Perhaps you are wondering now what to make of all this. We created this project in order to investigate the relationship between imaginative work and cultural institutions like libraries, museums, and galleries. We wanted to think about the lies and omissions these institutions have at times offered us; about the relationship between fakery and fiction; and about how even the most seemingly trustworthy historical narratives are stories, and stories are by their nature wily, playful, and much more complicated than they at first appear.
We’ve also realized that there are a lot of stories from the past that have not had the chance to be told in museums, galleries, and in the pages of books. Perhaps because the artists are not famous, or their voices have not been socially valued, perhaps because of systemic injustices, or because the work doesn’t fit neatly into a classification or a category, or because the artists are children and are told not to touch things or to be very loud.
So, we invited our friends to play with these questions of fact and fiction, artefact and artifice too. With the support of the Canada Council for the Arts – funded by a special grant called the “New Chapter” initiative whose goal is to think critically about Canada’s future with reconciliation in mind – we asked seventeen writers and seventeen artists from shore to shore to shore, the “Friends of the Library,” to think and make art with us. What they gave back was more wonderful, weirder, magical, and thought-provoking than we ever could have imagined.
In most cases, the creation of the artefacts began when each writer received a prompt from us. They then went about telling the story of a hoax, a fake, or a misdirection. The writers described not only what the objects were but also, and perhaps most importantly, why a fake might be made, and why their creators would want to lie or mislead. The writers’ stories were then sent to material artists who created most of what you see in these cases. There were also circumstances where works of art that already existed were playfully doing this questioning, and so for some of the more contemporary pieces in the “bishop’s collection” we asked the artists if they would allow their real artwork to become part of a fictional collection, which, by being shown, became a real collection, to which they said yes, bringing more delightful strangeness and confusion to the lenient borderlands between reality and story.
Along the way we connected with the real Prud’homme family whose support of our wild idea has been hugely meaningful. And, just to further complicate the history/fiction distinction, we also had their real family records digitized, with the help of Simon Fraser University Library’s Scholarly Digitization Fund.
Through Langara College’s Aboriginal Studies Program, we met Jamie Smallboy, who introduced us to her brother Christopher Donovan and the work of their friend Edgar Rossetti. The Smallboy’s family history takes place on the same land where Bishop Henri Prud’homme also lived in Saskatchewan. Through talking with Jamie Smallboy and Christopher Donovan we have learned so much: about Cree history, about the intergenerational trauma of colonial violence, about how art and the love of family and friends can be powerful, healing, and life-changing forces for change. We will forever be grateful that our paths crossed with the Smallboy family and that we could work together on this project.
Over two years, we worked with librarians, designers, local historians, students, translators, archivists, young software developers, makerspace magicians, photographers, a brewer, a chemist, and even our own young children. Our families repeatedly did the dishes and rocked the babies so we could play pretend. By the end of the project our best guess is that over 100 people have collaborated together to make this archive of imaginations come to life. We cannot even begin to say how grateful we are.
We have not come to any easy answers about Canada’s history, the practices of its cultural institutions, or why certain stories are valued more than others. What we have found, though, and what we hope you’ll take away from this exhibit, is that working together across disciplines, histories, cultures, and ways of life, with excitement, imagination, and openness to possibility, has the capacity to make unexpected and magical things happen. So often when we felt uncertain or stuck we listened and then we said yes as much as possible. Yes to friendship. Yes to fiction. Yes to fun. Yes to that wacky idea about 3D printed vases. Yes to an archive of many different imaginations. Yes to make believe.
Claire Battershill & Heather Jessup