AT BANFF, 1991:
The logo and the title for the project Corral at Banff, 1991: Community Transactions are an updated and revised version of a well-known woodblock print by Canadian artist Walter J. Phillips. A resident of Banff for many years, Phillips popularized the town and the surrounding landscape through the sale of hundreds of watercolour paintings and prints. His activities bridged art, nature and commerce. In his piece Corral at Banff, 1941, a teepee, log stable and view of Cascade Mountain quietly commemorate the advertised allure of the Canadian Rockies and point to Banff's role as a host for the national park visitor. The rustic stable and saddled horse offer the viewer the means with which to explore the wilderness: a space positioned between the "exoticism" of native peoples' culture and the majesty of ethereal peaks. Corral at Banff, 1941 is emblematic of the quintessential Banff.
For the traveller in the age of mass media, the expectations and eventual experience of foreign sites are often predetermined by the popular images that define them. Arriving in Banff in 1991, we found the indices of Phillips' emblematic image intact yet altered by the impact of international tourism and intensive commercialization. As a vehicle for exploration, the shopping bag had superseded Phillips' horse. A walk down Banff Avenue reveals how narrowly defined and commodity-oriented tourism has become. The same twenty postcards, feather head-dresses and imported rubber tomahawks are sold in every gift shop. Designer clothes, like those available at any upscale mall, fill the racks of Banff's boutiques. The newest business establishments do not attempt to reflect a local flavour; instead, the indigenous environment has become an exotic yet nonthreatening backdrop for what is familiar - shopping. Between the teepee and the peak, main street has paved the tourist experience.
At the Banff Information Centre, Parks Canada occupies one side of the room, the Chamber of Commerce the other. The video presentation at the end of the room unites them, inviting the visitor to discover the two Banffs. The screen interprets the pleasures of the duality: in Banff the visitor can not only explore the wilderness on hikes along signed nature trails, but can also enjoy the amenities of a resort - gourmet food, comfortable hotels and shopping. In reality, the two Banffs are one, framed by the pictures in the brochures and scripted by the tour guide. But Banff is not unique in its packaging of the tourist experience. As residents of one tourist town (San Diego, California) visiting another, we knew there was more to Banff than the promotional image: the gloss of Kodachrome nature, Wild West romanticism and international shopping. We were curious to learn about the invisible Banff, the community of people who live behind the promise of the postcard. How do they describe their town? What do Banffites want to change or preserve about their environment? On what terms does the
multi-ethnic population of Banff co-exist? What is its relationship to the industry that provides the town's livelihood? Is it possible to create an interaction between visitors and residents that provides insight into the local experience? Corral at Banff, 1991: Community Transactions was designed as a public art project that would answer these questions.
The conceptual framework for the project was the creation of a public space for local voices and community discourse. Three strategies were employed: investigation, publication and transaction. After researching the history of the town and the sentiment of the town's people, we designed a set of questions that were used in interviews with long-time residents of Banff. The interviews were transcribed and edited for the book, Banff- Local lntcrpretations. A transaction was established that enabled the town's residents and interested visitors to obtain the book free of charge.
Because tourism, for the most part, has become a commodified experience, we decided to convert an aspect of the town's commercial network into the vehicle of dissemination for the project. Our investigations showed that although few locals frequent the trendy shops and souvenir trade that line Banff Avenue, both visitors and residents alike end up at the town's only supermarket, Canada Safeway, to purchase their groceries. At the height of the summer tourist season, coupons announcing the availability of the book at the Banff Public Library were printed on the back of the cash register tapes at the Safeway. A changing selection of excerpts from the interviews appeared as teasers on the tapes throughout the month of August.
Through the mechanism of shopping, the coupons created a link between the business and public transactions of the town, suggesting an alternative form of interaction. In the United States the space on the back of cash register tapes has long been occupied by advertisements. In Banff this space was vacant and we were able to fill it with a promotional campaign that was not based on a monetary exchange but an exchange of ideas and information, thereby subverting the typical consumer experience into a cultural transaction, This transaction was combined with the process and the product of the project (the interviews with local residents and the book) to create a genuinely public event. Drawing the material for the project from the community structure allowed for a redefinition of the traditional artist/ audience relationship and the possibility for a different type of tourist experience.
