April 10, 2014
University of Toronto
From the colloquia series “Feminist & Queer Approaches to Technoscience”
Blake Williams: Good afternoon, thank you for coming. Today I have the honor and the privilege to introduce our special guest speaker from York University, who in a moment will deliver her talk “Final Frontier: Heritage Villages, Collective Memory and Urban Futures.” Professor Marchessault is a member of the cinema and media studies faculty at York and has had an expansive career, not only as a scholar in media studies, but also as a world-renowned art curator and an active participant in the technological advancement of production and practices in the greater Toronto area and abroad. In her 2005 book Marshall McLuhan: Cosmic Media she offered a comprehensive appraisal of over 40 years of McLuhan’s cultural theory and looked at his revolutionary contributions in light of technological shifts we’ve observed so far in the twenty-first century. In 2007, alongside fellow faculty members John Greyson and Caitlin Fisher, Professor Marchessault founded York’s Future Cinema Lab, reiterating her commitment to investigating new models for constructing narratives and emergent ideas. For myself, as both a maker of 3D video and as a scholar with an interest in stereoscopic technologies, Professor Marchessault’s recent research in the history and future of 3D cinema is particularly exciting and inspiring.
She is an active member of the 3D Film Innovation Consortium, which is a project that brings together scientists, filmmakers, and industry leaders intent on bridging research in stereoscopic technologies and perception with the development of new 3D film production languages. This York initiative also yielded the first Toronto International Stereoscopic 3D Conference, which itself yielded 3D Cinema and Beyond, one of my favorite published journals, a publication for which Professor Marchessault has been a regular editor and for which she has contributed articles on topics such as female liberation in Quebec; a comparison of the film scenes in New York, Paris, and Toronto; and a look at Toronto’s landmark alternative screening venue CineCycle, which she sees as a model for the importance of the material screening place, where history and traditions are able to accumulate.
This is but a small taste of the breadth of her eloquent and extremely active last three decades, but I hope it begins to illustrate her valuable commitment to the intertwining relationship between media and the geographical and architectural contexts in which it is presented. Since 2000, her research has become more deeply invested in urban spaces and cities, in particular suburbs and edge cities. By grappling with communities that exist on the margins of metropolitan spaces, she has been able to help us come to terms with the ways in which disparate communities might come together and coexist. Among the cities she’s investigated are Berlin, Helsinki, Montreal, and, of course, Toronto.
In acknowledging Toronto as a world-class city, one that needs to protect its disappearing public spaces, she has utilized her curatorial expertise to take experimental and innovative approaches to public art. Having produced over a dozen large- and small-scale public art exhibitions, she has been constantly exploring new ways to activate and re-enable these endangered spaces before they vanish. In her most recent curatorial endeavor, the exhibition Land|Slide, Possible Futures, Professor Marchessault commissioned three dozen artists to reimagine the historical terrain of Markham, Ontario. She asked the artists to draw upon thousands of historical artifacts and to work in dialogue with 30 historic buildings and dwellings that make up the Markham Museum’s historic heritage village. The resulting exhibition offered a diversity of media technologies, ranging from digital diaries to 3D projections, and built up Markham Museum’s 25-acre space for three weeks last September and October. The exhibition has since traveled internationally and was showcased earlier this year in a Canadian Pavilion at the Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture in Shenzhen, China. This afternoon she will be contextualizing the Land|Slide exhibition through the lens of Elizabeth Grosz’s conception of geoaesthetics and her feminist ontology of art and philosophy of the biosphere. With that I ask that you please join me in welcoming her to the podium, Janine Marchessault.
Janine Marchessault: Wow, that was a really nice introduction. What I want to do today is try to look back over a number of exhibitions that I’ve been involved with and look at the way that those exhibitions have changed, really not as singular events, but in relationship to global practices within the art world. What I find interesting in reflecting back on these projects, which started in the late ’80s in Toronto, is the way in which they moved increasingly outward, out into the world, out into the natural world, too—not just the edge of cities, but really thinking about ecological politics. So, I could present it in a way that is very neat and tidy—you know, there is a master plan to these exhibitions over a twenty-year period, but of course there isn’t. History, as we know, is very messy, but I think it is very interesting to situate them in that way, and it’s useful to me as a means to think about them.
I’m not really situating them in relationship to Elizabeth Grosz’s thought, but I’m kind of bouncing off of Elizabeth Grosz’s recent work because to me she also answers the question of where we should be going. In particular, she poses a challenge to feminist theory to engage with the biosphere. She’s a very important and inspirational interlocutor, but I’m not really going to do her work justice because I’m engaging more with the shows. But in a longer, more fleshed-out iteration of this paper, I think that the two could work together.
