Community Artist Interview
Carla Bergman, Purple Thistle Centre
by Anna Wilkinson firstname.lastname@example.org
How do the arts help to create community?
I am interested in art that sits outside of careerism and the market where it can level the distinction between “amateur” and “professional.” Making the arts accessible and in most cases, free, helps people easily move from being a cultural consumer into a cultural producer. For art to create community, well, it has to be public, and more specifically it has to involve engaging with others in the process. The act of making something together is what really creates community, and this also creates tangible relationships between everyone involved.
What do the arts mean to you?
I see the arts as a means of empowerment whether you are curating, involved in DIY projects, or promoting community events. Art has the potential to be interactive, holistic, and healing. And it can literally save lives. It can also be extremely accessible because you don’t need a ton of social or economic capital to get involved. In that way the arts have the power to create a democratic space that sits outside the market. By connecting art to activism, as a tool to create dialogue, it can really have a possitive impact for social change.
|Carla Bergman is one of the speakers at our Culture Days event Sept. 25|
Carla Bergman is the co-director of the Purple Thistle Centre. But this isn’t something she necessarily feels comfortable highlighting. She identifies herself first and foremost as an activist. And she’s also quick to point out that because the Purple Thistle is a youth-run collective, she is not the voice of the organization.
The Purple Thistle is a centre for youth arts and activism. As a combination between a community centre and an artist-run studio, it offers classes, drop-in hours, paid internships for youth, and a meeting and work space for other groups and organizations. Through its collective structure, 20 to 25 youth are involved as members and work to staff the space and make all decisions regarding courses, projects, and the centre’s daily operation. Up to 200 youth are then involved as participants in the Purple Thistle’s programs. As co-directors, Carla and Matt Hern act as “anchors” for projects, mentoring youth and are involved in the administrative work of paying rent and writing grants.
“The Purple Thistle operates as a direct democracy. Every collective member has a key and the space runs on a model of horizontality. It’s almost like a family–but a non-dysfunctional one. We really sincerely take care of each other. Matt started it with eight youth in 2001. Most were artists and they started by discussing what kind of project they wanted to do together. He provided organizational training to that first group and that group trained the next group of youth and so on. I think one of the things that makes the Thistle sustainable is that it was started by youth, and not just adults.”
Carla’s personal politics converge with the Purple Thistle’s philosophy in many crucial ways. Carla articulates her goal in this way: “I work with the intention to radicalize youth with the hope of challenging norms around consumerism, schooling, and success.” Carla knew early on that she wanted to work with youth but in a different way than was being done in schools. For her and many others involved with the Purple Thistle, deschooling means providing an alternative to formal education, allowing young people to be equal partners in their own education. In other words, providing a space for “life learning.”
“As a proponent of deschooling it was important for me to find a way to make these activist movements more public. I saw art as a way of doing that. Deschooling/unschooling needs to be public, it can’t just be done in your home. So I set about finding a public space in which to engage youth in the arts. I started the Radical Art in Nature (RAIN) zine with a small group of young people in 2007. Our goal was to empower people as cultural producers rather than passive consumers. In 2008 I approached the Purple Thistle and started the Youngunz program for younger youth (most of whom were unschoolers) where we bring in a skilled mentor every week to work with the youth, usually with the goal of producing some sort of finished project.”
Other programs that Carla has worked on through the Purple Thistle have similarly challenged the status quo. Even something as simple as showing a free movie in a park with free popcorn in a low-income neighbourhood was an intensely political act for the collective, something that sprang from its belief in “radical generosity.” As Carla describes it, “It was heart-breaking to see just how overwhelmed people were when they found out they didn’t have to pay. “It was sort of sad to see how surprised and happy they were.”
The work being done by the Purple Thistle continues to broaden its horizons. In 2011, the Purple Thistle Institute will provide a summer program as an alternative to university education. It will focus on topics of social and environmental change. For Carla, this is all part of the process of ensuring that young people are politically engaged while remaining “happy and thriving” in the work and projects they undertake.