A !Pleasant Afternoon: Public Workshops at the Esker Foundation

Selena Savic leads the workshop, Unpleasant Design, at Esker Foundation on March 3, 2018. Photo courtesy of Esker Foundation.

Story by Christina Wong

What do a park bench, a bathroom stall, and a retaining wall have in common? To most people, not too much, aside from the fact that these are common structures that allow us to go about our day to day lives. But what if these structures had an ulterior motive, one that allows us to use these objects for their intended purpose, while also restricting our ability to do anything else with them? These hidden purposes were the main topic of discussion this past weekend at the Esker Foundation.

Along with their seasonal exhibitions, the Esker Foundation hosts a series of companion workshops, talks, and tours to deepen our enjoyment of the exhibitions themselves. These events are opportunities for the public to meet some of the artists and experts in related fields in an intimate setting, and the workshops especially are designed to question the way we think. Last month, the Esker Foundation opened its winter exhibition featuring Kapwani Kiwanga, whose focus on institutional architecture challenged our understanding of space and its effects on human behaviour. Over the weekend, we were invited to look at how these behavioural controls exist in Calgary, where architect and designer Selena Savic showed participants our city through the lens of “unpleasant design.”

Unpleasant design is the phenomenon of specifically designing an object or space to prevent certain activities from happening, such as armrests on a bench preventing someone from sleeping on it. These designs usually benefit very specific social groups and their use is non-negotiable: there is no way to change or modify the object or ask it to give way. Savic’s interest in this form of design gave rise the book, Unpleasant Design, a co-edited compilation of structures around the world where these social controls exist. 

For this workshop, Savic began by taking participants through a high-level overview of her research in unpleasant design and how it has been used in her current home of Switzerland. Savic also showcased examples of how unpleasant design could be found at Fort Calgary and St. Patrick’s Island in order to prevent undesirable behaviour like sleeping in public spaces or skating on ledges.

Participants work with Selena Savic at the Workshop: Unpleasant Design, at Esker Foundation on March 3, 2018. Photo courtesy of Esker Foundation.

Not to be outdone, the creation of better unpleasant designs for our city was the major project that participants undertook in the workshop. We were asked to pick a target for our designs, with obvious groups like distracted texters competing with more obscure groups like people with multicoloured hair for our attention. We were then asked to come up with ideas of how to prevent those groups from engaging in unwanted activity, and create objects to solve our imaginary problem. Savic sat with each of the groups, offering advice, encouraging interesting discussion, and sharing a bit of herself and her perspective. It was a rare opportunity to engage with a creator in an intimate setting, while also learning about ourselves and the world around us. The day ended with a presentation to the rest of the group about our findings, which was both an insightful and hilarious expression of everyone’s collective imagination.

With these workshops, the Esker Foundation is helping participants to engage with their own creativity. There is no prerequisite for attending the workshops aside from an interest in the topic. The only cost is a bit of time, a willingness to be silly, and a desire to have a lot of fun. Perhaps one of the most interesting things about attending the workshop was the realization that creating doesn’t mean that you have to be a “creative.” Design is often thought to be best left to people who have some natural talent for the craft, or that designers are a special breed of people with minds unfathomable by the everyday person. While it is true that designers have the opportunity to create more than most, that does not preclude anyone from engaging in making something creative, exciting, and extraordinary.