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.

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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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