Fillip 20 — Fall 2015

A Wicked Problem: Fogo Island Dialogues
Melanie O'Brian


From one of the four corners of the flat earth, Fogo Island, in Newfoundland, has appeared on the radar of contemporary art. With Fogo Island Arts, a residency-based contemporary arts institution with international ambition and connections, art is inextricably tied to a larger rural renewal initiative to revitalize Fogo Island’s economy through sustainable tourism. The remote, rocky island is rife with lore and history, and the narratives developing around Fogo Island Arts are in keeping with that tradition.

Fogo Island is an outport (the term used for isolated coastal communities in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador) that was settled by the Irish and English in the mid eighteenth century. Its inhabitants have relied on fishing, struggled with dwindling cod stocks, and fiercely resisted a forcible move to a larger settlement as recently as 1967—all while eking out a hardscrabble existence. Today the island has a population of about two thousand seven hundred, down from a high of six thousand prior to the federal government’s instatement of a cod moratorium in the early 1990s. Analogous to the island’s resilient culture, self-sufficiency is a key aspect of the Fogo Island Arts project. Engaging contemporary art to help reinvigorate a rural and remote community, it is a long way from the art-world audience found in more urban contexts. To travel to Fogo Island requires multiple flights, driving, a ferry, and then more driving.1 It’s a journey. The journey—an art pilgrimage not unlike a visit to Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field (1977)—offers both imaginative escapism and access to experiential knowledge. Even place names become more fantastical as one approaches Fogo Island: from Vancouver a traveller passes through airports in Toronto, Saint John’s, and Gander, drives across a scrubby, densely treed landscape that appears endless, takes a ferry on the Atlantic through a stop at the Change Islands, and then once on Fogo Island, drives through communities such as Stag Harbour, Little Seldom, Seldom, Barr’d Islands, Joe Batt’s Arm, and Tilting, where, along the inlets, small, mostly traditional wooden buildings face the ocean in surprisingly dense clusters.

Fogo Island Arts (FIA) undertakes a program that includes not only an artist residency, but also exhibitions, publications, and public programming such as the Fogo Island Dialogues, a three-day event (July 19–21, 2013) with approximately twenty international speakers that sought to focus on how art can influence social change. This program is the first in an internationally promoted series, simultaneously bringing attention to the FIA project and troubling its very premise. The Dialogues belong within a contemporary art system in which conversations and speaker series are understood as legitimate and legitimizing discursive practices. Narratives, such as those produced by the Dialogues, result in concentric waves that spread the reach of the FIA project. However, art is not the only background against which the Dialogues play out: its intertwined contexts include business and cultural ecologies, specifically sustainable tourism that relies on national and international visitors, and the maintenance of cultural traditions.

A registered non-profit, FIA was instigated by philanthropist Zita Cobb,2 a native of Fogo Island whose family left the island when the cod fishery began to fail. She subsequently entered the business world, becoming extremely successful in Silicon Valley by heading up multibillion-dollar deals for a California-based fibre optic company.3 Cobb ultimately returned to Fogo Island with her fortune and a multipronged initiative to address the island’s faltering economies. Her goal is to preserve Fogo Island’s culture and way of life and to develop a model of social entrepreneurship that redirects profits back to local control; contemporary art is intended to enhance the project’s visibility and longevity. The FIA website outlines Cobb’s goals for contemporary art on Fogo Island: The Foundation believes the arts will play a key role in helping to secure the future sustainability of Fogo Island ...[providing] opportunities for artists and thinkers from a wide range of disciplines to live and work on Fogo Island for varying periods of time. All artists-in-residence live in heritage houses and work in one of four off-the-grid studios ...[whose] locations connect artists-in-residence with the day-to-day lives of the Island’s local communities. Fogo Island Arts also works closely with the Fogo Island Inn’s Community Host program, which introduces visitors to the traditional activities of outport Newfoundland and Labrador.4

While art brings visibility (and presumably innovative ideas and critical assessment) to the project, the Fogo Island Inn brings tourists and money. The recently opened hotel, dramatically situated on the rocky shore like a beached iceberg, has twenty-nine rooms that start at $875 per night; houses a restaurant (with nouvelle locavore leanings), a gallery, a cinema, and a library; and employs about fifty people, largely from the island. With its high price tag and haute design mixing international contemporary with local traditional building methods, it is a hybrid model for a community’s ownership of capital.

