Visualizing Canada's Urban North (Hay River, NWT)

Regions: South Slave Region

Tags: social sciences, art

Principal Investigator: Bell, Lindsay A (2)
Licence Number: 15719
Organization: SUNY, Oswego
Licenced Year(s): 2015 2009 2008
Issued: Jul 20, 2015
Project Team: Jesse C Jackson (Co-Investigator, UC Irvine), Tori Foster (Co-Investigator, OCAD U), Ken Latour (Community Liason, Aurora College), Kaili Morris (Student Assistant , SUNY, Oswego)

Objective(s): To understand how people living in larger communities in Canada’s North understand their sense of place and belonging.

Project Description: Visualizing Canada’s Urban North is an experiment in media art and urban visualization techniques and a research initiative focused on understanding how people living in larger communities in Canada’s North understand their sense of place and belonging. The objective is to create both visual art and academic research about contemporary life in the urban north in order to broaden perceptions of what it means to live north of the 60th parallel.

Objectives are to:

1) create a novel set of visual information works (creative art works) that communicates elements of northern urban life to broader Canadian publics. These creative works will capture the patterns, anomalies, and curiosities of use that define northern urbanizing landscapes in the Northwest Territories;
2) develop an enhanced understanding of the divergent experiences people have with northern urbanization (including Aboriginal, settler, migrant and immigrant perspectives);
3) examine the role visual information plays in shaping public opinions about northern Canada;
4) explore the analytic capacity for new information visualization practices to be applied to relevant issues in the social sciences; and,
5) broaden existing conversations about northern development to include urban issues.

The methods comprise of two main components: 1) visual data collection as part of creative works (art) and 2) qualitative interviews. Creative work and interview data will occur over the same period, yet will be treated differently with respect to consent. Creative works do not require consent, whereas qualitative research will follow all guidelines described in this proposal. The interview data involves recruiting participants.

1) Interview Data: the research team are interested in understanding how the interests, experiences, day to day activities and sense of place of local residents are shaped by urban infrastructure and vice versa. The research team will conduct face-to-face, semi-structured qualitative ‘life-history’ interviews with northern residents that will be guided by an interview schedule. The research team are soliciting responses from residents with a range of experiences living in the north. The team will include people who have newly arrived, as well as people who have always lived in the region. For the interview to be as naturalistic as possible, questions can be asked while completing an activity together (gardening, cooking, sharing a meal).

The interviews target people's histories of life and work in the area and the kinds of things that bring them in and out of the region. From longer term residents, the team are interested in their perspectives on the changes that have come from urbanization and industrialization as of the 1970s. For newer residents, the team are interested in their reasons for coming to a northern community. In both cases (long term and new residents), the research team are aiming to understand what spaces/structures/places are significant for them (homes, community centre, stores) and which places form part of their everyday lives. With permission, interviews will be audio recorded. If audio recording is refused notes will be taken in the interview and an interview sketch directly following the meeting. Interviews will be conducted in public locations (coffee shops, the beach, walking about town) and would last no longer than an hour.

2) Creative Art Works: These do not involve research participants. The research team use three primary visual methods that are called overlays. The three main visual methods are described below. The focus is on the representation of essential and structural qualities and place, as facilitated by composite image and video techniques. The visual products are intended to ask larger theoretical questions about the merits and challenges that new media representational strategies offer the social sciences.

Time Overlays are composite images that represent the experience of time at a specific site as a single still image product. The composites are indistinguishable from conventional still photographs, but the information they contain represents the occupation of and interactions within a space over a length of time. The amount of time ranges from several minutes to several hours, depending on the subject matter. Each Time Overlay incorporates dynamic information from 16-32 instances. The method reveals the vitality of the space under scrutiny and creates surreal representations that begin to suggest its defining characteristics.

Space Overlays are composite images that represent the experience of repeated built forms found at multiple sites. This repetitive information might include tract housing, portable trailers, branded structures, sidewalks and roads, commercial and industrial equipment, parked vehicles, and other urban infrastructure specific to the north. Each composite is created through the transparent overlay of six to twelve photographs. Consistent elements reinforce each other through repetition, while inconsistencies, such as the surrounding environment and human subjects appear ghost-like. Space Overlays privilege ubiquitous forms of urbanity found throughout a single urban environment or across several urban environments. The method reveals how the visual world is organized around architectural anchors, by conflating the self-reinforcing narratives of repeated built forms with the unique circumstances of their occupation and of their surrounding environments.

Moving Overlays are composite video works that combine the qualities of the composite images described above. They can potentially conflate information from both space and time, though they most often focus on one or the other. For example, a time-focused overlay might describe the influence of an external mechanized event, such as the passing of a train, on the movement of people and vehicles. This type of event typically produces an undulating effect on the spaces' inhabitants: activity in the space shifts from static to active in a repetitive rhythm, revealing both the archetypes and the outliers of pedestrian and vehicular movement.

Finished visual works will be shown in galleries across Canada and in the United States as well as in the NWT (Hay River & Yellowknife).

Information about the project's aims and outcomes will be posted on the website [http://sites.uci.edu/vcun]. Copies of public reports can be expected within the second year of the project. All open access publications will appear on the site.

Provisional creative works will be posted online and will be open for comments. The display of creative works in year two are scheduled for showing in the community where data was collected. Once exhibition dates are confirmed, participants will be invited by email to the opening receptions (most likely at Hay River’s Centennial Library or the local Museum).


The fieldwork for this study will be conducted from July 20, 2015 to December 31, 2015.