Darren O’Donnell interviewed by Jon Davies

Toronto, July 2006

How formed were your ideas about the political disenfranchisement of youth when you were a kid yourself? What were your experiences growing up (with school and authority and all that)?

I moved from a working class to a middle class neighbourhood and had a hard time integrating, and from that point on always felt I was deficient or retarded, and was angry about that from age eight onwards. Adult hypocrisy was always really apparent to me, the hypocrisy of my parents. My dad fucked around on my mother a lot and my mother didn’t want anybody else to know so our family became really isolated and the injustice of us not being able to tell anybody about this, us not having family friends, it just seemed that adults were full of shit most of the time. I clearly remember resolving when I was a kid that as an adult I will not lie, I will not be like those kind of bullshit adults that I see everywhere. I didn’t go to demonstrations, that kind of stuff embarrassed me slightly. I didn’t understand why people did that. Growing up in Alberta, activism and stuff seemed to be an embarrassing show of –


Yeah, and I sort of swallowed the “well, it’s too complex to ever know” kind of thing but that went away eventually. Mostly it was just that adults are full of shit and that’s clear on all levels and teachers are full of shit and this is a shitty environment and it’s not fun and who the fuck wants to be here and nobody wants to be here and it’s a stupid place to be.

Was there a big shining revelation in your adulthood that led to projects like Haircuts by Children or something like your essay in uTOpia? Where did you pick up the thread of talking about youth rights when you were older?

I don’t really work with children, it’s just one thing. But then that’s not true, the novel that I wrote is all about kids, a belief that kids haven’t developed all the personality armour, and they just tell it like it is in some ways. I mean they don’t know a lot of things. It’s interesting, often they’re saying what they feel, [but] often when they’re asked for something just outside of their realm [about Haircuts by Children] they’ll just basically parrot what I say about the intent behind the project. Even early shows that I did like White Mice, there was always an appeal to a childlike innocence and zaniness. I like fart jokes, I think that stuff’s all really good. To lose attachment to that kind of thing and [have] a cold, austere sophistication is not of any interest to me. I love YouTube and places like that, clearinghouses for dumb videos where people wipe out. I share a youthful sensibility. With the uTOpia article, it was like, what kind of thing can I argue for that nobody else would be arguing for, where [is there] a lack of analysis? It was all about culture, culture, culture for the most part so I wanted to find something that was atypical to put in there, argue for something that I knew would be difficult to argue for. It was a challenge coming out of my irritation that adults are stupid for the most part.

I definitely like that sensibility too; it isn’t just a political project it’s an interest in the style of childhood, the zaniness.

There’s a tendency for me to talk about how children are quite sophisticated but actually the truth is more that adults are terribly unsophisticated and they’re trying to cover up all the time with this bullshit. I don’t know any adults, truthfully, mostly everybody I know is truly infantile and petty and peevish. The bunch of kids in the novel was all my adult friends but it made more sense to represent them as kids.

Henry Giroux wrote about how this cult of youth that adults are so obsessed with (which I think includes the fixation on the unborn child and childhood innocence) just leads to the material neglect of actual children’s needs. And so you have a situation where no adult wants to be responsible and act like an adult, so where does that leave the people who are actually children?

Where did the Haircuts by Children project come from?

I was in Chicago volunteering at a Unitarian Youth Conference and I spent the whole time bored out of my skull, and I could go to anti-racist workshops filled with fourteen-year-old guilty white kids or I could hang out in the kitchen and cook food, so that’s what I did. There was a kid going around the kitchen with a pair of scissors and I tried to get him to cut my hair – and he refused. And I was surprised that he refused and thought that was interesting. It just made me think how if you allow people to break rules, or give them more power than they should have, they will self-censor and pull themselves back. I just thought it would be funny to have a huge event where we get a bunch of kids and actually give them full license to do that and actually pay them.

And I heard that a lot of the parents or some of the parents didn’t really get what was going on?

