I’m new to Ottawa, and as such, I decided to explore Parliament Hill the other day. Not so much the structure, but the actual grounds. And as I was walking around, I couldn’t help but marvel at the statues of the founding fathers of our country.…and then it dawned on me. I was sitting here, eating my muffin and drinking my coffee and had what alcoholics refer to as a moment of clarity (Pulp Fiction fans will recognize this quote).
We need new statues.
Not to overshadow those figures who moulded this country, but to welcome a new culture of collaboration. Plus, the imagery those statues represent values from a foregone era that are somewhat obsolete with today’s sensibilities.
Before we go much farther, I want to make sure you all understand that I’m in no way attempting to diminish the achievements of our past leaders. What they accomplished was nothing short of extraordinary. This post is simply an examination on how art can influence government culture, and how government culture can influence art.
…so, let’s start with the basic interpretation:
The High and Mighty
The vast majority of the statues depict a kind of ostentatious superiority that remind me of famous Napoleon paintings. Chest out, chin up, fearlessly leading a nervous populace into strange territory. The statues are also elevated making them both figuratively AND literally untouchable.
This kind of distancing of our leaders from the commoner may have once been a reality, but we’re now forging new relationships between these two audiences that are levelling the conversation.
The Low and Inept
Citizens on these statues are often portrayed as begging for help and hoping “that someone” will take care of them. “That someone” will show them the way. “That someone” will make their ills disappear. And more often than not, these citizens are women.
This imagery promotes the Shepherd / Sheep relationship between government and citizens and glamourizes the subjugation of women in our society. Once again, this may have once been relevant, but is no longer the behaviour we want to encourage. Citizens can now take care of themselves. Citizens are now pointing the way. Citizens are organizing and taking charge. If anything, citizens are saying to government “please move, you’re in our way” or “don’t worry, I can take care of it. I just need a little bit of help with this thing.”
Tim O’Reilly proposed that we need to see government as an enabler instead of a do’er. The imagery depicted at the Parliament Hill statues show government as a doer, and citizens as beggars.
I was lucky enough to visit Dave Meslin’s Fourth Wall exhibit a few years ago. There, he made the most astounding observation: “Have you ever noticed that all the windows on Toronto’s City Hall towers face inward? Nine hundred and sixty windows looking at each other and zero facing outwards. This serves as a metaphor for the state of public engagement in Toronto.”
I couldn’t help but notice that the Parliament Hill statues I saw (except for Laurier) all face the Parliamentary Buildings and have their backs turned to Canada. I don’t know if I’m reading too much into something that isn’t there, but if I’m not, then we need to acknowledge that there’s a kind of insular elitism being portrayed here. One that does not reflect the values of Open Government.
The exceptions that prove the rule
Now, there are two statues in particular which I think portray the values of Open Government exquisitely.
The Women’s Suffrage. Two things: One, they are the only statues that display women (aside from Queen Elizabeth sitting on her high horse). Two, they are at ground level where a group of five women are seen working together to bring about change. There are seats, tables, and tea is being served. The way the statues are presented, you can almost feel as though you are actually part of their efforts. The installation invites people to participate in the conversation and be treated as equals.
Robert Baldwin & Sir Louis-Hyppolyte Lafontaine, Canada’s Joint Prime Ministers. It is interesting to note that the only statue that display two political leaders working together has a very “open” base.
Although the figures are still elevated, you can’t help but notice a different attitude being conveyed here. It feels as though the memorial is welcoming you with wide open arms and offering people a place to rest or shelter themselves from the elements. Baldwin and Lafontaine had to work collaboratively, and as such, their memorial embodies the spirit of collaboration and openness. Whether or not this true behind the scenes is another matter. What is important is the message being reflected to Canadians: working together is about being open, welcoming others into our environment, and protecting one another.
…what wonderful imagery to showcase the collaborative spirit.
Society 2.0 / Statues 2.0
As mentioned earlier, I’m not trying to challenge Canada’s past leaders, or how they’ve been portrayed. And I’m certainly not suggesting these statues should be taken down or be “rebooted.”
What I am trying to say is that we can’t ignore our past if we are to progress as a society.
Some of those statues on Parliament Hill project a value system that is no longer aligned with the way our society functions. These founding fathers belong to a society that features a barren educational system; A society where its citizens were mostly stationary; And in a society where communication channels and networking were limited. During such an era, you needed a God-like figure that would break all-odds and provide answers and build solutions for a destitute population.
Thing is, we now live in a society where just about everyone can gain access to a rich knowledge base; We now live in a society where citizens have the ability to span continents with a fraction of the resources that were once needed; We now live in a society where anyone can be heard from anywhere, and at any time…and more importantly, LISTEN TO anyone from anywhere, and at anytime.
I suppose what I am saying is that I can’t wait till the first Open Government Statues are created.
Richard Pietro considers himself as an Open Government Fanboy in an attempt to create Civic Engagement as Art. Richard’s Twitter handle is @richardpietro and you can learn more about his work at MyEinsteinJob.blogspot.ca.