Executive director, W2 Community Media Arts
Interviewed by Stuart Hertzog
October 12, 2010
- How did the idea for the W2 Community Media Arts Centre come together?
- How did you manage to secure space in the Woodwards development?
- How did it proceed from there?
- With which technologies are you working?
- What funding do you have for all these projects?
- What kind of timeline are you looking at?
- What other ways of raising funds do you have?
- Are you getting any support from Vancouver high-tech companies?
- What exactly do you mean by a ‘cluster’?
- What has the reception been from the downtown east side community?
- Is the W2 model is applicable to other cities and communities?
- So it has to spring out of the community, you can’t impose a model on it?
- How do you regard the state of mainstream media. it? How do you relate to it?
- How are people on the downtown east side going to access your media?
How did the idea for the W2 Community Media Arts Centre come together?
W2 is the outcome of a particular set of circumstances, probably the most important one is the Woodwards development in the downtown east side of Vancouver. There was a call for community organisations to occupy this city-owned space, and we responded as a cluster of downtown east side groups, some of us being communication oriented. So it was a very specific, localised — I would say hyper-localised — response.
Over that time we developed objectives for how a physical space can respond to community needs in a gentrifying moment of an inner-city neighbourhood. We looked at best practices research around the world as to how low-income, working class communities responded to gentrification, and at the ways to create meaningful inclusive economic development while gentrification is taking place. And we found almost categorically that there were no parallel examples of that around the world, so we took a pragmatic approach to creating a site that could be reclaimed and re-appropriated, and would have a long, 20-to-30-year legacy of a space where low income people’s voices and culture could still be represented decades later after the gentrification had passed through.
It was an incredibly pragmatic approach, but I think in the long term the correct one. The particular sets of mandates of our cluster of organisations tended to swarm around the arts, communication, and media, and we soon realised that almost all these organisations faced systemic barriers to being successful. They were not established, well-funded, bureaucratically heavy organisations.They tend to be grassroots; have small or no staffing; be vulnerable to ebbs and flows of funding; and not have a lot of resources for leadership or staff transitioning. As a result, over the seven years that the W2 project has been in development some of our groups have died or are now on life support. They are essentially grassroots community media organisations, and as mostly they’re dealing with media, in a sense they represent grassroots communities.
There’s a movie in progress called With Glowing Hearts about W2, social media, and anti-poverty activists up to and including the Olympics. You can Google it to find out more.
How did you manage to secure space in the Woodwards development?
A few major things were happening at that time. There was a momentum of organisations desperately trying to get into the Woodwards Building, 35 to 40 groups applying to the City to get in. Some of us clustered together and that’s how we won. Ours was an innovative model but it was also a pragmatic way of beating out single-interest organisations that would have had a lot of square footage but not a lot of public use. The daily cycle of most organisations tends to be limited to 9-to-5, so having multiple users and using scheduling as a way to increase the cumulative use of common spaces, we were able to have a bigger impact.
It was a strategic way of getting groups interested and into the building through the W2, but it was even more than that. Some of our groups have a desperate need for physical space: storage, places to produce work. Others need the letterpress we have, and the use of meeting rooms or the common production area. But there’s also an inherent desire for some groups to work together, or borrow equipment and skill-sets from other organisations. When you have a hub or a cluster, it tends to fuel a desire for collaboration, and with a poor funding environment it also encourages people to collaborate and to minimise duplication, redundancy, and overlap. We were using a cluster model to promote efficiency, collaboration, and innovation.
If any group wasn’t interested in that, we didn’t welcome them — that’s a very important distinction, too. There were some groups that didn’t feel that it was a right fit for them, or they might lose too much identity, and they made the important decision to not get involved, because it really need groups that could surrender a bit of their autonomy in order to collaborate and get those other benefits. But if a group was really independent and sef-sufficient, or didn’t really want to be involved in the downtown east side, or didn’t want to be involved in what to some was a very gentrifying project, they chose not to get involved.
How did it proceed from there?