Yeah, not really. We pitched it to the whole class and twenty of them accepted and then ten didn’t and I never got any specifics as to why. Some kids just didn’t seem interested [but] we got a really good cross-section. I couldn’t figure it out: we got jockish boys who were clearly the charismatic popular kids in the class and then we got the bookish nerdy ones. I thought we’d just get a bunch of girls but that wasn’t the case and I thought we’d just get the nerdy girls but we got cool girls and not-cool girls. One thing that happened is we applied to the Toronto Community Foundation to do the next version, a larger version, and they turned us down. Apparently the jury was really split, there was half that really thought it was great and then the stronger half just didn’t understand it, they were like, “well why don’t they just do a play with these kids, this is a theatre company, why don’t they do a show?” I understand the stupidity behind, “well, why?” but also having seen how much fun the kids have, how they like being in control and doing all that stuff, it’s really apparent to me how it meets all the criteria of this Toronto Community Foundation which is called Growing Active Kids and it’s all about giving kids agency, and this seemed to do it perfectly. I think also because giving kids power is a bit creepy to adults, and maybe they would recoil from that.

Or think it’s in an awkward space between art and job training?

People make jokes about that: one of the things the kids did was run a lemonade stand where they raised funds for Free the Children. It was sort of funny they were raising funds to stop child labour and right behind them in the salon there was child labour happening – but we paid them fine. The context was obviously different.

Did you see examples of self-censorship with any of the kids, did it take them a while to get used to what freedoms they were allowed in the project?

What they wanted was to do a really, really good job. My fantasy for it was that it would just be anarchy and they would do whatever they wanted. But we hired a couple of stylists to teach them, who were actually kind of defensive at the first meeting. The stylists were like, “it took us eighteen months to learn how to do this, they’re going to give bad haircuts.” They were baffled by it and kind of insulted but they really came around. The kids wanted to do a really good job so that almost seemed a little restricting. There was one kid who stepped up and did a crazy haircut on this MTV guy, it was an awful haircut with a bald spot. [But] few people really jumped at [an opportunity like that], they were really proud to do a good job and they appreciated the praise they would get. It seemed like they became infused with pride as opposed to power, because the environment was really restrictive. They had a lot of power with the scissors but – to quote Spiderman – if you have a lot of power you also have a lot of responsibility, and I think they appreciated the responsibility and that surprised me. I thought they would be a little bit irresponsible and that’s what I wanted to happen, I wanted people to come out looking awful but they didn’t. The kids really stepped up and that’s even better.

Do you think that might have to do with their own self-consciousness about their looks?

I think they understood that they were being asked to step up more than they would ordinarily be asked, and they were going to meet the challenge. I don’t want to get too utopian: the flip side is that they didn’t want to fuck up, they could really upset somebody, they were worried about hurting people, really hurting but also hurting people’s feelings. They were scared when they cut, they were afraid of doing a bad job. During the first few cuts they were really nervous, but then they relaxed and it was good. Fear was partly what made them step up.

One thing that I was going to say about the project is that I went there as a witness rather than a participant, and I found it actually very uncomfortable to watch, it made me acutely aware of how perverse or weird it is to stand back from a normal social interaction and not participate. I’m just wondering how much of it was your thinking consciously about a project that would really push participation rather than mere spectatorship?

Obviously, with participation you get the full effect, and this worked spectacularly well in Parkdale. I like making a little atypical community event where nothing much spectacular is going to happen, there’s going to be no rising of tension or anything. Once you got the idea then it became a nice place to socialize – there were lots of kids running around. It was more about creating a social environment where kids and adults who didn’t know each other could find a little bit of trust and comfort, I really like creating those places. My dad was a Phys. Ed. teacher and a really playful guy, and I just remember how delighted me and other kids would be playing with this adult who played with everybody. It legitimizes you in a way, you’re not just at the kids’ table having dinner, you’re at the adults’ table. I think that those kinds of vibes, everybody benefits from that contact. Most of my practice is all about identifying these ridiculous – or maybe not so ridiculous – social inhibitions and problems and talking about them, and stranger contact between adults and children, finding ways to make that happen so that everybody’s okay with it introduces an interesting social dynamic. Children and adults playing together who don’t know each other, that’s very odd, and this to me was play, it was fun on that level, having adults, artsters, there with all these kids running around.