So OK, so here we go. I hope this all works.
So the French sociologist Bruno Latour has talked about the incredible career that the term “design” has had: “From a surface feature in the hands of a not-so-serious profession that added features in the purview of much-more-serious professionals (engineers, scientists, accountants), design has been spreading continuously so that it increasingly matters to the very substance of production. What is more, design has been extended from the details of daily objects to cities, objects, nations, cultures, bodies, genes…” Yet because of its history as a decorative art, design has a certain modesty, a concern with smaller details, with art and craft, that construction and building do not.
Latour goes on to explain that designing is the antidote to founding, colonizing, establishing, or breaking with the past. It’s an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings and radical departures. This is so because design never works from scratch. Design builds upon the past in some way. It engages with what is already there. A designed object always foregrounds its materials, and in this way it is deeply connected to the historical fabric of making. Surprisingly, there’s a revolutionary aspect to design, but not in the more traditional sense of the word, and Latour returns to Mao, “The revolution has to always be revolutionized.” Design provides a new set of attitudes that are revolutionizing the revolution, attitudes like “modesty, care, precautions, skills, crafts, meanings, attention to details, careful conservations, redesign artificiality, and ever shifting transitory fashions.” Latour tells us we have to be radical: “we have to be radically careful, or carefully radical.” “In the context of the ecological crisis,” he says, “design comes at a time when there is much work to be done.” Namely, “the remaking of our collective life on earth.” The significance of design in the contemporary world is tied to the centrality of informatics, computing, and mapping in the daily activities of citizens in global cities around the world. It’s tied to the fact that everything can be transformed in some way into information.
And indeed this is what inspired the computer designer Lev Manovich to name his latest book Software Takes Command. “Software” he writes, “has become our interface to the world, to others, to our memory, to our imagination—a universal language through which the world speaks, and a universal engine on which the world runs.” Manovich’s book is an homage to the 1948 book Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History by the Swiss historian Sigfried Giedion. In the same way that Giedion’s book sought to excavate and analyze the forms of mechanization that helped to give shape to a new industrial society of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Manovich’s book seeks to write a history of those computer programs that we take for granted: PowerPoint, Word, After Effects, Final Cut Pro, etc. The value of his book can be found in this history of software, which is all too often invisible. This book is part of a relatively new software studies field that is somewhat uneven, but certainly interesting in the way that it’s bringing a new materiality into our virtual world by giving software a historical frame. Such endeavors are connected to the new materialism which is the subject of feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz’s book Chaos, Territory, Art, as well as her book Becoming Undone. She tells us that new materialism provides us with a new understanding of the forces, both material and immaterial, that direct us into the future. Like Giedion, Grosz believes that artists have a role to play in imagining the world, in the way our worlds are dreamed, designed, and remembered. Grosz reinvents a role for utopia, not simply the functional and spatial utopias of architects like Giedion or, differently, Le Corbusier; she essentially invents a new role for utopia, which is to create an idea of embodied utopia—which seems like an oxymoron, since utopias are generally not embodied—to propose this idea of an embodied utopia which makes room for the other, which makes room for multiplicity and for differences. As I was saying a few minutes ago, she also really wants to bring feminist theory and feminist philosophy into conversation with the biosphere. She wants to make room for the complexity of the world, for its material and political folding.
A central tension in the process of planning capitalist cities is between ecology—the earthly environment—and economy—markets, financial development, and sustenance. The challenge in designing sustainable, livable cities is to move away from conventional top-down approaches to urban planning to incorporate more participatory and inclusive embodied processes in the whole process of decision-making. Stockholm-based urban planner Jonathan Metzger made this argument—and this was a small essay that was published in a planning journal and seemingly insignificant, but it was a sort of manifesto to bring artists into the planning process—saying that artist-led activities can function as a powerful vehicle of communication in the planning process. The unique potential of planner–artist collaborations is based on the artistic license that grants the artist a mandate to set the stage for an estrangement from that which is familiar and taken for granted, thus shifting frames of reference and creating a radical potential for planning in a way that can be very difficult for planners. Metzger’s argument for involving artists in planning may help to open up new possibilities by shifting frames of reference. Artists make the familiar strange, or, as the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky put it, they practice forms of ostranenie (estrangement), creating modes of defamiliarization that help to distinguish between poetic and ordinary speech. For Shklovsky, the purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known: “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself.” It’s expressly a form of defamiliarization through which old habits are unmoored and alternative approaches can be rethought. Metzger is clearly inspired by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in his manifesto “Whatever Happened to Urbanism?,” which was published in 1994, who also advocates a certain lightness be brought to urbanism. Koolhaas asked designers and architects to relinquish “fantasies of order and omnipotence” and proposes “the staging of uncertainty,” “the irrigation of territories with potential,” and “the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form.” Instead, he says, urbanism needs to “lighten up,” to “become a Gay Science—Lite Urbanism.” It’s worth underlining that Nietzsche’s The Gay Science was his most joyful, cheerful, and serious book. It was referencing the Provençal gai saber, the song art of medieval troubadours who spread poetry throughout Europe. So Grosz advocates that feminism break its conceptual impasse by embracing questions of emergence and difference, by opening out to an ontological orientation that decenters the human. Feminist theory has the potential to make us become more than ourselves, in a way, to make us become unrecognizable, to make us become strange.
