A new art project is bringing storytelling off the page and into the streets of one Vancouver neighbourhood.
The Active Fiction Project allows participants to discover chapters of a story that are scattered throughout the Riley Park area near Main St. and King Edward Ave. With each chapter they find, they are able to “choose their own adventure” by deciding where to go next.
“Not everyone goes to the theatre. Not everyone watches movies or reads. Stories are everywhere and should be experienced everywhere,” said Sarah Higgins, a UBC creative writing student and author of the current story.
A playwright, Higgins was drawn to the theatrical element of the project – experiencing the story, not just reading it on a page.
A new way of storytelling
Walking the neighbourhood was the first step Higgins took to start writing her story, which she called In Search of Little Mountain. On her walk, she found herself spending a lot of time in the iconic Mountain View Cemetery.
“Geographically, it takes up a huge chunk of space in the neighbourhood, so I wanted to start my story there,” she said.
Listen: Sarah Higgins talks writing a story and walking a neighbourhood (1’13”)
Higgins allowed the natural environment of the cemetery to help her write In Search of Little Mountain. Watson, a main character of the story, came from reading the names inscribed on the many old gravestones of the cemetery.
“A name on one of the gravestones was ‘Sherlock.’ I knew right away that Watson would be a name of an old man at the centre of the story.”
In Search of Little Mountain begins outside Arts off Main at Main Street and 28th. The chapters are displayed on small cards spread throughout the neighbourhood – sometimes on signposts, sometimes in shop windows.
The story is specific to the Riley Park neighbourhood, featuring iconic stores on Main Street, including a wholesale dim sum shop, in the adventure.
“I love that you can’t take this story to another area of Vancouver,” said Higgins.
Finding stories in your neighbourhood
As the project’s director, and organizer with the Vancouver Public Space Network, Jaspal Marwah focuses on delivering innovative ways for people in cities to engage with public spaces and challenge the way we understand them.
He wanted to explore public art through the lens of writing and create an opportunity for people to experience storytelling in public spaces.
“The idea is that the participant is creating the story in the same way that when you’re walking across the street or sitting in a café, you’re creating stories about what you see around you,” said Marwah.
To make this project a reality, he called Timothy Taylor at UBC’s Creative Writing program. Taylor – an award-winning author and public art enthusiast – was excited about the idea of storytelling as public art.
“Neighbourhoods can be a bunch of family compounds where people retreat behind the walls. Or you can conceive of a neighbourhood differently, which is people building the character of that geography together,” said Taylor, who put the call out to his students to participate in the project.
The Active Fiction Project aims to play with the relationships between a distinct neighbourhood that people live in and walk every day and the hidden stories within them.
“What I had observed in street art was that people stop and talk with each other because of the art and create interactions that contribute to a sense of meaning and collective identity that wouldn’t have happened otherwise,” said Taylor.
People often do not consider the written word as a public art form when compared to a sculpture or a statue that is anchored in one place. The project aims to create unexpected interactions between strangers and neighbours around this new experience of storytelling.
Creating these interactions in public spaces outside of the summer season can be a challenge. The project is hoping to explore the possibilities of experiencing public art and spaces in the cold months.
“People still want to go out for walks in the rainy months. We’re trying to tap into that everyday, year-round experience with this project,” said Marwah.