I think it’s so exciting because there are so many taboos against it, the whole “stranger danger” paranoia.

I’m trying to plan this project tentatively called Parkdale Forever. It would involve getting the Drake, the Gladstone, the Theatre Centre, Mercer Union and Katherine Mulherin (I haven’t talked to some of these people) as anchor organizations that would be available to provide activities and stuff for kids from Parkdale Public School, and follow them into high school. All to bridge this gap between those kids who live in the neighbourhood and the artsy-fartsters that also live there, because there’s little overlap between those communities. I’m sure kids pass by them on streetcars but that’s about it, and they see all of this shit going on but I doubt that they feel any kind of ownership over it, so I want to give them that. This is a venue where you’re welcome, you’re given things here, and it’s a space for you to perform on special nights or maybe have wall space in one of those galleries to show your stuff so you’re actually in a real gallery for a while and adults can come and check it out. Hopefully this will be a long-term, three-year project where I work with the same set of kids and we develop this evolving relationship.

The Gladstone and the Drake in particular has really changed the neighbourhood and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways have introduced a lot of change or disrupted the way these kids understand their neighbourhood.

I think that [disruption] will eventually happen but they’re ten years old, so I think that their notion of space is really quite different. It certainly ends at the underpass at Dufferin. It probably seems like the same neighbourhood to them but eventually they’ll notice. I just imagine them on the streetcar passing by what looks like fun, maybe they see it on TV and they think, “what is that, and what are those really well dressed people?”

Other than funders not really understanding, have you encountered any adults who were uncomfortable with these projects that encouraged children and adults who are strangers to actually interact and play with one another?

Not yet, but I sort of anticipate it. And I have to be careful too about how I talk about it. In the doing, the projects aren’t a problem, but I’m not sure how wise it is to speak too publicly about my intention to get strange kids and adults together to play.

I’m interested in the hysteria there is around pedophilia and around strangers who have an interest in spending time with kids that aren’t their own. Can you talk about the self-policing that goes on, the concern about how others will interpret your actions?

I’m terrified, I’m really terrified. I live in fear of something being misunderstood or of somebody getting pissed off at me and lying. And I’m terrified about my reputation but then I’m also like, “fuck that.” I have friends now who go to Parkdale Public School, so like I do when I have any new set of friends who occupy a particular space in the city, I change my habits of travel. So now I ride my bike past the playground and when I tell people that, they’re like, “dude, don’t tell people that” and I’m like, “no, I ride past the playground so I might see my fucking friends!” I’d like to say hi and I’d like to hang out with them but I just can’t. I’ve got one friend who’s fifteen years old because I was friends with her mother and the kid and I had a good time, so I started hanging out with her when she was eleven. In a situation like that it’s really easy.

Can you see any ways that the status of kids can be changed when they’re kept so far from adults and decision makers?

One area that I see some kind of advancement or hope is – I always hallucinate my latest activity onto the entire world and think that I’m part of a movement – that the age of “hip participation” is getting lower and lower. With projects like this, I didn’t want it to be some kind of community arts thing, I wanted my full art cred, not charity. I think that more and more people are viewing kids as co-participants, as collaborators. Like the Danielson Family or the Trachtenberg Family; I think bands have a lot of youth participation, and the Royal Art Lodge had the young girl [Holly Dzama]. There is more and more legitimacy in art and culture for youthful participation, as audience members and as collaborators. Naiveté, sincerity, civic responsibility, all those are becoming transgressive in some way. Sincere collaborations with children are more challenging, they’re certainly more challenging for the artists to do in this kind of hysteria. That might be a way kids are seen as viable creators in a culture where creativity is so hyped right now and so important to the economic engine, that may be an angle.

