Travelling from Calgary to Edmonton by car, as we’ve done many times, we’re often struck by the profound similarities and differences between Alberta’s two biggest cities. All the usual cliches are present (albeit, most are skewed to the perspective of the viewer) but many surprises too. For us, Edmonton has been a city of discovery and epiphany, and we look forward to completing a public artwork for this place + space.