Hybrid models of business—from farmers’ co-ops and credit unions to the fish co-op model that still exists on Fogo Island today—are certainly not new, but in regard to this venture and others like it, a new language is used to discuss a reinvention of capitalism for shared social and environmental benefit, as well as for corporate gain. According to Michael Porter and Michael Kramer, writing for the Harvard Business Review: Shared value can be defined as policies and operating practices that enhance the competitiveness of a company while simultaneously advancing the economic and social conditions in the communities in which it operates. Shared value creation focuses on identifying and expanding the connections between societal and economic progress.5

In identifying a “higher form” of capitalism that involves a social purpose, shared value proposes the blurring of for-profit and not-for-profit models. In FIA’s hybrid enterprise, using the language of shared value, contemporary art is mobilized as part of this so-called progress.

In Cobb’s Dialogues introduction, as a self-identified businessperson, she observes that business focusing solely on economic capital is part of a larger dissolution of society. Noting that business got us into this mess—meaning the mess of economic and cultural decline—Cobb asserts that business could help get us out. Characterizing the mess as a “wicked problem,” one that is almost impossible to define and to solve in its far-reaching complexity, she presents her work on Fogo Island as simultaneously entrepreneurial philanthropy and progressive capitalism. The wicked problem to which Cobb refers is that traditional industries cannot resolve economic decline both evident in, and due to, decreasing fish stocks, dwindling population (especially young people), and loss of traditions such as building practices or musical culture, nor can these traditional industries alone generate future prospects for new types of sustainable business. John C. Camillus, in referring to wicked problems like environmental degradation, poverty, and terrorism, states that “not only do conventional [business] processes fail to tackle [them], but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.”6

Fogo Island’s issues, including the loss of traditional industries and cultural customs, require a new approach in order to resituate the island as a vibrant community. Cobb’s proposed five foci for the FIA project are aimed at addressing the issues of hospitality, ways of knowing, business, connectivity, and “wholeness.”7 For Cobb, hospitality includes the inn, the art residency, and the experiences visitors have with the place and its residents to build “buy in.” Fogo Islanders’ notably inviting attitude and their generous storytelling (which allows for a feeling of inclusion) are part of the island’s culture and lore. This type of hospitality, in Cobb’s description, involves a creation of place, welcoming, translation of local stories and customs for visitors, friendship as a public activity, and building toward a common good. Ways of knowing, for Cobb, include preservation initiatives to maintain buildings, skills (such as boat building, traditional cooking practices, and storytelling), and history that incorporates knowledge without ossifying it in the realm of the “authentic.” Cobb understands these practices as ways to educate a visiting public while preserving cultural identity. For an outsider, these are the things that are compelling and that drive the visit. The visit then supports the Fogo Island Inn, the chief venture of FIA’s parent organization, the Shorefast Foundation. As a for-profit business it supports a charitable organization and is an aspect of a larger public/private partnership that involves the province and other stakeholders. Cobb’s notions of connectivity and wholeness also apply to optimizing the business aspect of the project for community wellbeing, bringing both locals and visitors together to support a larger picture of cultural health. In theory, this is an admirable approach, but the specifics of the project—such as the visual art residency—require a highly nuanced understanding of each sector implied by Cobb’s five foci and of the contemporary art world for true success.

The art residency, which depends upon partici­pation from outsiders, brings the project to the attention of an international art audience. Moreover, the responses of artists to the conditions of the project, as well as to local culture and history, can generously, or less generously, reveal agendas and ideological constructions of place. In The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society, Lucy Lippard frames artists in such situations as “envisionaries,” making myriad connections visible that are constitutive of a place.8 FIA enlisted Nicolaus Schafhausen9 as a strategic art director and brings national and international artists to the island such as Abbas Akhavan, Silke Otto-Knapp, Kevin Schmidt, and Zin Taylor. The first exhibition in the gallery, and its inaugural publication, with Berlin-based Sternberg Press, focused on the work of a past resident, New Zealand artist Kate Newby.10 Also lending prominence to the project is the architecture of the four studios and inn designed by the Newfoundland-raised architect Todd Saunders. The experience of the artist-in-residence, or the guest at the inn, is highly determined by the design of these spaces, which are explicitly contemporary rather than traditional structures.

