The Arbour Lake Sghool
The Arbour Lake Sghool began in a house at 160 Arbour Ridge Circle in the Arbour Lake suburb of Calgary, Canada. A group of friends, some of whom had attended art school together, decided they wanted to keep hanging out and working as a group.
Their practices and many of their projects have been creatively conceived within the space of this house. And lot of their site-specific, DIY work has dealt with radically transforming their built environments—from moving entire built structures to tearing down walls to expose the graffiti inside buildings to conducting experimental teaching in a defunct school building.
We met some some of the Sghool's members at the Kunstvlaai Festival in Amsterdam, loved what they were doing and wanted to learn more. A conversation over google docs ensued.
The Sghool's Origins
Scott: At first we just spent time enjoying living together, but I think there was always a sense that we were going to turn the house and our life there into some kind of collective art project. In a sense we were beginning a lifestyle, choosing to live a very specific way that none of us had really tried before. The house slowly changed from being a space that we lived in, to a space that we could adapt and mobilize. The property became a medium. The house is now for sale and we’ve all moved on to other places. Most of us lived there for about six years, and it’s not that we got tired of it, but we all have our own individual practices and interests which pulled us in different directions. It’s kind of a cool situation, because now we get to explore what the Sghool can mean outside of the neighborhood of Arbour Lake. The house is gone, but the atmosphere is something we’ve retained.
John: What kind of things would we do in the house? Anything and everything. The location was large — a 2,000 square foot house with a front and back yard the size of a small apartment building. The entire house or parts of it could be configured as sound or art studios, a recital hall, a movie theater or an installation space. The yard was a stage, a canvas, an agricultural plot and a proving grounds for experiments and stunts. We were constantly building small gadgets and physical half-jokes, making music, sketching, making and wearing costumes, and trying out ideas. One room was completely transformed into a cave for a film shoot, another became a cult spaceship interior. In the garage Andrew built a hovercraft and other nonsense. Justin once dumped 3 cubic meters of sand in the front yard, painted the sidewalk blue and had a beach party.
Justin: I was constantly being creative and for once, the bizarre reactions and activities that I am drawn to and like to refer to as 'inter-dimensional leakage' excited the people around me. While we were living there we would constantly crank the volume up on any weird idea that developed. I would say that the feeling of creative freedom in the space was more important than any of the “projects” that we have done. That said, those things only happened because we were able to evolve ideas with that sense of play and freedom. I think the term “leakage” is my favorite right now. I would say that the house was not unlike a diaper that collects “leakage”. Could be a small child’s diaper, or a very old person who has lost the ability to control their “creativity”.
John: The first time I remember the word ‘Sghool’ being used was during a collage party, which we hosted semi-regularly for the first year at the house as a way to continue art school partnerships and to combat the lassitude many artists feel when they graduate. Scott was using stick-on letters and started to write ‘Arbour Lake School’ but realized that all the ‘c’s had been taken from the decal sheet. He used a ‘g’ instead. The house was in a suburb of Calgary called Arbour Lake and so the name stuck. These collage parties helped us to loosely organize, share ideas and accomplish projects as a headless unit.
Scott: My recollection of how we came to this name is that it was based on the tendency for a ‘school’ of painters to move to a specific location in order to develop a particular stylistic response to that environment. The Barbizon School or the Hudson River School are particular examples. But, crucially, the name came before the sign. The ‘g’ was an accident at the end.
Andrew: I feel like the name almost came before the actual acknowledgment of ourselves as a dedicated collective. I mean we were doing things together beforehand, such as the collages, but for me, although I always felt committed to the collective, I never had a real sense of it being something we were actively pursuing until a year or two later, maybe when we built that 2-storey cardboard volcano in our backyard.
Scott: Basically, the beginnings of the Sghool are a little hazy. All of this stuff was happening at the same time in a pretty fun and hedonistic environment. Trying to historicize the Sghool is basically impossible and somewhat pointless. We have never really documented our time together very accurately, so every story is a mixture of conjecture and vague consensus. That leakage metaphor is very vivid Justin...and slightly unnerving. It’s true though, I think the house was for me a place where very few boundaries were present. We could just try things and not worry about the consequences. A lot of that comes from being able to trust each other and also, as you say, let go of ego. Really, there’s no one who’s right when it comes to the Sghool, and there’s no one who owns the work or the ideas. We’re in it together. It’s very much a collective undertaking in that respect.
Andrew: Thinking of the Sghool as a diaper is quite useful, actually. Not only was it a filter for creative leakage, but also objects and materials (i.e. garbage). From 30 unicorn paintings, to numerous drawing/light/screening tables, to an entire dismantled Burger King playground set, to actual garbage, to broken down vehicles like the Datsun 310 that sat in our driveway for 6 years that I always threatened to fix, the sheer volume of things would have put most guests of the TV show Hoarders to shame. The house became this ever growing aggregate of collected ephemera that we played around with. I felt this was such an important part of the Sghool because these objects were often the building blocks—physically or metaphorically—for our projects. Now that we don’t live there anymore, I miss having a space to amass both ideas and materials, but I'm also very excited with our present diaper-less situation. I feel a really important aspect of the Sghool was also the sheer volume of tools we collected there. Whether it was actual artist materials; instruments; yard, automotive, woodworking and electrical tools; cameras or beer making equipment, we collected it all and everyone had access to it.
