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Dinner and a show 

Scott Saunders is putting downtown diners on display as part of a large video art project on Barrington. Sue Carter Flinn sneaks a peek.

It’s an involuntary reaction that occurs when you’re walking by a restaurant with big open windows: Try fighting the compulsion to check out what everyone is eating. It’s hard to avoid when you’re walking past fishbowl-fronts like jane’s on the common or Athens Restaurant. Look long enough and you’ll catch a diner’s eye, and feel like you’ve been caught in some sort of petty crime.

Not so at Chives Canadian Bistro on Barrington Street, where restaurant-goers are protected from curious eyes by a mini dining-room diorama staged in the front of the restaurant. Before Scott Saunders began working as a server at Chives three years ago, he wondered what was hiding behind the walls of the historic-designated building. “It’s a mysterious facade,” he says. “Something about the space really resonated but I never stopped to take a look inside.” The fourth year NSCAD student suspects there are others who wander by the space and wonder the same thing. And he hopes to see them gathered outside during the evenings of October 18 and 19, when his video installation InsideOut will project the inner-workings of the restaurant—its dining room, kitchen and front entrance—onto three Mylar panels, which will turn the second-story windows of Chives’ lounge into outdoor film screens.

The project is one of four that Saunders is planning as part of an installation workshop with Michael Fernandes, whose own art practice dallies in the subversion of rules between public and private spaces. Unlike behind-the-scenes reality television shows where tension is built on mercurial personalities and adversarial relationships, InsideOut focuses three surveillance-style cameras on the mechanics of running a restaurant. Saunders says, “It’s voyeurism of the mundane and trivial to those who are familiar with it,” but taken out of context—as street art—the project adds a delightful twist to the diner-in-the-window relationship. “Our lives are so designed. We take so much for granted—places and things. This is a bending of the rules,” he explains. “When someone sits in a window of a restaurant they are acknowledging that they can see and be seen. In this case, people can look inside without reciprocation.”

Saunders is also interested in how the kitchen staff reacts to the camera. He laughs, “‘You know, I don’t want to look bad or scratch myself the wrong way on camera.’” He’ll be on hand during the installation to ensure Chives patrons understand the project, as his intention is not to take advantage of people out for dinner, but to nudge the public towards art in unexpected places, or “wonderment” as he references InsideOut. “It’s a reactionary experience, unlike an art gallery. You make a choice to enter a gallery, to engage with a work,” says Saunders. “I’m taking agency with the public—and it’s their choice if something or someone catches their eye.”

InsideOut could happen anywhere—in a government office or beside a dentist’s chair —but Saunders says that his existing relationship with Chives, plus his interest in the building’s architecture, makes it ideal. But, he insists, the project is not commercial in nature. “It’s happening organically. It’s not an advertisement for Chives. There’s art and art practice and then there’s ads and advertising. It’s not the end goal, but I am interested in how those lines are blurred on both sides of the divide.”

Dedication to the ethical runs through the art student’s previous projects. Saunders, who has struggled with mental illness for over 12 years, but now “feels solid in mind and body,” gravitates towards “socially conscious work that changes opinions or preconceptions—that shows truth. It can be an access point to a new perspective, especially around something like mental illness.”

Along with creative partner Ariel Nasr, Saunders has undertaken several perspective-altering projects, including Take Back Education, featuring interviews with debt-laden Nova Scotian students. Saunders sums up all his projects with one word: empathy. “It’s worth the work that goes into it,” he says. “Empathy is lacking in our society, in part because our lives are so busy and hectic. That’s why this project at Chives is so great. What a wonderful moment for someone who is in a rush to come upon something like this, so unexpected.”

insideout, October 18-19 at Chives Canadian Bistro, 1537 Barrington, 6:30pm (or dusk) to 10pm.

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