Schafhausen asserted in his introduction to the Dialogues that Cobb’s project does not instrumentalize art, but this point is worth troubling if the heart of the project lies in the commercial success of the inn and in the touristic experience of a shifting Fogo Island culture and its lineage. The residencies and the resultant projects may serve an important purpose in the ecology of the project to reveal the meaning of a place, but for whom is this place? Is it for the affluent visitor attracted by art tourism, the artist, or the local?11


The Dialogues, the first in a series of four discursive events, took place at the Fogo Island Inn in the summer of 2013. Further Dialogues were planned, such as at MAK in Vienna, November 17–19, 2013, and at other locations in future.12 The subtitle of the first Dialogues is “Belonging to a Place.” Ostensibly undertaken to assess the project’s highly ambivalent context in that outsiders are invited to discuss a culturally loaded site that they have little or cursory engagement with, the event uses “the idea of an island as a metaphor for any rural locale, [where] the concept of the island-as-laboratory is tested through dialogue.”13 The event’s structure began by invoking this island metaphor, then went on to consider the commodification of the authentic, the remote residency, gentrification, and similar art projects (such as Benesse Art Site in Japan) and concluded with a discussion on the relevancy of the event and the overall FIA project relative to other contexts.

Over the last half century, much has been made in the art world of a sense of place and displacement. The notion of proprietary belonging is inherently problematic in terms of reactionary nationalisms, competitive localisms, and obsessions with heritage,14 yet sensitivity to place is a valuable social and cultural agent that provides connective cultural reciprocity.15

Aside from Cobb, very few of the Dialogues’ participants came from Fogo Island. The participants (the speakers were also largely the audience) included artists, curators, academics, directors of art institutions, publishers, and architects: Amira Gad, Dieter Roelstraete, Erika Balsom, Fabrizio Gallanti, Gareth Long, Judy Radul, Kitty Scott, Lars Müller, Lívia Páldi, Monika Szewczyk, Nicolaus Schafhausen, Piero Golia, Rosemary Heather, Simon Rees, Tobias Spichtig, Todd Saunders, Tom McDonough, Zita Cobb, and artists from Fogo Island Arts’ residency program at the time: Janice Kerbel, Jerry Ropson, Katie Bethune-Leamen, and Mark Clintberg. Although several Fogo Islanders were listed as participants, none presented or spoke during the event. Even those living on Fogo Island to work with the FIA administration are not of that place. Actual locals, on the other hand, rather than simply measuring their connection to a place by lived time or time spent in employment, have deeper bonds to history and culture that result in belonging. Thus the discussion about Fogo Island’s meaning as a place was undertaken by people who came to the island temporarily. International itinerancy and mobility are, of course, conditions of the contemporary art world, and many artists operate as nomads in this milieu, wanderers without a permanent home who instead follow opportunities such as exhibitions, residencies, and commissions. In this moment, it can be unfashionable to be “from” a place, and participants in the Dialogues generally chose to identify themselves as based in multiple locations16 or even from “nowhere,” which allows for an ongoing condition characterized by distance, choice, criticality, and ever new experience. The art-world community’s placelessness offers new approaches to place through metrics other than those of attachment and fellowship, but the discussion would have found a better balance if Fogo Islanders had been given voice to speak about belonging contingent on locale.

