With the help of ROM curator Justin Jennings, Toronto-based artist Aquil Virani integrated hundreds of these sticky notes into a multimedia artwork, commemorating our collective early pandemic experiences and amplifying the diverse voices of participating community members. Read a Q&A with the artist below.
“Things will get better” is a large-scale multimedia artwork, built with community submissions to mark this moment in time and promote a sense of optimism for a better future. The participatory responses – written by ROM visitors – reflect a variety of valid pandemic experiences, frustration, anxiety, denial and human resilience.
So many interesting thoughts! To give you some examples, the sticky notes said, “When things get better, I will… Scream into a pillow; Re-join Tinder; Make art about it; I will jump for joy!; Still love each other; je veux visiter ma grandmère; travel unapologetically; hug my grandparents without fear; look for ways to help others struggling in the aftermath.” They also said things like: “No more covid pls!; This too shall pass; Next week, no more masks!; Remember you are always loved; Online school sucked and I felt like I missed out on so much; Stay strong; Do it for Future You! ”
For my community-engaged projects, I like to feature most submissions – unless they’re hateful, harmful, or inappropriate in nature. As a good “test case,” there was a sticky note that read “Left wing propaganda!” likely in reference to the pandemic. I included it, even if I disagree with the vague insinuation. I love that participatory art can act as an insightful mirror of society. I think it’s important to include some sticky notes like that one – to document the times.
I think deeply about who to represent and how to represent them. The central portrait, for example, features Nitika – an exhibition participant who submitted a video story titled “COVID-19 and Medicine.” Because the ROM’s prompt suggests a sense of optimism — “When things get better, I will …” — I wanted to feature different youth looking happy, enjoying themselves. We don’t want to “paint over” the damage and suffering of the pandemic, but it’s important to dream of a better future sometimes. I made sure to get parental permissions before representing the youth depicted.
The artwork is presented on 21 different panels of thick paper, each 18 x 24 inches, displayed in a 3-by-7 grid. In total, that’s 6 feet by 10.5 feet. The panel format allows me to work on a manageable surface at any one time and transport the larger artwork easily. I estimate there are roughly 750 sticky notes included in total.
In a way, any art is a time capsule because it can express a specific thought or feeling at a particular moment. And this artwork features multiple perspectives indicative of hopes, dreams and anxieties during earlier pandemic times. In a written piece published in Living Hyphen Magazine this year, I designed a “letter to the future” activity within the publication for people to enjoy; I urged people to “play with the magic of time” since even a simple letter can take on meaning and sentimental value simply because it is “from another time.”
I often integrate public participation into my art projects. And I like to explore interesting and socially relevant questions. In 2014, for example, I travelled from coast to coast with collaborator Rebecca Jones to collect over 800 drawings about Canadian identity from all 13 provinces and territories. I re-produced each of the doodles into a single art piece titled “Canada’s Self Portrait.” In 2020, I produced a book of 29 crowdsourced messages of hope and solidarity dedicated to the Quebec City Muslim community after the terrorist attack on January 29, 2017. During a recent artist residency at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, I created a short film that integrated photographs and text from publicly-submitted stories of “the immigrant heroes in our lives.”
Indeed, at MuralFest in Montreal in 2017, for example, I made a smaller artwork with sticky notes. I didn’t group them by colour though, and the result ended up a bit unharmonized for my liking. I also created a large-scale mural at Southridge School in Surrey, BC in 2020, just before the pandemic took over. We used white sticky notes that I unified with splashes of colourful acrylic paint.
I have things to say, but I also know that others do too – and I want to hear from them. I think participatory art often results in a work with depth – something engaging that you can look at for a long time, discovering all of the little treasures hidden throughout the artwork. I want to embed the idea of “multiple perspectives” into the art itself. We live in a society with other people, and the conversation is always richer with more people at the table.