So with these ideas I want to turn to think about a number of exhibitions that make the familiar strange. I want to start with the Public Access Collective, which I’ve been involved with for a number of years, since the late ’80s. This was our first exhibition, in 1987, called Some Uncertain Signs, and this was the formation of the Public Access Collective, a very young group. It’s 1987, I was part of it—graduate students and artists and curators. This was essentially bringing art into an electronic billboard sign on Yonge Street. This was the follow-up project the following year, called The Lunatic of One Idea, which was a 36-monitor video wall that had just been established in Square One, Mississauga, and we invited 17 artists to produce projects for this idea, for The Lunatic of One Idea.
Here’s John Greyson’s The ADS Epidemic. Before that, Eldon Garnet’s Emergence. There was also a piece by Krzysztof Wodiczko on shopaholism. So it’s an actual survey on shopaholism—it’s an image of a woman eating her shoe. It was interesting with these two projects side-by-side inhabiting new (new at the time) advertising technologies. First of all, there wasn’t a lot of censorship, even though people tried to—artists tried to—be offensive. The ADS Epidemic went by with no worries. This was censored by the advertisers, by the advertising company—the shopaholism. The other one, for the electronic billboard sign, was Lynne Fernie’s Lesbians Fly Air Canada. Let’s see if we can see it. So this was very, very contentious, and Lynne Fernie had to find a language to simply say Lesbians Fly Air Canada. It clearly, in a way, the time period but—both of those pieces, in a sense, I wouldn’t say attacked, but spoke to the capitalist modes of production. So those were the two that were somehow a kind of a threat.
I guess, though, the point I really want to make about these exhibitions was that they were, first of all, mirroring other exhibitions that were going on in London and New York, and we had a lot of the same artists in our exhibitions, artists like Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Victor Burgin, and Laura Mulvey, as well as a number of Toronto artists like Eldon Garnet and Lynne Fernie and John Greyson. So it was a real intervention into the advertising context. The only thing about these projects—and there were other projects that followed, there was a project in Union Station, there were projects on elevator monitors in the financial district, and this was the first time, in the early ’90s, that these monitors were being put in elevators, and so we produced a series of projects there—is that it was really a parasitic relationship to the public sphere. We were not that interested in the public; we were really interested in inhabiting the space itself. We felt that these were successful projects, but it never really occurred to us to even think about the public, the public response. I think that was a shift for us in our curatorial practice that happened in the year 2000, with an exhibition called Being on Time. It was a site-specific exhibition that wasn’t staged on a piece of technology as the other ones were, but was actually staged in a place, and it was funded through a Millennium Arts Council grant to develop new audiences for art. And so we decided we would engage with teenagers at a high school, and we brought eight artists into the high school to not just work with the students, but actually produce these site-specific pieces in the architecture of the school, and then to create a pedagogical situation through their inhabitation. So there was a shift into a much more relational engagement with the public, a conversation, and using art not simply as a hermetically sealed thing, or the art world as something that we belong to but our audience didn’t need to belong to.
Just quickly, this was a piece—I don’t know if you can see it—by Kelly Mark. This is almost an anti-relational project. I see it as a kind of landmark. She choreographed a series of gestures every day for a month outside of the school for approximately fifteen minutes. She would have headphones that would direct exactly, specifically, her gestures, which were: sip of coffee, cigarette, open book, look right, look left. And that itself was videotaped and formed the basis for a seven-channel installation. So I talked to her recently about it because the theme of the exhibition was time and temporality, and I was interested in the way that she saw temporality, and in my narrative of this piece the students eventually became aware of her and started to talk to her about what she was doing. But she said no, actually no, nobody noticed. And it went on for a month. So what you have with the videos is time going on around her, but she is actually remaining the same, so it is actually no relation—it’s a total disjuncture between her gestures and, I guess, her own sense of outsider-ism and the student population. And she has performed this series, this choreography, in various public spaces throughout Toronto, and it’s called Hiccup. So this is Hiccup #1.