It is worth noting that in today’s experiences of time-space compression, the politics of mobility and access ought to be examined. The condition of placelessness, for instance, is a choice that contrasts sharply with the condition of displacement. Displacement, as experienced by migrants and refugees, is quite separate from the experience of place or placelessness experienced by journalists, academics, business people, and artists, all of whom undertake international transactions and are able to come and go from various global locations with relative ease. Despite the jet-set prestige, these workers also contend within undeniable economic imperatives and precarious conditions. Boris Groys notes that an effect of this mobility is the global world place—particularly the city—that “operates like a reproductive machine that ...swiftly multiplies any local attribute of one particular city in all other cities around the world.”17

Although Fogo Island is not a city, and nor do its residents desire that its specificities become widely reproduced elsewhere, FIA does have ambitions to be known by an international audience and is, in part, reproducing global conditions of placelessness in the consideration of place. For the Dialogues, one ought first to ask: What does a largely urban international art community know about rural conditions and experience, particularly the conditions specific to Fogo Island? How do the participants locate art within social change? What does this international art community offer in terms of approaching Fogo Island’s wicked problem?

Art historian Tom McDonough’s prologue at the Dialogues positioned islands as experimental spaces in the Western modern imaginary.18 Islands are sites that compel behaviours as well as enforce operations of power and production. The physical and conceptual boundedness of the island has framed them as laboratories for examinations of evolutionary, social, and ecological development. Not only spaces of study or a golden-age utopia, islands are also sites for social reform. Invoking Foucauldian heterotopic carceral spaces—prisons, sanitariums, asylums, workhouses, and hospitals—that are literally and figuratively islands, McDonough noted that the island experiment of containment and controlled introduction or exclusion is varied and includes examples of healthy hybridity fostered by diversification (e.g., an island lab à la Dr. Moreau, containment and exclusion in Leper colonies, Alcatraz, or Club Med). FIA is, of course, an experiment as well, and joins the long list of such spaces as enumerated by McDonough. The question is who controls it and who benefits from it? And what will the outcome be? With the ideal of shared value as part of its mission, Cobb positions FIA as a win-win situation in which visitors consume island culture and contemporary art while, in turn, islanders benefit from visitors’ money and ideas.

Island projects often rely on a strategy of colonization, and Fogo Island has opened itself up to occupation in an experiment that confronts local needs and knowledge with imported high design and art. Curator Dieter Roelstraete’s and film theorist Erika Balsom’s presentations at the Dialogues on the commodification of the authentic questioned the attachment to an illusion (and construction) of authenticity in art and in the touristic experience. The authentic is back in fashion: local and wild food, farmers’ markets, artisanal beer and coffee, thrifting, independent labels, and craft in general. Fogo Island offers a set of experiences that aligns with this trend and is distinct from a package holiday on the Mayan Riviera, for example, with charter flights, generic resort architecture, international Western food, and a disengagement from local culture. While a capitalist logic is not as overtly expressed on Fogo Island (as, say, in Cancún), this favours a nostalgic relationship to the past instead of facing challenging notions of progress. An idea of authenticity can reside in historic mythology, and this session of the Dialogues was most revealing in how art and its ideas can be a positive critical voice in the FIA enterprise.

Balsom distinguished between produced and performed authenticity versus found authenticity, specifically in a Newfoundland context. Synopsizing a comedy sketch in which a Newfoundland resident takes on attributes of tourists’ “authentic” expectations, she pointed to the ways in which Fogo Island performs the authentic. For Newfoundland more generally, tourism focuses on the authentic in old-world attributes, as seen in an advertising tagline for the province: “Find yourself here. Sometimes the path forward begins with a journey back.” The return to an earlier cultural age carries with it the “real” (Balsom pointed out that, etymologically, “authenticity” means “self-made”). Balsom noted that the authentic does not break with tradition and instead remains fixed and outside of the sphere of reproducibility. The authentic contrasts with new technologies and focuses on the human, with the implication that, conversely, the inauthentic often stands for “new” or “deceptive.” She also pointed out that there is a moral superiority in conspicuous authenticity, but ultimately sellers of the authentic are cloaking consumerism in a spiritual or moral costume. Rather than cashing in on cod, the island is cashing in on its appeal of remoteness, dramatic land-/seascape, and authentic traditional culture, as well as contemporary cultural activity. Traditionally, the artist is thought to embody this authenticity, and on Fogo Island the artist’s presence signals a proposition for a unique experience.

