Arts and the Avenue: The Bleeding Heart Art Space

This is an interview piece that was written a few months ago. It took me well outside of my writing comfort zone, but also opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on life, art, and community. If you’re in Edmonton, check out The Bleeding Heart Art Space.

. . . .

Located in the heart of Edmonton’s Alberta Avenue, the Bleeding Heart Art Space is surrounded by change in one of the city’s most diverse and dynamic neighbourhoods. It isn’t mere happenstance that brings BHAS to this area: Alberta Avenue has become an incubator for Edmonton’s art and culture scene. But ‘The Ave’, as it is colloquially known, is in the early stages of gentrification. Once a thriving and prosperous middle class residential neighbourhood, it is just emerging from a period of decay, rising crime, and plunging property values. The most immediate and tangible result of this is a neighbourhood with startling contrasts: a trendy ‘not-for-profit’ coffee shop, which features live local musicians to serenade patrons over their unpronounceable beverages, sits nestled between excellent restaurants offering everything from barbecue to Ethiopian cuisine. Small grocers offer hard-to-find items to the many immigrant families in the area, and interested shoppers can probably find a bakery from their continent of choice. Meanwhile on the same street, seedy bars and a pornographic video store compete with a community center and a playground.

Economically and socially, Alberta Avenue splits roughly along three lines with young, hipster families (attracted by the area’s cheap housing) living side by side with aging residents whose long tenure will (inevitably) soon be ending, and some of Edmonton’s poorest poor (who suffer the worst from the area’s high levels of crime and drug-use).  These divergent socioeconomic groups create internal tensions that would normally be resolved by the classic model of gentrification, wherein the neighbourhood’s problems would simply shift elsewhere. Rising real estate values will eventually price the poor out of the market and move the crack houses and prostitutes safely out of the way where cycles of addiction and exploitation can continue without being obtrusive and unsightly. In a city whose median house price hovers around $400,000, this shotgun-method of community sanitation can seem rather attractive, even convenient.

Sitting down with Dave Von Bieker who is the Project Lead for the Bleeding Heart Art Space, an Alberta Avenue resident, and definitely one of the aforementioned hipsters, I ask him what he thinks about the changes underway on Alberta Avenue and if the end result is already predetermined. Rather than just pushing problems away and out of sight, Dave tells me that the real fix is “deep, genuine, and self-effacing love” for the neighbourhood and its residents. As an initiative driven by the faith of those involved with it, Dave is open about the Christian motives behind the project. He describes a seamless coincidence of Christian and community values, with Christ as a positive force for change. Addressing the pervasiveness of postmodern glibness and cynicism in society, the Bleeding Heart aims to provide a powerful counter to these attitudes by using faith and hope as antidote. While Christ’s commandment to ‘love thy neighbour’ may be a common sentiment, it becomes truly radical when implemented as a practice. “The Bleeding Heart is an art space, a sacred space, and a community space, whose main purpose is to carve out a place for meaningful connections.”

Far more than just an art gallery, Dave says, the Bleeding Heart Art Space is a place for creative problem solving where people can ‘be real’ in the most genuine sense. His vision is for an arena of human interaction that is intellectually and emotionally challenging, but also safe and, most of all, compelled by love. And Alberta Avenue is an ideal place for this kind of outreach: artists and musicians have been drawn to the area over many years by its low-budget real estate. So much so, that the area now has a large number of very creative residents and boasts not one, but two very successful annual arts festivals, both organized by Arts on the Ave, a non-profit initiative to further develop  Alberta Avenue’s arts community. Also on Alberta Avenue, above the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts (which features visual arts programs for individuals with developmental disabilities, and a fully booked art gallery showcasing a variety of exhibitions), sits ArtsHub 118, two floors of apartments housing a co-operative artists’ community for those who are involved in the arts in Edmonton. And just down the street is that aforementioned trendy coffee shop, also run by Arts on the Ave, more formally titled The Carrot Community Arts Coffeehouse, which perpetuates the ongoing themes of art and community, with knitting groups, open mics, locally crafted artisanal goods, and exhibitions from local visual artists.

