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Producer's Process

Mass Culture is a recent addition to the Canadian arts & culture sector, connecting research, practice and policy by weaving together a network of collaborators. In 2018-2019, my work was focused on developing tools and principles for the Gatherings, a series of creative conversations about arts research designed to inform Mass Culture’s community-led priorities. The next stage was, naturally, a festival: Mass One, Festival of Arts Research

Amidst the maelstrom of changes, the brutal breaking down of familiar patterns and the fast widening of inequalities we’re experiencing right now, I am reminded of a commitment the Mass One team made early on: to share the development process, and to think and learn in public. We’re now resuming our active planning, so it’s time to look under the hood and launch this Producer’s Process series of articles. 

Mass One came out of a desire to disrupt the usual modes of knowledge production and dissemination. We asked ourselves what a hybrid between an academic conference and an arts festival would look like, especially if we paid special attention to the participants’ experience. 

When I started producing Mass One, I was interested in exploring the notions of choice and participation. For this first edition, we planned to gather 100 people over 1 night and 1 day in a format designed for exchange, connection and knowledge co-production – a “choose-your-own-adventure” festival of ideas where participants design their own learning journey and co-create a rich conversation on research, policy and practice in the arts. 

To anchor the festival in current research, we picked three ongoing projects – Future of Work, led by Jeanne LeSage; Civic Impact Frameworks, led by Christina Loewen; and Unlocking Data, led by Frédéric Julien. We started our planning process in earnest in December 2019, working with the Research Leads mentioned above, strategic partners – Ryerson University, Ontario Trillium Foundation, City of Toronto – and a roster of topic experts and process facilitators, including Michele Decottignies and Dylan Robinson

We planned to open in style at St Paul’s Bloor Street with a dynamic dialogue on Art & Space, starting on stage with a Long Conversation “un-panel” format that would then propagate through the room. For the full-day festival, we had big plans to make the most of the open layout of the Catalyst at Ryerson Faculty of Communication & Design. A key aspect of our design was to weave values of collaboration, participation and inclusivity throughout the event cycle. 

That was then; now we’re pivoting, in sync with so many other events and programmes around the world. 

Because we can’t meet in person, the spatial dimension of the event is radically altered. All those online meetings, disembodied and back-to-back, can drain our energy really fast, even though we’re actually processing far less information at once than “in real life”. But online space is what we’ve got to work with; it’s our design constraint. 

To bring to life the core elements of Mass One – inclusive design, co-curated content and participative frameworks – we’re playing with another dimension by deploying them in time. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose: we’re transforming the festival into a season for thinking, sharing and learning

Some online events will be intensive working sessions limited in capacity. Others will be shaped by our work with co-curators and may take time to emerge in their most effective form. And because we now have time for the in-between, we’ll explore different ways of opening up opportunities for dialogue beyond these salient moments in the process. 

So I’d love to know:

  • What do you think is the difference between a festival and a season? (I’m asking this as a festivals & public programmes producer – I’ve never managed a season before).
  • What other principles drawn from artistic practice can we bring to our knowledge & cultural production activities? (I often refer back to my experience working with improvising musicians – “freedom within structure, structure within freedom” – but there’s got to be more to life than jazz).
  • And the question that keeps me going: how do we design frameworks where we can practise participation and apply this competence to other aspects of our life?