Kika Thorne/medicine: Thinking about the Position Inside

By Rosemary Heather

KIKA THORNE, MEDICINE (2009/12), ELASTIC, HARDWARE, 60′ X 13′ X 11′.

As the circle of projection becomes the rectangle of screen, the transition is a form of the question “How can one thing become something else?”

If cinema and its precedents picture and extend what we can see and experience of our world, what does medicine do? Locate that experience in the body and maybe more to the point in the cells of that body, which are “elastic and magnetic — oscillating, communicating.”[1] What is medicine? Not cinema but its antidote, the artwork that you stand inside, an apparition of that technology which evokes its memory—pays homage to it—while dispensing with any need for cinema’s projections. A kind of medicine for our time, medicine is technology that extends and transforms our world by moving its users deep inside the moment of their own being.

                                                                        —

Think of this essay as structured by a relationship between two concentric circles. In the largest, outside circle we have the field of ideas associated with the concept of posthumanism[2]; in the smaller circle inside of it we have an artwork that can be seen to embody certain aspects of this concept’s meaning. It is important to specify that the idea of posthumanism designates not a progression but a shift, one that we can detect evidence of in Thorne’s work. The “post” appends the “human”, tethers it—to drop the chronological metaphor—to the extended environment within which we are all immersed regardless. The shift resides in a change in how we understand this, a now-in-process transformation in our perception of what constitutes our realm of being.

The concentric circle is proposed as the notional structure for this text as a way to contextualize Thorne’s work in a fashion that is explicitly non-linear. No theory of progress is at work here. The circle is the right spatial metaphor as it implies a concatenating field of associations, or in other words, modulating ripples of meaning.  The two concentric circles propose a relationship, one that subsumes the broader framework of posthuman thought within a much more specific context: that is, an artwork made by Kika Thorne, which is as it should be.

In her own words, Thorne articulates the central investigation of her recent work as an attempt to bridge the divide between “utopianism and the capacities of the artwork.”

The artist’s long standing engagement with anarchist thought is important to the understanding of her practice as a whole and is the framework within which her use of the word “utopianism” takes its meaning. Thorne identifies as formative a milieu of artist-architects with whom she first began to develop her art practice, specifically naming Barry Isenor and Kenneth Hayes, creators of the seminal architecture zine, The Splinter (1989-1994)[3]; Marie-Paule Macdonald, coauthor with Dan Graham of the equally influential, Wild in the Streets: The Sixties (1994)[4]; and Luis Jacob, Allan Antliff and Adrian Blackwell, with whom she started the Anarchist Free School (1999) in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Working with this cohort and others, especially Adrian Blackwell, Thorne participated in the production of a number of projects intended to function as critical-Utopian introjections into public dialogues about urban and social issues that were urgent to their time. These projects took place under different guises, the group at different times and with differing configurations of members naming itself: The C-Side Collective, Fabricator, the October Group, the February Group and the April Group (which included Cecilia Chan and Christie Pearson) among others.[5]

How can making art be a political act? Art as an experience emanates from a particularity, a location in a time and place. In a literal sense, location is a limitation. An art context can only temporarily be a command center for activism; the opportunities it offers for the building of a lasting communal culture are limited. Instead, art allows for experiments in a different kind of potential, one that every artist seeks to realize in their work. Artworks can transform you when they simultaneously enhance and obliterate the circumstances in which they are encountered.  How this translates into a politic, into an enacted Utopianism as opposed to an imagined one, is the central question of Thorne’s work, one to which she proposes possible solutions that are entirely in keeping with art’s circumscribed realm of efficacy. It is important to emphasize that posthumanism is not intended to evoke a cyborg future for humanity. Instead, the term “recognizes the embeddedness of human beings in not just its biological but also its technological world.”[6]  This is an embeddedness that, in the artist’s terms, extends to the molecular level. Thorne quotes Walt Whitman: “My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air.”[7] Similarly, Thorne describes medicine, an artwork constructed from elastic cords, as a kind of molecular event, the artist working with materials to produce “an affinity of matter… the electrostatic energy of rubber’s stored bond distortions inducing vibration. I am not the author of this energy, just a collaborator.”

Posthuman thought holds out the possibility for a new vantage point for the human, one that emanates from the ground up. The goal it proposes: for the human perspective to become embedded within its wider environment, which is also true of the particular vantage point of Thorne’s immersive sculpture facilitates for its audience. In the posthuman, the human being becomes humbled, its assumed omniscience pulled back to earth to become grounded in, and refracted through, the material world in all of its multifaceted capacities. Posthuman thinkers seek a way forward out of an impasse of environmental destruction and unending economic crisis by ushering in a new era of human self-demotion. Considering it practical limitations, what can art bring to the conversation? Examination of Thorne’s work medicine can show how a collapse of perspective, of subject-object positioning, brings with it a necessary decentering, immersing its subjects within the concatenating vibrations of the paradigm that is now emerging.

The work medicine uses a single aperture in the centre of a gallery wall to structure a circle of 88 radiating black elastic cords that extend outward across the room to meet the rectangular frame of the far wall, which in the version of this work I saw at Toronto’s G Gallery[8], happens to be the frame of the space’s floor to ceiling glass-window entrance. A dazzling work, medicine has a powerful effect far beyond the modest sum of its materials. It derives strong graphic impact from the contrast between the black cords the bright white light of the gallery space. As Adrian Blackwell, the artist’s frequent collaborator notes, medicine is “highly architectural as both constructed space and a linear drawing.”[9] Experience of medicine also impacts the body. The installation fills the space, to a certain extent displacing or impeding gallerygoers, who choose to negotiate the work by entering into it, engaging with an experience not available to those who choose to remain at its perimeter.