We created that cluster and knew that a characteristic of a long-term planning process is that the opening date, especially for a new organisation like W2, is essentially your arrival on the scene, or on the world stage, or whatever public arena you are focussed on. The fact that we were using a lot of new media technology that changes so quickly, meant that we had to have available on our opening date whatever current equipment would be required for the physical space, and plan that way.
We did discover quite quickly that we were on the cutting edge in that we would be using new technology that has not typically been used in low-income communities, or even in other cultural centres. So we have this unique characteristic globally of creating a cross-media centre using multi-platform, Web 2.0 tools instead of what would otherwise be an old-school community radio station, or a community TV station, or a set of Web cafés, and what we are doing is bringing much more robust, technologically sophisticated equipment to these communities, and this requires training.
What type of training do you use when bridging the digital divide? Well, you probably require peer training, you deal with empowerment through technology rather than having classic, middle-class teachers teaching poor people, and assuming somehow that people are going to pick up the threads or the knowledge basis. We are looking at how to access technology; how to train people for technology; what kind of stories are being told; and how those stories going to reach broader audiences. Those are the four areas that W2 is working on: access, training, production, and dissemination.
Right now we have three senior staff; around eight part-time contract staff; a Board of eleven; and a programming advisory committee of five or six. There are about eight core member organisations; ten associate member organisations; five ad hoc informal small groups on our web site; and just over 1,500 online members of the W2 organisation.
With which technologies are you working?
Some of our members do still use traditional radio and community access cable television. To this we are adding web platforms: web sites, web streaming, Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 platforms. There’s really rigorous interactivity with all the Web platforms and we are planning to be multi-platform, not just producing material for a single channel, for example to a radio listener at home, but thinking about how can a radio listener pick it up as a podcast online with live interactive feedback to Twitter; how can we produce community radio documentaries and also throw them onto a high-res video camera and stream them live to audiences outside the FM radio signal listening area.
We are constantly thinking about how we can use these multiple channels at the same time to reach out to a broader audience. At the same time, we are also thinking about using mobile technology. One of our first projects is called Fearless City Mobile, and there we’re looking at smart ‘phones, streaming mobile devices, and geo-located content generation, and issues like community mapping and live streaming of content.
When you’re looking at marginalised and communities at the “last mile,” or looking at the example of the Grameen ‘phone in Bangladesh, mobile technology is increasingly the solution, not broadband or laptops or computer-based, but really looking at mobile technology as the way to provide large populations with access to communication.
There are 6,000 people in the downtown east side surrounding the Woodwards project who have no cell ‘phones, no computers, no Internet. So for them, is the “appropriate” technology strategy putting desktop computers in people’s rooms in single-occupancy hotels, or is it more appropriate to give them free community Wi-Fi with mobile devices? We’re pushing the latter.
What funding do you have for all these projects?
We don’t have much funding, although we did receive a research grant for Fearless City Mobile, which got that going, But mostly it’s grassroots-funded people power, there’s no public finding of the media centre projects per se. We have occasionally accessed some project funding for particular programs, but we have not received funding for much of this.
However, we are located at the Woodwards Building, which is part of the original story here, and we lobbied the City of Vancouver to do the right thing. Given that we are a community amenity in a $400 million public-private development, we felt that the City of Vancouver had a moral obligation to fund the basic finishing of the building, so we’ve secured about $3/4 million for the basic finishing of the space that we will occupy. But we still have to do some tenant improvements to get it into more of a media centre.
What kind of timeline are you looking at?
As a grassroots group, we will continue to pursue our funding and capital plan. When we need different financial markers on that goal, we will implement them. At this point we have an empty shell; we have some resources, we have some equipment, and will continue to ramp up the quality and technological sophistication of our programs as we secure more funding.
We have a partnership with the Simon Fraser University School for Contemporary Arts, in which we’ve supported them in securing funding to promote economic development in the downtown east side through community partnerships. We us as one of their lead partners in the downtown east side, they’re able to secure resources that they couldn’t access without the partnership with us. We’re leveraging that to provide us with equipment such as computers, cameras, Zoom recorders etc. that we require to deliver progress to downtown eastside residents. It’s a mutually-beneficial partnership.
What other ways of raising funds do you have?
