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Artists in the GTA: Faisal Anwar celebrates social progress through art and technology

Siobhan O'Flynn and Faisal Anwar.
Siobhan O'Flynn and Faisal Anwar. - Tanja-Tiziana
Faisal Anwar is the kind of person who likes to connect the dots—whether those dots are nations in conflict, disparate art genres, or strangers on the same Toronto street. The whiteboard of his home office in Oakville is filled with a diagram linking words like "Nuit Blanche," "mcluhan100," "urban spaces" and "geolocation."
 
As the 40-year-old Pakistan-born artist speaks—carefully, often searching for the right word, but with quiet enthusiasm—about his work in technology, theatre, community development, storytelling and software design, even more links become evident.
 
"We are living in a hybrid space where our mindset, behaviours, interests and needs are changing, and tech is integrating on many levels," says Anwar. "I don't see these elements as separate now."
 
Some of Anwar's projects—like a 2010 Nuit Blanche piece that turned viewer texts and tweets from Toronto, Karachi and New York into leaves on a single, growing tree—have provided surprisingly poetic visualizations of local and global community. Other ventures have been technically prescient, like a 2004 video-game interface that required children to use broad physical gestures instead of sedentary button-pushing—a paradigm the Nintendo Wii used two years later to achieve mass-market success.
 
His current projects play with storytelling. Pluscity, a collaboration with artist Siobhan O'Flynn, seeks to make Twitter streams during big civic festivals "more meaningful to people who are experiencing that event" by visualizing them as flowers and planets. Throughout, Anwar has been interested in "the idea of how the audience actually participates in a narrative," whether that narrative is theatrical, social, technological or otherwise.
 
"I'm trying to work against the randomness of information. Yes, we can share everywhere [in a web 2.0 environment]. But then how do you get focus? How do you find a meaningful narrative around it? How do we generate a community around it?"
 
Anwar grew up in a professionally oriented family in Lahore, but from childhood Anwar knew he wanted to be an artist. "I think I'm the first one who just totally refused to go get an MBA or become a doctor," he jokes. His veterinarian father and homemaker mom supported his aspirations, sending him to drawing classes every day after school.
 
Later, Anwar attended Lahore's National College of Arts, where he earned a graphic design degree and worked on community theatre projects in remote villages. "We'd create local narratives with puppets," he recalls, "about how to grow more trees or make a cleaner environment. There was hardly any education or media out there, so the only medium for us to relate with the locals were these stories."
 
After graduating in 1996, Anwar got a job developing software interfaces. Eventually, he and his wife, contemporary miniature painter Tazeen Quayyum, decided to move to Toronto, with the aim of exploring different mediums and ideas. The risk paid off: soon after moving here in 2003, Anwar became involved with broad-thinking organizations in tech (the CFC Media Lab), music (the collective Lal) and theatre (Mammalian Diving Reflex). He counts Diplomatic Immunities, a 2005 Mammalian project that involved interviewing strangers throughout the city and integrating them into a play, as a turning point in his practice.
 
"Diplomatic Immunities made me realize how we can create projects for community and for the social good," he says. "I think digital media also has that capacity to reach out, work with community and push narrative itself."
 
In Diplomatic Immunities, Anwar also experimented with real-time video mixing, a technique he's since applied internationally in projects like Odd Spaces. In its first iteration, in September 2008, Odd Spaces connected gallery spaces in three traditionally fractious nations—Pakistan, Bangladesh and India—for a period of 72 hours via live video hookups. (Events unfolding in each space were broadcast into the two further-away ones.) In 2010, as part of the Cultural Olympiad, it connected spaces in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vancouver. He continues to develop the project today.  
 
"I always wonder, Is there a way for us to find a way to create dialogue between spaces which is beyond any race or language issues?" he asks, "Or any technological barrier?"
 
Anwar isn't just interested in bridging international boundaries, but ones that might exist on the same city block, too. In 2009, as part of Toronto's 175th anniversary celebrations, he created My City Stories, a website that allows people to share and map their experiences in the GTA and elsewhere.
 
"It's really amazing to see the diversity walking around on Queen Street, yet I find we're not taking advantage of all these people living in one city—everybody seems to live in pockets." says Anwar. "My City Stories was developed partly to help us "learn from each other and build deeper relationships and understanding."
 
Though many of Anwar's projects involve new tools, his overall project, some say, is a classic one for artists.
 
"It's about making visible the things that aren't normally seen, giving voice to things that aren't normally heard, or giving form to things that are formless," says Ana Serrano, director of the CFC Media Lab.
 
So what will Anwar make visible next? One thing might be the cultural strengths of places like Oakville, where he and his family moved last year after five years in the Junction and High Park.
 
"The suburbs not only practice diversity; it's a whole new culture within the GTA, untapped and fascinating," he says.
 
He also hopes to travel back to Pakistan and build a community website that focuses on regional, rather than international, pop culture.
 
"What I'm trying to do is implement what I've learned here [in Toronto] in a different system which desperately needs it," he explains.
 
Not just connecting dots, then, but coming full circle.
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