As with issues of mobility, questions of power, class, and taste are raised in distinguishing the authentic from the inauthentic. Balsom noted that authenticity is a moving target, as it is retroactively produced. If one were to ask which Fogo Island architecture is the most authentic among the following: a saltbox house with wooden siding, a vinyl-clad new McMansion, or the Fogo Island Inn, the answer would constantly shift. Questions of nostalgia and preservation emerge in this example regarding how to maintain a notion of geographic difference, specificity of place, or uniqueness without suffocating or fossilizing it. Fogo Island is not static and does not have a single identity. Furthermore, all understanding of place specificity experiences continual reproduction: “It is a sense of place, an understanding of its character which can only be constructed by linking that place to places beyond.... a global sense of the local.”19

In their presentation on remote residencies, artist Judy Radul and Baltic Art Center director Lívia Páldi discussed the global-local connection, specifically when artists are invited to visit a place and respond to it. The response to place is a demand of the FIA residency that can be a fruitful opportunity for the artist, or it may be challenging, even impossible, within a specific practice’s set of concerns. Noting that in remote places it is the people that make the experience meaningful, Páldi and Radul highlighted the importance of the locally situated curator who works to develop a process, a method, and a proposal with visiting international artists that takes into account the local culture, landscape, and the artist’s ongoing concerns. The curator is a conduit to a successful project for both the artist and the residency. For FIA it is Schafhausen who presumably works with artists to develop a mutually beneficial, conversant approach that questions art’s role within the Fogo Island renewal initiative and the authenticity of the experience.


When thinking about the impact of Fogo Island Arts, one can focus on the economic and social benefits to the island’s long-term residents, but what are we to make of the project’s production and presentation of art? What does a residency program such as FIA’s allow for? Does it promote innovative, experimental, intellectual practices? Does it provide space for thinking? Does the landscape and culture inherently affect artistic production? And vice versa: Does the landscape become affected by the new practices in terms of installations, buildings, and attitudes? Because of the nascency of the project, one can only speculate. However, a comparison to longer-running residency projects might offer insight.

Although not host to an island residency, the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, seems an apt place to consider. An art foundation and residency in an isolated locale, it has “island” characteristics that it might share with other small towns across the globe. Marfa’s population is under two thousand and is 70 percent Latino. Founded as a railway stop in the late 1880s at a remote location in the Chihuahuan Desert, it is now a site for cultural pilgrimages removed from more populated centres.20

Over ten thousand people visit the Chinati Foundation annually. The project’s raison d’être is Donald Judd’s legacy (who moved there in 1971), and it also stewards a collection and museum. The Chinati residencies often culminate in a temporary exhibition, and the organization also undertakes public programs. Since Chinati opened as an independent non-profit institution in 1986, a cultural ecology has risen up around it, involving artists, galleries, theatres, a writers-in-residence program, and projects such as Ballroom Marfa. One might suggest that the Chinati Foundation has created an economy and cultural vibrancy for a town that otherwise might have had fewer cultural and economic opportunities.

Despite this economic and cultural boost, there is a disconnect between the art crowd and Marfa’s longtime residents. Art historian Joshua Franco sees Marfa as a palimpsest space in which art and Catholic pilgrimages (to a museum and an altar dedicated to a vision of the Virgin of Guadeloupe, respectively) exist side by side, but do not intersect. Latino culture is a significant aspect of the town but is largely indifferent to art, and vice versa. Regarding this situation, Franco writes: Decoloniality observes that people still live lives affected by the religious and scientific formations of race and human/non-human distinctions part of the inception of a universalized system of capitalism. The “colonial difference” is how I understand that we are in different fields of vision and knowing even when we stand together in the same physical space.21

The fact that the Chinati Foundation is an artist-driven initiative differentiates it from FIA, but the resulting politics of space in both places, between locals and art aficionados, are comparable. The exclusivity of art and its history, compounded by the remoteness of place, positions Fogo Islanders and art visitors in distinct fields of vision and “ways of knowing,” and while islanders and visitors may undertake exchange and while their visions may overlap from time to time, the histories of these knowledges are deeply rooted and not easy to transpose. Questions of gentrification emerge here, and gentrification is perhaps what takes place in Marfa, too. Although one cannot technically speak of gentrification in a rural context, once artists enter into an ecology like this (and artists are often on the leading edge of urban gentrification), soon thereafter modern summer homes, built and financed by outsiders, follow, shifting capital and cultural demands. As the founders of the FIA project do not aim to displace locals but rather to give them a reason to stay, the creation of a situation that appeals to creative business while tapping into local knowledges is one that, over a longer period of time, might work against local interests in that real estate values will increase and eventually might lead to economic displacement.

