Ghost town: SFU’s absent arts community

By Daryn Wright
Photo by Jenny Waters

What can we blame this time for the student–campus disconnect?

I’m not the first to observe the state of SFU’s arts community — or put more broadly, culture community. There is a unique aspect to SFU: our main campus resides on a mountain. Sure, the view may be nice and the air may be fresh, but what does this cloudy isolation do for our sense of community? I ventured to several SFU campuses to get a feel for our arts community and how it functions within our body politic.

SFU Woodward’s was an obvious first choice, being the home for contemporary arts. I wandered in on a Tuesday afternoon, feeling varying degrees of intimidation as I went into the Audain Gallery to see the current exhibit, Mapping the Everyday: Neighborhood Claims for the Future. I found myself alone in the white room, black script covering the walls. Artifacts of various art forms made islands in the center of the room: old computer monitors, dried rainbow paintbrushes, rolls of canvas, and old VHS tapes were stacked haphazardly on several desks and bookshelves. I found the evidence of art, of things being created in and around SFU, but I couldn’t find a single soul to tell me about it. It was beautiful, but barren. An arts community does not exist solely in a gallery of course, but while there was art, there seemed to be no community.

Instead of making assumptions based on my outsider’s viewpoint, I decided to talk to a student who might have a bit more insight. Jessica Han recently graduated from SFU with a major in film and a minor in theatre production. She explains that the film program operates on a cohort system, meaning you go through four years with relatively the same people. Theatre is more mixed, but Han explains that what makes the community within the programs is the very nature of the program itself. “You have performance and production students working together on a school production. Theatre is a collaborative process in itself. When you’re collaborating, you develop relationships, and relationships make for a community. We go to each other’s project presentations to show our support,” she said.

This may be the case for the contemporary arts departments at SFU Woodward’s, but does this exist at the other campuses? “The community is fairly exclusive, especially now that we’ve moved downtown to SFU Woodward’s. But when we were on the Burnaby campus, other students didn’t even know [the FPA department] existed!” Han said.

The main vessel of the Burnaby campus, the AQ, holds the SFU Gallery, a tiny space nestled among science lecture halls.  The current exhibit by Lawrence Weiner, A Selection from the Vancouver Art Gallery Archive of Lawrence Weiner Posters, highlights the relationship between art and words.

Bill Jeffries is the art director of the gallery and has been working with SFU for several years. “Things didn’t used to be this way,” Jeffries said as he recalled SFU in the ‘80s when staff and students alike would go to the theatre, then spend hours in the campus pub. Now that the arts departments have been moved to the Woodward’s campus, there seems to be a lack of cultural capital up on Burnaby Mountain. He makes the valid point that the notion of community is flexible, and yet there doesn’t seem to be much happening ‘culturally’ at SFU.

“There’s no easy way to reach the students,” he said, concerning the amount of information provided for events like gallery openings and theatre performances. In the same vein, he also noted that the old theatre in the convocation mall is being turned into a lecture hall.

Andrew Zuliani, an English major at SFU, puts the state of the arts community more bluntly. “There isn’t one,” he said. “SFU is mainly a commuter school. There is constant relocation. By the time something gets started up and you get settled down, you graduate.”

Zuliani finds one of the biggest issues to be the lack of information provided for students looking to get involved, as well as the quick turnover rate.  For example, the English lounge is usually empty because not many students even know it exists.

“Wanting a community isn’t enough. Romanticizing the idea of a community isn’t enough.  It’s like adding rice grain by grain to a pile.” Zuliani adds that it is paramount that professors and grad students get involved if we are to have a vivacious arts and culture community.

There is art at SFU, but the problem of ‘community’ seems to lie in the fragmentation between campuses, lack of information provided, and passive commuter mindset.  There needs to be an equal amount of investment in the SFU arts community by both the staff and the students in order to mend the fracture.