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Darren O'Donnell
Urban cultural planner

In transit
February 28, 2018

Darren O’Donnell is an urban cultural planner, novelist, essayist, playwright, filmmaker, performance director and the Artistic and Founding Director of Mammalian Diving Reflex. He holds a BFA in theatre and a M.Sc. in urban planning from the University of Toronto and studied traditional Chinese Medicine at the Shiatsu School of Canada. His books include Your Secrets Sleep with Me (2004), Social Acupuncture (2006), and Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract (2018), which proposes the cultural sector as a site to pilot a new social contract with children. As an urban cultural planner his focus is on participation and, in particular, the radical engagement of children and young people at the core of cultural institutions. Past and current planning collaborators include the Humboldt Forum, the Tate Modern, the West Kowloon Cultural District, the London International Festival of Theatre, the Metropolregion Rhein-Neckar, the Schauspielhaus Bochum and the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. (Photo: Daniel Rodriguez)

1. The wisdom, power, and influence of children and young people

I’ve just published a new book, Haircuts by Children and Other Evidence for a New Social Contract, in which I argue that the cultural sector can be a place to test out a new social role for children, one in which they will have more power and influence. Of course, now that the book is finished, I’m seeing examples from all over the place that I wish I had included as well as examples, like the influence the students in Florida are (hopefully) exerting over the NRA, that seem to be evidence of an emergent power that I didn’t at all anticipate. I am also fascinated by the ever-shifting nature of childhood and the historicity of what exactly constitutes a child and am always looking for examples of young people who confound stereotypical ideas of what a child is or, conversely, adults who are open and not ashamed about being vulnerable and childlike, happily making naive mistakes and emotionally expressive in the face of the oppressive, stultifying, and dishonest idea of strict professionalism, among other things. A great example of the simple but profound wisdom of children is Kelly O’Brien’s beautiful film How Does Life Live, created in collaboration with her daughters Emma and Willow. These kids are naturally brilliant through their ordinary curiosity alone.

2. QCA

Image by Michael Barker

I’m trying to master Qualitative Comparative Analysis, an interesting formal comparative research method invented by American sociologist Charles Ragin that can provide important insights from a modest number of cases as well as incorporate both quantitative and qualitative data at the same time. I think it’s very beautiful. It uses set theory and Boolean algebra to take a look at cases to compare conditions (akin to independent variables) and outcomes (akin to dependant variables) to determine the sufficiency and necessity of given conditions in relation to given outcomes. It’s a good method for social practice artists who are trying to figure out how to do impactful socially engaged work. The method can help us when looking at what other artists have done – their contexts, their outcomes – and it can guide informed guesses about how their approach might be useful in other contexts with similar (or different) conditions and desired (or not) outcomes: levels of economic deprivation, proximity to cultural institutions, access to public transit, retention of participants, levels of collaborative harmony, etc. I’m very stupid and slow with stuff like Boolean algebra so, though I understand it in theory, I’m still learning how to apply it.

3. Ketosis

I’m on the road constantly and have put on a few pounds and the only way I can stick to anything resembling a diet is finding something trendy and becoming obsessive about it. There’s no better way to become obsessive about a diet than by trying to maintain a ketogenic one, and there’s certainly none trendier. The diet places serious limits on carbs, demands the reading of all nutritional labels, the weighing of all food, the tracking of macro-nutrients, and daily blood testing for ketones and glucose. I did it for three months last fall and dropped a bunch of belly and now I’m back at it following my mom’s Nanaimo bars in December. You’re allowed to eat butter by the spoonful.

4. Pumpkin seeds

Since the diet, I’ve become addicted to pumpkin seeds, as they are on pretty much every list of keto-friendly foods and supposed to be super healthy for a bunch of other reasons that seem too good to be true, which I’ll leave you to google yourself. I typically cook them in a bit of oil and garlic and then add salt, balsamic vinegar, and whatever dry herbs and spice are around. Smoked paprika works really well. Then I put them on almost everything: salmon, arugula salad, eggs, pasta, or just eat them alone. There’s almost nothing I wouldn’t toss them on. If I wasn’t on this stupid diet, I’d coat them in sugar, pour a bunch of milk over them, and eat them for breakfast.

5. Animism

I’m doing some research for a project about non-European epistemologies and am very curious about animism: the idea that pretty much everything is alive including the words we speak. If you google the term, you get some hokey images that are, at best, appropriative, if not downright racist, so to represent this final item on my Hit List, I’ve provided a photo of a couple of coffee cups, a marker and a USB cable who I’ve been spending a lot of time chilling with. While my current interest is based on the research, as a kid I remember assuming that everything was alive, including Smarties, which I refused eat one at a time because I was convinced that an individual Smartie would be lonely. I have had experiences as an adult that seem to support the concept, more or less. It’s a difficult experience to describe, but it seems to be a good way to view things in the world, since, with that perspective, I’m always surrounded by friends and loved ones. Though I do find my phone to be a bit needy.



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