Another comparative example, discussed by Lars Müller during the Dialogues, is an art and architecture project on the Japanese island of Naoshima: Benesse Art Site. Naoshima has a population of three thousand five hundred and is known for its contemporary museums and hotel, largely designed by the renowned architect Tadao Ando. Müller’s presentation outlined that a private foundation rebuilt the island school system, provided a ferry service, brought back agriculture (specifically rice), worked to preserve old buildings and shrines, constructed museums, and installed permanent artworks by James Turrell, Walter De Maria, Dan Graham, and others. According to Müller, one half of the island constitutes this “paradise” while the other half is industry (Naoshima has been the site of massive smelting and metal refining by Mitsubishi since 1917). The foundation employs around three hundred and fifty people on the island, and art tourism helps support the local economy. Tourism, in this scenario, is the primary goal of the foundation, and like at Marfa and Fogo Island, visitors inject money into these economies and value it for its culture both old and new.

Sustainability is part of a touristic trend, as well as part of the locavore’s interest. If tourists are willing to pay more for a sustainable product or experience, the industry will support shared value shifts in the interest of maximizing profits while coincidentally investing in local economies. (It is worth noting that the language of sustainability is giving way to a notion of resiliency. Resilience is the capacity for survival, adaptation, and growth in the face of unforeseen changes and catastrophic events, whether they are technological, political, social, or environmental.) For example, in a small seaside town in Mexico, the solution for an impoverished population and massive overfishing is to upscale sales of fish caught ethically to tourists willing to pay more in exchange for the ecological benefit. The process can be termed “value rescue ... if the fisherman can cut out some of the middlemen, care for and market their fish better, and make more money per fish, they can be better stewards of their coastline.”22 Tourism is often touted as the great panacea offered by environmentalists, or in the case of Fogo Island, business people. However, with the financial crisis, the dangers of travel, and other factors, tourism in Fogo Island is not necessarily sustainable over the long term. Similarly, architecture is not a sustainable driver for tourism. When it’s new, notes Müller, architecture is a great promotional vehicle for a place, but eventually it needs to be a container for ideas to continue to attract interest. On Fogo Island, buildings (e.g., studios, hotel, gallery) need to be resilient by housing interesting and relevant content, and it is here that art offers a set of potential resources. Only together can the attractions of place, culture, and sustainability function as FIA’s drivers.

I’d had the notion that a tourist goes off in search of diversion, while a pilgrim is after something serious.... Plenty of pilgrims are just after diversion. —Gideon Lewis Kraus, A Sense of Direction23

Visitors to the Fogo Island Inn and the artists on residencies there could be said to be on a voyage and quest of sorts. They may be seeking expansionism, escape, or meaning. The pilgrim, akin to the tourist, is positioned on the threshold between quotidian existence and a transformative experience. Pilgrimage—like other rituals, rites of passage, and transitional experiences that break from the order of everyday life—offers an opportunity to step away from accustomed roles and to simply move toward an abstract goal.24

Groys observes how contemporary artists and intellectuals are on the move, offering their productive output to a global audience: A life spent in transit bound up with equal degrees of hope and fear.... [Contemporary artists and intellectuals do not have] to adjust to the tastes and cultural orientation of their immediate surroundings.... [which] explains the somewhat depoliticized condition of contemporary art.... we now embrace the politics of travel, migration, and nomadic life, paradoxically rekindling the utopian dimension that had ostensibly died out in the era of romantic tourism.25

As part pilgrim, part tourist, and part nomadic peddler, an artist—specifically one travelling to Fogo Island for a residency—is bound up in conditions largely outside the island experience.