John Greyson, whom I’ve worked with on a number of exhibitions, was in Being on Time, and he did a number of different projects with the students, but one of them was to find the homophobic slurs that are of course part of the architecture of any good high school. And Central Technical is an art school, but it’s also a technical school, and so with a group of students they created an installation. We wanted to curate different ages of the students, and Kelly Mark was very young at that point, just an emerging artist, and Michael Snow a seasoned veteran. And he produced a piece in the teachers’ lounge with an LCD monitor and a ticket taker. There were instructions on the wall inviting students to take a ticket, come in, and sit down and wait for their number to be called. But the trick was, it was an algorithm in which some numbers never get called, and so some students got their numbers called right away and some students didn’t. So it was very playful. As I said, this exhibition was not really well received in Toronto. It was kind of ignored. As soon as you say you’re doing something in a high school, within the art world it’s really dismissed immediately—it’s really like, “it’s high school, it’s not that interesting.” But interestingly, Okwui Enwezor, who was in the process of curating documenta 11, was visiting Toronto at the time and visited the exhibition and did a tour, and he gave us his seal of approval, saying that for him this was actually going to be the way that art, contemporary art, is going to unfold because artists need to engage with the world. For those of you that are not familiar with it, documenta 11 was a landmark break in the history of this contemporary art festival that takes place in Kassel every five years, because what he did was he expanded the space of the exhibition to different parts of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, and had numerous events going on as well as relational projects.
All right, so I just have to catch up with myself here. The other thing that I just wanted to mention, just to situate our time period, is the development of relational aesthetics in the late ’90s. I mean, it’s been going on for a long time, but that’s really where it enters the discourse. So, of course, there is documenta 11, and there were also a series of platforms and publications going on, so there was a shift. And of course the fact that the Canada Council produced, for the Millennium Grant, a grant for proposals on cultivating new artists and new conversations and new uses for artistic production was, I think, significant. The development of relational aesthetics as a growing tendency amongst contemporary artists was underscored by the French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in his now very famous book L’esthétique relationnelle (Relational aesthetics) of 1998. Bourriaud defined relational art as a new method in the production of art, a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space. For Bourriaud, the role of the artist was changing from being the central source of the artwork to being a catalyst or collaborator in the process of making artwork, which comes into being from the exchange of ideas. Such collaborative art strategies had already emerged through experimental approaches to art making since the ’60s in North America. Before Bourriaud coined the term “relational art,” which has been contentious, but has nevertheless, I think, really been a very useful term, feminist performance artist Suzanne Lacy had described a new genre in her 1995 book Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art. “For the past three decades or so,” she writes,
visual artists of varying backgrounds and perspectives have been working in a manner that resembles political and social activity but is distinguished by its aesthetic sensibility. Dealing with some of the most profound issues of our time—toxic waste, race relations, homelessness, aging, gang warfare, and cultural identity—a group of visual artists has developed distinct models for an art whose public strategies of engagement are an important part of its aesthetic language. The source of these artworks’ structure is not exclusively visual or political information, but rather an internal necessity perceived by the artist in collaboration with his or her audience.
Lacy is clear to situate this in terms of a feminist approach to art making and art practices. Of central importance to this new genre is site specificity: the location of the artwork and its relationship to an audience or community. While site-specific works have a history in Canada and the US dating back to the ’60s and ’70s minimalist art and land art critiques of art institutions, Lacy directs our attention to new emerging models of public art which seek to give community a role in the production of art.