As we have no funding staff and very little fundraising capacity, we focus on what we are good at, which is organising cultural events where we can generate income from ticket sales, and beer and merchandise. These cultural events will create sustainable funding through direct income generation, and in that same model we’re also going to be running a coffee shop as the front door of the W2 Community Media Centre.
The coffee shop will be opening in December. It will sustain us through its day-to-day revenue. This is how we plan to generate economic self-sufficiency in this neoliberal era, and not be tied to being dependent on public funding. We will of course also be approaching the Canada Council, the BC Arts Council, and the City of Vancouver for funding, but as a new organisation there is a waiting period, so we’re in that zone of not having any secure public funding, and not hitching our future on acquiring that.
Are you getting any support from Vancouver high-tech companies?
A little. We’ve initiated, with not a lot of follow-through, an Information, Communication Technology (ICT) cluster that’s intended to support the creative technology incubator that we’re starting. The ICT cluster will be a hub for ten local people or projects to get access to technology, mentorship, and support. The local high-tech companies were never really asked to support the low-income community. They’re over in Gastown and they just do their own thing. Many of them are successful on the world stage but they’ve never really been asked to give back to the downtown east side. We do recognise that as an important opportunity to follow up.
Another high-tech sector aspect is that we host, embrace, and work closely with much of the online media in Vancouver, through alliances such as with the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver Observer, and The Tyee. But more specifically, we host Open Media and rabble.ca in our building, and we are a sponsor of Media Democracy Day. It’s our media, and our access corridor. Our success will be measured by the integration and the servicing we can provide to that sector.
What exactly do you mean by a ‘cluster’?
OI - It’s an organisational mode that enables the synergies that happen when like-minded businesses co-locate. Clustering together, you can create more economic impact through market share or access to research, capital, or physical resources. ICT clusters are a bit passé right now. They were ‘hot’ about two years ago around economic development, especially regional economic development, particularly in the UK and Western Europe. They’re still a ‘hot’ jargon issue regarding rural areas in Canada and North America, but they’re a little bit less ‘hot’ in urban economic development right now. A year ago, every city wanted to have an ICT cluster. It’s a solution but it’s not a silver bullet, and sometimes planners like silver bullets. Strategically, investment in small sectors can be more effective that forcing large clusters, which are best when they emerge naturally.
What has the reception been from the downtown east side community?
It’s been mixed. There are people who were critical of the Woodwards project as a symbol, legitimate or illegitimate, of the whole gentrification process that’s happening to the downtown east side. Woodwards is after all, the highest-profile development. Some people are inherently critical of West bank and the City of Vancouver. They’re angry that the City and other levels of government haven’t delivered on the commitments they made to the inner city, such as the promised 400 units of social housing in exchange for the Olympics, and they’re skeptical of the Woodwards model.
Those groups, actively or through back-channels, are criticising the non-profits that are moving into Woodwards. They feel perhaps betrayed by the fact that we’re using this pragmatic tactic in what is a challenging neighbourhood conflict around gentrification. But there are other organisations that recognise that there is very little that small organisations or even working-class communities can do against international capital when it’s gentrifying a neighbourhood. I think the issue is either optically resisting the gentrification, or pragmatically engaging in solutions. And that’s one of the main lenses to examine whether groups support or don’t support Woodwards or W2.
Then there are larger organisations that don’t want to see us in the downtown east side because hundreds of millions of dollars flow into the neighbourhood for assistance services, and there’s a certain amount of competitiveness among the key stakeholders, who operate multi-million-dollar housing or social service delivery systems. They see W2 coming into a very high-profile retail and amenity space, and they view it with a bit of jealousy. We’ve suffered some attacks from that from one group in particular.
Other groups are excited because they see what W2 does, and how forward-looking and pragmatic it is, and how can we are creating a mixed community that is inclusive of low-income people, rather that displacing low-income people. They see W2 as a radically successful and innovative model that is bringing low-income people with us into the future, not leaving them behind as do so many cultural or high-tech companies that set up facilities that are really all about middle-class people accessing technology and enjoying middle-class lifestyles.