Scott: All of our projects have been DIY. We don’t know any different way to do things. It’s hard to select a favorite from all the things we’ve done, but for me I like the combination of Harvest, Grow-Op, and How To Make Beer. Those three works combine so much of what the Sghool is about, and are really huge multi-faceted undertakings. I’m really proud of those works—plus, we had so much fun making them together!
HarvestGrowing Barley in Calgary. Photograph by Elliot Negelev Collectively drying the Barley. Photograph by Elliot Negelev
Justin: I thought the work we did for the Red Deer Museum was a great opportunity for us to realign how we worked together, expanding out from the whole suburban dialogue. Also, in the physical sense, both Red Deer and Leona Drive in Toronto were projects where we were able to affect the actual structure of something; move it and reassemble it in different ways. In Red Deer, we removed a small farm shack from its resting place a few hours drive South East of Calgary and transported it four hundred kilometers to the city of Red Deer where we reassembled it at the Red Deer Museum for an exhibition titled 'Growing'. When we put it back together we tried to make it look like it was blowing away in the wind. It was John’s idea, he used the imagery of a dandelion that is dry and going to seed in our proposal. I was personally moved by the idea based on my own appreciation for how quickly the landscape physical or economic/industrial/cultural has changed even in a couple of generations. The finished piece, I think, was successful and resonated in many ways. But overall the act of getting together outside of the Calgary context which we were used to was as refreshing and fun as it was challenging at times for me.
Wayne Garett, Scott Rogers and Andrew Frosst demolishing the facade of an abandoned building to expose the graffiti on the inside. Photograph by Caitlind Brown
John and Andrew constructing an igloo made of bricks, where the weight and placement of the materials held the structure together. Photograph by Caitlind Brown
The original Red Deer House. Photographs by Caitlind Brown
The reconstructed Red Deer House. Photograph by Caitlind Brown.
Sghool at the Kunstvlaai: Experimental Education
Scott: The project at Kunstvlaai was a departure for us. For the first time we actually engaged in a specific pedagogical exercise, where we took the role of teachers. The Kunstvlaai was taking place in an old school, and we saw a perfect opportunity to develop a project that responded directly to the context. We asked the curators of the festival to help us connect with a group of school children who would be willing to take part in a class that we would teach during the Kunstvlaai. The class we proposed was one that took some of our working approaches and turned them into possible methods for engaging with technology, materials, the city, the home, and the school. In this case, we were developing a way of working that could transfer some of the things we have learned at the Sghool to others.
Luckily, we were able to work with an extremely enthusiastic group of kids from the British School in Amsterdam. These kids were mostly 12 and 13-year-olds with diverse backgrounds. During the class we gave a huge variety of presentations on artists, engineers, and scientists. We tried to emphasize novel, inexpensive, innovative, and often absurd approaches to invention.
The point was to get the kids thinking about ways that they could re-invent their surroundings, make do with limited means, and find new ways to address problems they saw in their own lives and the lives of others. During the classes we also organized a variety of drawing assignments in which we invited the kids to respond to some basic constraints and make drawings based on those constraints. One of the most popular of these was when we asked the kids to imagine that they were on a desert island.
We told them that there were very limited supplies on this island and that they should try and think of what they would invent in order to more comfortably survive in their new environment. Some of the inventions included a full array of hemp clothing and tools, a ‘banana catcher’ (a mechanical device for plucking bananas out of trees), and a ‘cactus syringe’ that would extract liquid from the insides of cacti. We also accumulated the drawings from the kids and John, Justin, and I tried to build their inventions.
We spent a lot of time gathering scrap from around the Kunstvlaai site, and wandering Amsterdam looking for materials. We wanted to keep everything as cheap and simple as possible, applying the methodology of the class to our own constructions. We were literally prototyping the kids ideas. Each day that they came to class they got to see the things that we were developing from their drawings. Some of these inventions actually worked! Justin’s ‘Automatic Horse Trainer’ was a particular hit with the kids and the Kunstvlaai crowds.
We used the classroom for teaching the kids during the day, and for working (somewhat) diligently during the opening hours of the festival to make our machines and tools. The classroom became a workshop and production facility, rather than a site for the display of finished artworks. A lot of the project actually came to revolve around the multiple conversations we had with visitors in this space. In some ways our role as educators ran right through the whole process, with many fruitful discoveries and exchanges happening as we made things.
None of us has any official training as a teacher. The whole project was an experiment for us, where we were learning about teaching from the very beginning. We found ourselves constantly having to acknowledge our own lack of authority, and trying to dispel any idea that we had some sort of flawless expertise. We spent a lot of time attempting to dispel any sense that we were right, and more or less trying to just impart some things that we knew in as interesting a way as possible. I was constantly hoping that the kids would undermine us. Often they would do just that, choosing to work outside the boundaries of the assignments and invent their own rules for their ideas and inventions. It was a really challenging way of working. But none of us really feels comfortable being the boss.More: www.thearbourlakesghool.com