Around the same time as Lacy was describing this terrain, architect and curator Miwon Kwon’s 1997 essay “One Place after Another,” which was her dissertation at Princeton and later became a book, offered a historically grounded vocabulary for discerning different models of public art and community engagement. You’ll notice now in every review of site-specific art exhibitions Kwon is the go-to person. This is essentially because her book is incredibly useful for creating a kind of taxonomy for distinguishing different approaches to public art. Kwon’s readings of different site-specific projects in the early 1990s takes as a central focus community engagement and develops a political framework for situating and evaluating their contributions. How are communities addressed, formed, strengthened, or expanded through relational site-specific art exhibitions? What is the role of the artist in these situations? How are collaborations acknowledged? How do they continue after the exhibition closes? These are important questions for curators and artists who take the multifaceted relationship between location and identity as central components in the creation of place-based exhibitions. Moreover, Kwon notes, in the era of late capitalism, and with the growth of diasporic cultures around the world, such relationships are increasingly complex and uneven. The deterritorialization of site has produced liberatory effects, displacing the strictures of fixed place-bound identities with the fluidity of a migratory model, introducing possibilities for the production of multiple identities, allegiances, and meanings, based not on normative conformities but on the non-convergences forged by chance encounters and circumstances. But, she says, despite the fact that place itself is becoming more complex, and relations to place are becoming more complex, place-based identities continue to have a tremendous amount of power. She says, place can also be described as a “compensatory fantasy in response to the intensification of fragmentation and alienation wrought by a mobilized market economy (following the dictates of capital).”
I’m trying to set up the conversation that I want to have around Land|Slide, which is a place that is a diasporic city, essentially, and people’s relationship to that place is diverse, from old-timers that were born there to newly arrived immigrants. These were very different attachments to and interpretations of place that we were engaging with.
Before I get to that, I just want to talk about the next project that I was involved with, which was the Leona Drive Project, a site-specific exhibition that was staged in Willowdale, Ontario. This really grew out of wanting to engage with new processes of urbanization in the context of climate change. In terms of my own work on cities, I have become increasingly interested in the edge of cities because that is essentially where you can see how cities are evolving and developing and the kinds of transformations and developments that are essentially eating, gobbling up the land. It’s obvious, but the processes of development are less obvious in the downtown core. But if you go right to the edge, you can really see how decisions are being made. So this was the beginning of trying to think about the edge of the city of Toronto, but of course this was in Willowdale, near York University on the subway, so people were like, you’re not really going into this, it’s not true. Willowdale is a suburb, and it’s actually an inner suburb that’s undergoing tremendous transformation. I was working with a group of doctoral students who are also practicing artists, and we began to use psychogeographic methodologies and walk through, in, and around Willowdale. One of the students in the project grew up in Willowdale, so he designed these walks for us. We started to notice that you would turn down streets and there would be entire streets that were boarded up because developers had simply bought up an entire street in order to make way for a new development. These boarded-up houses, as we learned when we talked to some of the people in the area, would be there for upwards of seven, eight years while the developers waited for zoning applications to come through. So we thought this would be a fantastic place to stage an exhibition on the future or the present of development in the area. We were very lucky to have encountered a municipal councilor, John Filion, who was sympathetic. He actually had no idea what we were talking about, staging a site-specific exhibition in a series of five vacant bungalows, but he went ahead with us and introduced us to a developer, who really didn’t know what we were talking about at all, but we were planning as the exhibition was developing. Even before we had the houses, we were planning to work with the high school because, I learned with Central Tech, high schools are important places, not only because of the youth but because these are networks of families that are from a particular area. And so we wanted to collaborate with Claude Watson School for the Arts, so all the developer heard when we talked about an art exhibition was the high school, and it’s a high school project, and so he gave us access to these houses on Leona Drive.
And so, working with a group of people, a group of artists and doctoral students, we started to do research on these sort of anonymous histories and were very inspired by Giedion’s approach to history, and this materialist approach to really treat history, to treat the houses, in an organic way. A number of artists went to the library and dug up old photographs and planning documents, and the development itself was very old, so we had those documents, but other artists went down into the basement of some of the houses and actually dug up materials in the houses. So this is one project that unfolded like a novel. We sort of felt—looking at this row of houses that were completely dead and boarded up, but as we started to engage with them, physically engage with them, going down into the basement, pulling things out, pulling artifacts out and talking to people—that the houses themselves got activated. They became alive, and all of the networks of relationships that live in these spaces started to inform the way that the exhibition would unfold.
One of the projects was called Dear Ruth, and it was based on this woman that lived in number 9—that’s number 9 there—had lived in number 9 for 40 years, had died on the dance floor, and had left all of her things in the house. She died suddenly and her house then got sold to a developer, and that’s why her things were still in the house. So this was called Dear Ruth. The things that were in the house were things like tax returns, diaries, school yearbook, photographs, a recipe book, macramé plant holders, you know, tchotchkes, these sorts of things. They made a piece in the kitchen, a kind of cabinet of curiosities that—can you see that? Oh, it’s hard to see—essentially, it’s a recipe. They went into her recipe book and they made her tuna casserole, and so the sink itself is the making and eating of the tuna casserole, and then the cleaning of the dishes, and that’s on a loop. Now, why would they have to make her tuna casserole? Sort of like method acting or something—they just had to enter into the structure of feeling of this Ruth Gillespie, who was unknown to us at the time. That’s her yearbook.