We are a new physical environment in a low-income community, so gentrification is an issue we can’t ignore. There is a natural political act of opening up space in a low-income neighbourhood, that’s a political act. But our main work is not just to have a physical environment for people to occupy, but that it’s a space that’s actually engaged in technology. So as an art form, as a media tool, it’s about engaging people with creative technology. In that way, it’s a Media Arts centre — not just a media centre, but a media arts centre.
Is the W2 model is applicable to other cities and communities?
There’s a group we learned from in Quebec City, Méduse, eight or nine organisations got together including a community radio station. There’s Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam and they have a women’s media project, a community television station, and a tech lab. The important thing to note is that you can’t force it, you can do a Call for Proposals to create a cluster, but there has to be a desire.
For example, CJSF radio is one of our members. They’re helping us build some of the FM radio platform because they’re desperate to have a downtown radio studio because they’re up on Burnaby Mountain. For their success, they’ve identified that as a growth area, whereas Co-op Radio, which is also a member of our organisation but are located three blocks away, doesn’t have the same urgent need. For them, it’s of strategic interest and of value, but in terms of prioritising their resources, it’s less of a priority.
You have to identify what role can everyone play. People and organisations play different roles in the cluster, so you have to figure out the sweet spot from which everybody can best benefit.
So it has to spring out of the community, you can’t impose a model on it?
There’s ways of seeding interest, like a Call for Proposals. You can use structure to seed development, but you can’t force groups to work together suddenly. We looked at the Ottawa Arts Courts as a model of a multi-tenant centre, and did a lot of research on multi-tenant spaces. We wrote a short research paper on it that we could send you.
Multi-tenants do fail, they can become mutually-located organisations that have no programming relationship, and just become closed offices after five o’clock. You have to figure out how to design a physical environment that encourages collaboration and sharing of resources. You must encourage the water-cooler conversations. If everyone does their own thing, co-location is reduced to just a physical sharing of space, there’s no hybridisation of practice or innovation.
How do you regard the state of mainstream media. it? How do you relate to it?
I think we’re in opposition to it. There’s a flow-through, and we do this with our project called Fresh Media that we work on with Open Media. Fresh Media is all about pushing traditional media towards social media tools and pushing social media towards journalistic practices. So we recognise that there’s a continuum and we are interested in agitating that continuum.
But we also recognise that traditional media, especially corporate media, is riddled with perspectives that obstruct the democratic distribution of voices, particularly from the margins of society. When you empower people with communication as a human right, then you empower people to participate equitably as citizens. Then you have a more healthy civil society, and this trickles down to social inclusion. So for us it’s about how to level the playing field for more people to have a voice in Canadian society.
We’re quite happy to marginalise the dominant media systems because we believe that social media and cross-media are more effective ways of reaching people, and through targeting constituencies like The Tyee or The Observer does, or leveraging new types of tools and technologies to reach readers — we’re interested in all of that, propagating all of that to diminish the power and impact of dominant media.
How are people on the downtown east side going to access your media?
We’re working on a community-wide Wi-Fi network so people can have free email and ‘phone service, VOIP through Wi-Fi, and we’re looking at distributing free mobile devices; free walk-in access to the media centre in our physical building; robust training programs for people who have no skills in the area; and full-spectrum training so people can start with one thing and move through their learning curve to produce their own Web CV, or what have you.
We’re also looking at encouraging existing platforms like Co-op Radio and CJSF to reach out and find new listeners and build their listenership. We’re also producing our own programming, as we do right now with Fearless TV, which is broadcast on Shaw Cable to 680,000 boxes, we’ve done 30 hour-long episodes. We are looking at producing more of that, and our own morning radio and TV programs live from W2.
Our long-term objectives keeps us grounded on the downtown east side, but W2 is not exclusively a downtown east side media house. We want it to become part of a global network of independent media centres that includes Democracy Now, and Fire Hall Studios in New York, a network of media houses around the world that can provide 24/7 access to new and stories distributed globally.
W2 can play a role in a global network of streaming, online news-gathering that gets aggregated through new technology. We are looking at new models for global distribution of voices, with W2 a node in that global network. These are all two-year to five-year plans, those ‘looking ahead’ kinds of things.
Thank you, Irwin.
Thank you, Stuart