Often I wonder how big of an impact culture can really have, but when it comes to enfranchising children and working with kids, there’s a lot of promise there, there could be more of an impact.

The impact is obviously hard to gauge, but it’s about legitimizing kids as people and as collaborators, walking the talk as opposed to representing it or arguing for it, it’s actually doing it. Hopefully I can find at least twelve ten-year-olds to DJ this [Ballroom Dancing] party, I would imagine that if you are invited to be a DJ at ten…

Did you find that the kids that you worked with took the opportunity to confide in you? What did they get out of having access to adults who weren’t authority figures?

They were really delighted to have us around. When I go in, they’re really happy that this guy who doesn’t hassle them is there. I don’t know what value exactly I bring but the joy is apparent and the joy I feel in their presence is obvious. One of the kids in particular was really sensitive to me as Darren O’Donnell, this guy whose been written about, and he wanted to hang around with me, Darren O’Donnell, the originator of this project and this felt good for him. When I did Walking Talking Creature in Parkdale with high school students, we would walk around as a group and go up to random strangers and interview them and we met this guy, Cliff, a country singer who had recently been signed to Sony records and at a Blue Jays game had sang the national anthem, but had screwed up the lyrics. And I got back to the school with the kids and they were like, “no way, that guy was bullshitting.” For them, somebody like that just can’t live in their neighbourhood, there’s nobody of any note living in their neighbourhood. One of the benefits that comes from something like this is that there are famous people here – Canadian famous so it’s not the best famous in the world. I think that some of the contact was just that people who do stuff of note do stuff of note with you and are here with you so you can do stuff of note too. There was one Globe and Mail profile/preview thing [on Haircuts by Children] where the first word was “oops,” talking about the kid who said “oops” as he was cutting this reporter’s hair and describing the scissors as “careening towards his head.” Cars careen, speedboats careen, scissors don’t careen. So because of all the media hype around the project, one of the things we did with the kids was a media debriefing where we showed them all the TV stuff and used Power Point and got into a discussion about how they were represented in the media. The media was just “danger, danger, danger,” which is the joke I was playing on, and really not expecting much more from the media. Except for Brand New Planet that Torstar publishes by kids for kids, the reporter was thirteen years old and she didn’t talk about danger, and Terence Dick didn’t. So we talked about kids being perceived as dangerous and incompetent. I really have to watch the tendency to exaggerate how great or beneficial it was because it’s really hard to gauge that, but just in the joy it seemed to provide them, their contact with us was legitimizing – not having to deal with us as authorities.

It’s interesting how different their experience of you from Parkdale would be versus a motivational speaker shipped in from somewhere else, addressing them with life lessons. I think for people my age [mid-twenties], one’s neighbourhood isn’t as important now as when you are growing up, so it’s sometimes hard to remember just how key it is to have role models or people you can feel inspired by or proud of in your own neighbourhood.

I was born in 1965 and that notion of the vibrancy of the neighbourhood where the adults had an investment in it, a Sesame Street kind of vibe, seemed to be really important. That went away for a while but people my age – I’m among the oldest of the people who experienced Sesame Street – we’re starting to reach this position of cultural influence where we’re trying to invest in that kind of thing again. I think of me and my friends as living on the surface of the city and in Parkdale, you wouldn’t believe how much fun you could have if you actually get invested with this community and give a fuck. They might not be your kids but they’re your neighbours, there can be lots of benefit to you and how do you make that cool so that there is this cross-pollenization between these generations and these communities. Cool often hovers in this distance, but my realization is that cool is not detached and cynical but about naiveté and hope, maybe that’s what the next frontier is.