This is a piece by Richard Fung, and I think it’s just called Betty, and Richard Fung is a Toronto artist. His grandmother lived in the area, and so he was able to connect with these women who had raised their kids in the area, who lived in the nearby condos. And so they met regularly for coffee, and Richard became involved with this coffee klatsch called “the Originals,” and his piece ended up being this very long interview with Betty talking about the experience of living in the area. So, as I said, other people dug out old maps and photographs. There was somebody that lived in the area that had photographed that whole area over a period of 40 years (which, you can imagine, has gone through tremendous transformation), and so the photographs were spread throughout the exhibition.
Steven Logan and Jovana Jankovic were two artists who were not satisfied with simply having maps or photographs—they brought a channeler, a psychic channeler, into one of the houses in order to channel Ruth. So that ended up being an installation in the exhibition. It was fascinating—this we actually didn’t film, but it was in our minds throughout the whole exhibition—was that she sensed, she had this sensation, of a deep feminine pain in the house and, you know, children, and the pain of being profoundly lonely, and it didn’t at all coincide with Ruth Gillespie’s biography. There was only one person after Ruth Gillespie to live in the house, named Dmitry Belopolsky. We found some of his things and a documentary on immigration he was making, and we kept saying, who is this Dmitry Belopolsky? We did a lot of research and we thought maybe he had been ejected from the country or killed or something, and the day of the opening of the exhibition, Dmitry Belopolsky came to the exhibition, and I saw him and I was like, “Hey, Dmitry.” I actually knew him because he was one of my students at Ryerson a hundred years ago, so it was very strange, and then his wife was there, and she did talk about having gone through a really difficult time in that house and a feeling of loneliness. So it was all, who knows?
We were talking this morning about how with these archives, part of it is open to fiction—it invites creative engagement, so that you don’t know exactly what the past is, but you’re writing it alongside the material artifacts. Probably one of the landmark pieces in the exhibition was An Te Liu’s Green House. An Te had discovered that the CMHC houses were the exact design of the Monopoly houses, the little green houses, and there is a direct relationship between the design of those houses going right back to the game of Monopoly. The deal that we had with the developers was that we would return the site to its original state, and for a couple of projects—and I’ll only go into this one—we obviously couldn’t return the site, and so when I approached the developer about painting this house green, he didn’t understand why we would want to paint a house green. So I said, you know, it’s like the little Monopoly houses, and then he loved the project and he began appropriating this as, like, an icon for their company, photographing themselves in front of it and putting it on their website. So it was too successful.
But what was interesting for us, and I have to mention Michael Prokopow, who was an important co-curator for the exhibition—he is an historian—was the attachment to place. So, you know, the neighborhood totally took over the exhibition. The people who lived in the neighborhood were doing tours on a regular basis. They were claiming this exhibition as their own; they were even claiming this exhibition was their idea, this is no problem, but—but that was wonderful. And then people came from downtown Toronto, you know, cool hipsters didn’t mind coming up to Sheppard and Yonge and coming through. So what I loved about this exhibition was that it was intergenerational and it brought a diversity of people and interests together. It was very much focused on the past and a fascination with the past rather than the future, but nevertheless, it created what some are calling an experimental community. This is what these kinds of art exhibitions can do, exhibitions which are event-based and very limited to a tight frame, a temporal frame—right, this was only ten days—and we had about 3,500 people, which is pretty incredible for something out in Willowdale. It brought a lot of people together who have absolutely nothing in common besides the exhibition, and just started a series of conversations about these houses, about the value of these houses. Maybe about the fact that these houses are small and sustainable, and about the utopian aspects of these CMHC houses, which were essentially built for veterans coming home from the war and gave people an opportunity to actually own a house. This project also took place in 2009, at the height, of course, of the economic meltdown. So I’ve tried to approach developers after this exhibition because I figured now I have a track record, I’m trustworthy, and any developer’s really going to want to work with me and—absolutely not. No. Zero interest and I think the reason that we were able to work on that site was that we had a municipal councilor on our side who was advocating for us, but also in 2009, really, the developer was very worried and didn’t know whether he’d be able to move the houses, so I think he was a little bit desperate for anything, any kind of attention.