Distance and travel are part of the lure of Fogo Island, but this experience also frames the place and how we make sense of a project such as FIA. As visitors we try to understand it without the personal knowledge one comes to acquire after time spent there. The project asks a distanced audience to dig deeper upon arrival, to become ensconced in the history, to feel like a “permanent visitor.” However superficial this may seem, in bringing contemporary artists and their ideas to Fogo Island, a bridge between the island and global ideas metaphorically arises and from this connection the issues raised in the project can be productively troubled.

In Cobb’s hybrid business model, art is an apparatus of the market. Richard Floridian26 at worst, utopian at best, the instrumentalization of art is not a new enterprise, but it is changing. Cobb’s interest in contemporary art is as a tool toward rural renewal. Art on Fogo Island is a growing component of an abstract economy in a postindustrial community. It is speculative, but it also has the potential to maintain a critical autonomy for FIA apart from the systems of big business and politics. Cobb acknowledges the danger of economic capital’s domination. Social, physical, natural, human, and cultural capital are typically understood and used to maximize monetary capital. Cobb wants to support and build community to see new forms of non-fiscal capital coexisting on Fogo Island.

The Dialogues are part of the narrative of the larger project of Fogo Island’s renewal and, as such, part of a constructed legend. In assessing the Dialogues, one can only see them embedded within FIA. Akin to a re-evaluation of social practices as art—works under evaluation on art’s terms rather than in terms of social benefit—one might ask how one can judge FIA as an art project rather than as an economic driver. Not only do the participants in the Dialogues have a responsibility to consider how FIA supports innovative contemporary art practices, but also to consider how to evaluate it as an art institution. An organization that supports the interrogation, production, and presentation of art and ideas should have art as its agenda, rather than understanding art as a byproduct of other investments. FIA, like other good institutions, will find success in being serious about contemporary art, entering Fogo Island into a larger dialogue, and ensuring on-the-ground assistance and endorsement of its projects, as well as visible dissemination into an international art context. But the success of this undertaking remains to be seen.

The Dialogues, in a consideration of how art can influence social change, demonstrate that the interrogative responsiveness of contemporary art practices can impact a social landscape, but in less tangible terms than the monetization of a touristic experience. In approaching the wicked problem of Fogo Island, contemporary art and its ideas offer potentialities in resiliency, shifting patterns that can offer new paths out of seemingly impossible problems. Locality—as a structure of feeling, a property of social life, and an ideology of situated community that turns on shared knowledge—is both materially and symbolically produced. FIA supports the production and reproduction of locality under shifting conditions. Art can respond to place—the combination of space, as defined by landscape, and memory—and its many narratives, and, specifically, FIA and the Dialogues work to construct narratives through which artists, curators, writers, and contemporary art thinkers are weaving their ideas. For “finding a fitting place for oneself in the world is finding a place for oneself in a story.”27 From the Flat Earth Society and the fish co-op to Cobb’s project, the story is paramount.