Does the tourist travel in order to escape from reality or to gain insight into how other people deal with reality? This is a question that has informed a number of the public art projects we have done in San Diego. As artist-citizens of a large tourist centre, our controversial public artworks (done in collaboration with Deborah Small and David Avalos) have confronted directly the civic and private power structures in San Diego that labour to submerge local voices and concerns in order to sell a flawless, mythological image of the city to the prospective visitors. In Banff we wanted to explore the relationship that exists between the image of the town and the infrastructure that supports it. We saw our role as that of investigators. We set out as artist-detectives to uncover the invisible side of Banff - the local frame of interpretation for the community.
Tourist towns often thrive on the ability of their boosters to create landmarks and nostalgic images of the site. Modern-day Banff is advertised in panoramic views that make the town appear small and quaint beneath the looming grandeur of Cascade Mountain. Visitors to the park are greeted by a carved portrait of Bill Peyto, the legendary trapper who eventually became park warden. The lore that ties the inception of the Canadian national park system to the discovery of the Banff Hot Springs by two Canadian Pacific Railway workers is part of every guided tour and is retold in illustrated displays at the landmark site of the discovery, the Cave and Basin. The omnipresent view of the Banff Springs Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s as an attraction to rival the magnificence of the Rocky Mountains, is a living reminder of the noble past. Banff's self-conscious historicity is attested to by the thousands of personal photographs of alpine expeditions, pack trips into the back country, annual Indian Day celebrations, burning buildings, winter ice palaces and others on view in the archives of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies and printed weekly in the local newspaper. The sign at the entrance of the park museum states that it is a "museum of a museum." To the tourist, the town's real persona is frozen in the past, and the park landscape is timeless. But where are the lives of contemporary residents in this picture?
Our effort to uncover Banff led us to interview thirty-nine residents of the town. Through word-of-mouth contacts we arranged interviews with a group of people who reflected the local diversity of lifestyles, ethnicity and occupations. By studying the demographics of the town we learned that the population breaks down into two major groups: the people who have lived in Banff for at least ten years and the casual service industry employees who live in town for less than a year. For the purpose of the project we defined a local as someone who had lived in Banff for at least a decade. While we only interviewed long-term residents, we believed that seasonal and short-term workers would have valuable comments as well, that a more extended project should include.
In San Diego we are community participants who legitimately speak out on local issues. In Banff, we were not only visitors but we were foreigners as well. We relied on local residents for a voice with which to characterize Banff. The fifteen questions we asked each interviewee were broad and open-ended. They covered a variety of topics from people's cultural and geographic background to their concerns about the future of Banff. Included in the list were questions about each resident's relationship to tourism, the changes they have witnessed in the town, the difference between the tourist experience of Banff and their experience as residents, and their feelings about the changing ethnic and cultural make-up of the town. We also asked people, "Tell us your favourite joke or tall-tale about Banff." As an extension of the interview process we borrowed participants' snapshots to use as illustrations for the book. The half-hour to hour-and-a-half interviews were transcribed and edited in the book, Banff: Local Interpretations. Distributed in a paper bag printed with the Corral at Banff, 1991 logo, Local Interpretations acts as an alternative souvenir, a momento to undermine the gloss of the superficial by illuminating the lives and concerns of Banff residents.
Banff is at a historical crossroads. Two years ago, in a plebiscite, the community moved from being a ward of Parks Canada to municipal self-government. In the interviews the opinions of how the town was, is, and will be redefined were well-considered and diverse; the voices ranged from eager entrepreneur to adamant conservationist, sanitation worker to mayor, from twenty-year old to ninety-year old. They all grappled with defining Banff's new status as a town.
The major topic of contention is the relationship between preservation and growth. The town, corralled by parkland, is an anomaly produced by the environmental logic of a previous era. The boundaries of the town, fixed by an Act of Parliament at the inception of self-governance, are now strained by development. Banff is an example of an industrialized nation's notion of progress played out to its limits, and so the town provides a unique metaphor for the global scale.
How can development and conservation co-exist? What is progress? Over the next years it will be interesting to see whose definition will articulate the design for Banff. Optimistically, this prospering, ecologically conscious community of 10,000 people will provide a model for the future.
As a showcase with millions of curious visitors, Banff is its own advertisement. Can the expectations of the visitor be attuned to the mandate of the national park? In what way can the town engage the tourist with the community that does not create an imaginary Banff?
ultimate value of Corral at Banff, 1991: Community Transactions
resides not in the transaction or the book, but with the performance of
the project within the community. As artists we feel it is not enough
to deal with socially relevant topics, but that it is necessary to change
the relationship between the artmaking practice and the audience, inventing
ways to encourage the participation of new audiences for whom the work
Elizabeth Sisco and Louis Hock