As I jot down notes, I carefully ponder my next question. I know Dave is an artist and I don’t want to offend my interview subject, but ever since I decided to arrange an interview with him, I’ve been worried about how to approach the question of art. “I really don’t mean to sound like an asshole, but why art? I’ve seen a lot of ‘art’ and I don’t think I get it. What makes art the right tool for change?” I ask. Not being artistically inclined myself, I’m a bit nervous about how he’ll respond, despite my good intentions. Dave smirks at my attempt to preface my question with humour, but I can tell that he’s not flustered by my question. In fact I get the impression that he’s given it some pretty deep thought. In answering, it becomes clear that the question gets at the heart of what he believes art is, and more importantly, what art can do.

“Well,” he replies, “If you’re an asshole, it probably because you’ve had good reason to be.” He explains to me that the art community historically has had problems making connections with the “real world”. The purpose of art is to communicate an idea. For too long, Dave says, the overriding attitude of artists is that if you don’t ‘get it’, then there must be something wrong with you. But in his view this attitude is all wrong: if art fails to communicate – if no connection of meaning and purpose gets made with the audience – then more likely than not, it’s the artist who is at fault.

“I don’t believe that art is for self-expression. Art is wasted if that’s all it is,” Dave tells me. This helps to explain why my mental image of contemporary ‘art’ is one of meaningless (or at least impenetrable) messages put out for display. With some chagrin, he uses the term “creative masturbation” to describe this phenomenon. Art for art’s sake is fine, but it doesn’t belong in a public space if it isn’t being used to say something important.  “Art gets us around our hang-ups,” he continues.  “It’s the Trojan Horse that gets inside our defences and allows us to see another point of view that would otherwise be impossible to see.” Taking a broad view of today’s societal ills, Dave talks about how politics and the internet are forums for argument and polarization. “These things don’t provide dialogue. Art does.” In short, art is too important to be just a means of self-expression.

Applying these concepts to his neighbourhood, the idea of the Bleeding Heart Art Space begins to make sense as way of building bridges between disparate members of a neighbourhood community who display so much variety that communication between them poses a huge challenge. But far from being an art crusader, Dave is modest about the project’s impact on the community. We talk about the serious and deep-rooted problems of drugs, crime and poverty in the area and he’s very clear that art isn’t the solution to every ill. Dave tells me that just as the community’s problems are complex, solutions to them must also be multifaceted. But the key to creating organic change, and the alternative to simply pushing problems elsewhere, is to work from the inside, “to actually be a part of the fabric of the neighbourhood … We’re just working on one part of the problem.”

I next ask Dave more directly about the connection between the Bleeding Heart Art Space and the Church. BHAS is an outreach of Urban Bridge Church, itself an offshoot of Edmonton’s City Center Church, which is again a part of the much larger Pentecostal Assembly of Canada. Urban Bridge’s mandate is to be “more, artsy, more intellectual, heady … more demonstrative. Urban Bridge is ‘the last stop out the door’ of Church for a lot of people. It’s the place for those who don’t fit in. The reason why ‘Christian’ art, music, and movies fail is that everything is neatly wrapped up.” But real life isn’t like that, he explains. “We’re good with questions, not always so good with answers.” And it is this openness to questions and soul-searching that makes BHAS a natural outgrowth of Urban Bridge, whose goal is to “connect with those who don’t connect with Church.” Dave describes Urban Bridge as being kind of on the fringes of the broader Church community, so I ask him about where Urban Bridge stands theologically. On the core tenets of the Christian faith, he says, Urban Bridge is well within the mainstream of traditional Protestant thought. But in keeping with its mandate to be open and questioning, Urban Bridge displays much of the open-mindedness and diversity of opinion that is characteristic of the broader Church community.

To get an idea of what this diversity of thought looks like, I ask Dave about homosexuality within the Church; still a hot-button issue for many Christians and a socially divisive topic more generally. There are strong arguments on either side, he says, and Christians don’t all agree with each other. Yet Urban Bridge is welcoming to homosexuals. “It’s a big question and the stakes are high,” he says, but rather than give definitive answers or condemn out-of-hand, Christians should show “acceptance without, necessarily, agreement … be willing to walk with people wherever they need to go, and always err on the side of love.”

While contentious theological and social issues aren’t necessarily at the forefront of Bleeding Heart’s mission, the fact that BHAS is an integral part of the art community makes their position on these issues inherently relevant. And, just as Urban Bridge Church exists to minister to those on the fringes of the Church community, so too is the Bleeding Heart Art Space perfectly positioned to speak to an urban community, many of whose members exist on the fringes of society due to race, poverty, circumstance, or choice. What better place could there be for an organization which deals in the things that (perhaps) aren’t so neatly wrapped up?

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