  1. Fogo is about 450 km from St. John’s International Airport and 100 km from Gander’s airport.
  2. Fogo Island Arts is a younger sister to the non-profit organization Shorefast, established by Zita Cobb and her brother Anthony Cobb. Shorefast partners with the people of Fogo to invest in the economy to “make it vibrant, stable and self-sufficient.” Working to establish a leading geotourism destination built upon the intrinsic physical, creative and cultural assets of this elemental, powerfully remote place…. [Shorefast] will bring the spirit and energy of visitors and the local community to unleash the creative and economic potential of this special place. All surplus from Shorefast’s activities (such as the running of the Fogo Island Inn) will be reinvested in the community as small business grants, community projects such as a swimming pool, etc. Cobb contributed over six million dollars to the overall project and the provincial and federal governments have contributed another ten million. See
  3. Valerie Howes, “Building a Future on Fogo Island,” Readers Digest, October 2011.
  4. In addition to studios and houses, well-hosted artists are provided with cars and mobile telephones for their use on the island, allowing for mobility and connectivity with island residents. See
  5. Michael E. Porter and Mark R. Kramer, “Creating Shared Value: How to Reinvent Capitalism—And Unleash a Wave of Innovation and Growth,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 2011.
  6. John C. Camillus, “Strategy as a Wicked Problem,” Harvard Business Review, May 2008.
  7. I understand Cobb’s use of the term “wholeness” to mean an entire business-cultural ecosystem, in reference, perhaps, to holistic approaches to human health.
  8. Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: New Press, 1997).
  9. The current board, chaired by Schafhausen, includes Kitty Scott and Monika Szewczyk, who both participated in the Dialogues.
  10. Kate Newby, Let the other thing in, ed. Rosemary Heather and Nicolaus Schafhausen (Berlin: Sternberg, 2013).
  11. The Fogo Island Inn’s website notes: Many of our guests are coming to Fogo Island because of what they have seen and heard about the architecture, design and contemporary art. Much of this work has been created through collaborations between residents of Fogo Island and international artists/designers participating in Fogo Island Arts programs. Art allows for different ways of looking at the world and is a means for opening up critical thought. Contemporary artists and designers are trained to think critically and challenge conventions. Our arts programs—exhibitions, conferences, film screenings and studio tours—make it possible to address complex questions in diverse ways, while learning from the experience of others. “In-between,” Fogo Island Inn (website),
  12. The Dialogues at MAK Vienna (November 17–19, 2013) considered ideas of musealization, or “the village as a museum.”
  13. Press release for Fogo Island Dialogues.
  14. Doreen Massey, “A Global Sense of Place,” in Situation, Documents of Contemporary Art, ed. Claire Doherty (London: Whitechapel Gallery; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 164.
  15. Few of us in contemporary North American Society know our place. When I asked twenty university students to name a place where they felt they belonged, most could not. The exceptions were two Navajo women, raised more or less traditionally, and a man whose family had been on a southern Illinois farm for generations. Lippard, The Lure of the Local, 9.
  16. Lippard examines multicenteredness in identity construction in ibid., 42.
  17. Boris Groys, Art Power (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), 106.
  18. Tom McDonough, “Extraterritorial: From Utopia to Tax Haven, How Island Logic has Shaped Culture and Society,” talk presented at Fogo Island Dialogues, July 19, 2013.
  19. Massey, “A Global Sense of Place,” 168.
  20. Marfa is two hundred miles from a commercial airport, eighty miles from an interstate highway, and close to the US-Mexican border.
  21. Joshua T. Franco, “Long Read: Letter to Donald Judd,might be good, September 14, 2012,
  22. Erik Vance, “Emptying the World’s Aquarium: The Dismal Future of the Global Fishery,” Harper’s Magazine, August 2013, 60.
  23. Gideon Lewis Kraus, A Sense of Direction: Pilgrimage for the Restless and the Hopeful (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 314.
  24. Anthropologist Victor Turner described pilgrimage in terms of liminality. For more, see Kraus, A Sense of Direction, 118.
  25. Groys, Art Power, 106.
  26. Richard Florida’s “creative class” is a concept in which a specific socioeconomic class acts as a key driving force in the economic development of North American postindustrial cities. Critique of his work examines how the creative class thesis, and the associated creative city policy prescriptions, exacerbates urban social and economic inequalities. Although Fogo Island is not a city, the notion of a postindustrial culture on Fogo Island offers a parallel. See Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Working, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).
  27. Lippard, The Lure of the Local, 33.
About the Author

Melanie O’Brian is Director/Curator of Simon Fraser University Art Galleries in Vancouver and Burnaby. She was Curator at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery, Toronto (2011–12), Director/Curator of Artspeak, Vancouver (2004–10), and Assistant Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery (2001–04). She is the editor (with Milena Hoegsberg) of 5,000 Feet Is the Best: Omer Fast (Power Plant/Henie Onstad Kunstsenter/Sternberg, 2012); Stan Douglas: Entertainment (Power Plant, 2011); Judgment and Contemporary Art Criticism with Jeff Khonsary (Fillip/Artspeak, 2010); and Vancouver Art & Economies (Arsenal Pulp/Artspeak, 2007). She has written for numerous catalogues and magazines such as C Magazine, The Exhibitionist, Fillip, X-Tra, and Yishu.

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