The end of the houses is that they died, essentially, and were replaced with monster houses. So it’s a kind of familiar story, but I think what we did is we created a pause in the processes of development. Just a momentary pause in the process that often happens—even though there’s that sign, you know, “public consultation, come to this meeting”—and that in fact ended up being an artistic project. These things happen without any sense of our being able to impact or control it, so it was a kind of momentary pause, and it did allow people to think about development more critically. But for the next project, I really did want to go out further into the edge of the city. For Land|Slide, I wasn’t sure about Markham, but something happened in 2010, which was the two municipal councilors Erin Shapero and Valerie Burke had put forward a proposal for a food belt in Markham, Ontario, that would curtail development for the next 30 years, concentrated in one particular area. Or should I say, curtail sprawl and protect agricultural lands, which in the context of climate change we do need—protect that land. Markham, as a case study, is quite incredible because it is moving out into those lands. Now, the green belt is there—this is an incredible experiment, the 1.8 million acres of protected land that the Ontario government has put into place that is up for review in 2015. What they had proposed was that this food belt would protect the green belt but also protect the agricultural lands. Anyway, it was devastating. David Suzuki put out a YouTube video saying, “Markham is the city of the future.” Environmental activists got really involved in it, and what was devastating was that they lost this motion by one vote, which of course belonged to a developer.
So we thought it would be interesting to try to stage a conversation around these issues of future uses of land in that area, but also to do it within a historical framework. And as I said, I approached numerous developers because I had a fantasy of staging the next exhibition in an unfinished subdivision—which, if you’ve ever seen what they look like, they are beautiful, surreal ghost towns, with the sewage and street lamps installed, sidewalks paved, but no houses built yet—anyway, I thought that would be really good, but no. Nobody returned my calls. So I went the other way, and I found this heritage village kind of in the middle of the night on my computer. It was like a 25-acre historic village with 30 houses in it, so that would be a great site to stage this exhibition. I was really lucky that the director of the museum was really into the idea. She’d just taken over the job—and this was something we were talking about this morning also, that these municipal museums are pretty dead and need to respond in a more active way to the community—so she had just come on board and was redefining the mandate of the museum in terms of environmental politics, so this was an exhibition that was really up her alley, and she was into it. And I was working with Jenny Foster, who’s an urban planner at York University, and Chloë Brushwood Rose, who is in the faculty of education, to design an exhibition that would take up issues of urban planning and pedagogy directly and transform the heritage village into a strange space—but, you know, it’s already a strange space. What can I say? The shape of the village—it’s not a real heritage village the way that Black Creek is; there’s a real consistency with Black Creek. This doesn’t make any sense. One of the reviewers of the show said, the village already smells like Dada. It’s already very surreal. The houses range from 1820 to 1940, there’s a train station in the middle of it, it doesn’t make sense, but it’s great. It’s a perfect space for us. I started with ten artists because I thought that would be a manageable size, but then I just thought, it’s 25 acres and 30 houses, so I tried to create a kind of hypertextual biosphere with 30 different artists that would engage with the site from their own different practices and different perspectives. So we gave the artists a little bit of information about Markham. Markham was established as a city in 2012. Markham is the most diverse municipality in Canada, with over 65 percent of the population of East or South Asian descent; newly arrived immigrants make up something like 20 percent of the population. It is a space—as I was saying, and this is in reference back to Kwon’s comment about site specificity—where the attachment to place is complex. So we wanted to figure out different ways of engaging with that complexity.
How to organize it, and organize and wrangle 30 artists, was somewhat difficult, but the main theme was the line. It’s a fairly simple idea: to think about the line and the frontier. Because when you go out to Markham, it really is a line. You can see it. You can see agricultural land; you can see exactly where big box stores are going in. Markham has an excellent green-print plan—very, very impressive urban planners, radical urban planners, innovative urban planners have been working on the Markham plan. But ultimately, the developers do have a lot of control, and the way in which Markham itself is unfolding is in the multiplication of these very ugly subdivisions. The line between past and present, the line between people, the grid that was placed on the land when it was first parsed out, the railway line—different kinds of lines that artists could interpret. The first line that went in as a kind of container for the whole exhibition was an 1,800-meter row, or swiveling river, of sunflowers that was planted by Glynis Logue. And there were eighteen different kinds of sunflowers that were built up there, so that you could follow around, and of course the river is itself very much a line, but not a straight line. There are 80,000 artifacts in the archive, and a number of artists worked with those artifacts. In particular, Jeff Thomas found seven or eight postcards from the 1920s and ’30s of Aboriginal people, whose image was being used to actually market the railway. Maria Hupfield was one of the other artists that engaged with the archive, creating felt objects out of the hard objects. So there were different kinds of histories within that were sort of added onto the Markham Museum. Of course, the history that’s told at a place like the Markham Museum is very linear; it’s white settlers’ history, even though the museum has a lot of Aboriginal artifacts. There’s a whole story to be told; it was not a story that was being told.
But one of the stories that we ended up telling was a story by Jennie Suddick, who grew up in Markham in the 1980s. She ended up producing an anthropology of a teenage girl’s bedroom. Her bedroom at her parents’ house, nearby the museum, was intact. Her parents had never painted her bedroom or anything, and so what she decided to do was simply transplant it into the museum as, you know—you want to see how people live? Because the whole mission of these places is you can see how people actually lived. And of course there’s a great deal of fiction around that, weaving around how people lived, but this was how Jennie lived. She also interviewed a number of old-timers about just growing up in Markham and the kind of walks they used to like to take, and of course those walks no longer exist.
I think I’m kind of running out of time, so I’m going to just go through. Adrian Blackwell and Jane Hutton produced a piece that really engaged with the land and worked on the leveling of the land. This was a house that had been moved to the museum. Most of the houses, or many of the houses, that were on the museum site had been moved because of the development in the area. So what they did is essentially measure the land itself that had been leveled when the house was moved, and the piece was a reflection on what happens when a development moves into a particular area. My daughter always asks me, when we would go out to Markham or areas like that, why it’s so flat, and it’s flat in part because of the leveling itself. It just makes it a lot easier to put up houses in a very fast way. And the destruction that happens with the leveling of the land is extreme. There’s very, very rich topsoil—Markham is one of the most agriculturally rich areas in Canada—and that topsoil can never be replaced once it’s taken away. So what’s going on in Markham is that tension between economy and ecology. I think I’m going to just move on, just so you can see how different artists interpreted the idea of the land.
This was Frank Havermans, a Dutch architect, who worked with pulleys inside one of the Mennonite barns and then created a very, very dangerous—it doesn’t look that dangerous—cartography outside of the barn that’s being held in place through pulleys inside the barn. And the didactic for this piece is: this local logic has led to this local madness, which is the whole sprawl of Markham. This was an incredibly beautiful piece, and the minute the exhibition was over it came down. It was like five minutes after twelve and it was down. There were architectural projects on the barn—Patricio Davila, Dave Colangelo—all around Google Maps and the whole development around these subdivisions, projected on the barn. Very beautiful at night. Mark-David Hosale produced interactive sculptures that really reflected the green-belt outline—these were his, these kind of ecological flock-like structures, and he was very interested in the flock-like mentality. Deirdre Logue produced a piece that was about her own subjectivity being behind the land, behind the line, and thinking about queer subjectivities, and there were two parts to her piece. Inside the house—you can’t see—but it was very, very oppressive little monitors, and then you would go out into a lovely healing garden and a real connection. Allyson Mitchell—the lesbian haunted house, we called it. It was filled with cobwebs, and there was a handle that was shaking—don’t know why—and the sound of women’s voices moaning, either in a loving way or absolutely being tortured, we couldn’t tell. So, you know, children love this. No. This was a mini-robot by a Winnipeg artist Greg Wilson that really responded. This was probably the closest to what Elizabeth Grosz is talking about, in terms of moving outside into the biosphere, into the land. And so this was almost a piece—it was almost a working musical instrument that made sounds using moisture and the atmosphere. So I’m just going to end with the labyrinth that was created by Ian Baxter&, Unspectacular Labyrinth. My architect friends came to see it—like, it was made out of sod—and there was a very beautiful simplicity to it, and it was also a piece that invited you to wander through it.
And so there were a number of pieces that augmented the history, that projected themselves into a future, that engaged with the land. It created a very large surface platform in which to think about all of these questions. The exhibition went on for three weeks; it was well attended. There were numerous symposia inside it, but as with Leona Drive, I’m not quite sure what the impact was. You know, I’m not sure what in fact we changed, except that it happened, and it unfolded, and it produced that kind of surreal experience and enabled people to reflect on not just Markham, but really reflect on issues that are going on around the world. The director has asked me if there is going to be another Land|Slide. No. I won’t do it, but somebody else may. I think that what these exhibitions do is begin to create forms—pedagogical forms, artistic forms—that enable these kinds of conversations and experimental communities to begin to emerge. So I will end there.
Thank you very much.