In its simplest form, a historiography for the artwork can be found in the precedent that will come to be understood differently, in a new light, when considered from then viewpoint of its successor, and vice versa, a circle crossing over itself, each helping the other to more clearly define its significance to its time. Thorne notes that the precedent for medicine is British artist Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973)[10], a film of a white dot on a black background that over a thirty-minute duration becomes a circle describing the space within the circumference of its frame. As the circle grows the projector beam gradually expands to become a cone of light. Writing about the work, Colby Chamberlain notes the work, “utilized the barest elements of film—celluloid and projected light—but it clearly needed to be experienced as a three-dimensional object, like a sculpture.[11]

When comparing Line Describing a Cone with medicine, it is easy to detect two distinct paradigms: postminimalism and posthumanism, respectively. McCall’s “solid light installation” (one of a series the artist made) can be considered postminimalist in that he theatricalises cinema so that it becomes pure event, one that foregrounds the medium’s structural components. Line… forgoes a dependence on narrative and instead implicates its audience corporeally in the construction of its meaning.  The posthuman implications of Thorne’s work reside in subtle variation on and extension of McCall’s accomplishment, as I hope will become evident below. What Line Describing a Cone/medicine share in common is, first, their formal structure: both artworks formally mimic the (film-based) spatial arrangements of cinema, projecting image and light through a lens across a room onto a definite field in front of it that is usually, but not always, a screen. Second and more important, both works forego the cinematic image, the very point of cinema, in favour of becoming the image itself. The appellative “Cinema without an Image” applies to both artworks, but it is arguably of greater significance in relation to medicine, in that Thorne’s work subsumes within it salient features of contemporary experience, the everyday distortions of time and place that come with the use of the internet, being one example. A text about McCall’s work at the Harvard Film Archive notes, “McCall’s focus on activating the participants and the site transcended the medium and pared the artistic process and concept down to its paradoxical and essential crux.”[12] Implicit to this statement is the idea that Line Describing a Cone encapsulates cinema as an art form, as if from the work’s vantage point we see the medium in a rearview mirror receding in historical time. Arguably this is the meaning of the activated spectator of the postminimalist artwork who, no longer the passive viewer, is invited to occupy the exhibition’s figural center stage along with the work. Though the light cone creates a definite boundary, one that could be transgressed, the cinema without an image is in this case a theatre with an elective proscenium. With the advent of the digital era, film seen as a light projected is almost a thing of the past and perhaps this was a message Line Describing a Cone subtly intimated. Making use of the material components of cinema, Line Describing a Cone is cinema made whole, seen within framework of the historically-determined form of perspectival vision that made it possible; as Adrian Blackwell observes: “film has a unique relationship to perspective, because it constantly repeats the act of projection that is perspective each time it is shown.”[13] By contrast, because of the way it changes the audience’s relationship to the artwork, medicine can be seen to shut the door on the historical era perspective that McCall’s work encapsulates. Enter into medicine and you cross a threshold, the work creating a space for its audience that is no longer the stage for a performance (i.e., the performance the audience enacts when it joins the artwork on the stage of postminimalism.) Instead of a space constructed to facilitate perspectival relationship to the artwork (or the transgression of such), medicine creates the experience of that relationship breaking down. Every position the audience might take in relation to medicine is the correct one and at the same time no more necessary to its experience than any other. Parity between audience and work is at the core of medicine‘s meaning, its relativism exactly scaled to the body of each participant who engages with it.

German art historian Erwin Panofsky, writing in the early part of the last century, noted that the geometrically correct perspectival space of pictorial representation was an invention of the Renaissance.[14] In a passage taken from his essay Perspective as Symbolic Form (1924-25) that could also be describing the radiating lines of Thorne’s work, Panofsky writes:

I imagine the picture…as a planar cross section through the so-called visual pyramid: the apex of the pyramid is the eye, which is connected with individual points in the visual image…the relative position of these “visual rays” [determining] the apparent position of the corresponding points in the visual image.[15]

Panofsky’s goal was to denaturalize linear perspective and recharacterize it as historical style, making it apparent that at the very least linear perspective is unfaithful to the physiological truth of how we see the world. From the vantage point of the early 21st century, a certain resonance comes from noticing that the German historian was writing around the time of cinema’s (the camera’s) first decades, when we can assume the art of “almost scientific”[16] pictorial representation was receding into the past of its historical relevance[17]. A further interpretation might extrapolate: Panofsky’s text suggests the symbolic, historically-specific purpose perspectival vision was meant to serve, which was to foster a broad, if not to say colonialist, cohesiveness. Out of the homogeneity of the picture plane that realizes “in the representation of space precisely that homogeneity and boundlessness foreign to the direct experience of that space”[18], come ideas about a further homogeneity: that of the beholder’s worldview. Certain implications are obvious, say an Imperialism that conquers to assimilate all within its dominion, to give one example. A similar kind of extrapolation could be made from Thorne’s work, inferring from the concrete example far reaching implications. Panofsky describes a visual pyramid at the apex of which is an eye, but he does not note that this description leaves the Renaissance regime of vision in a curiously disembodied state. By contrast, visual experience of medicine is an incorporated aspect of its experience as a whole. Medicine posits a body integrated with its environment, not floating above it but grounded in and extended by virtue of the immediate materials through which it is made. In other words, an experience of medicine is like an experience of the embedded perspective on the world posthuman thought argues for.

As a non-Humanist work (in the Renaissance sense) medicine can be described within the framework of the Actor Network Theory (ANT) developed by French sociologist Bruno Latour and his colleagues, which has gone on to become foundational for what is now emerging as the body of Posthumanist thought. It pays dividends to note certain affinities, however superficial, between the work and the theory.  For instance, the networks theorized in ANT “exist in a constant state of making and remaking.”[19] Similarly, medicine’s requirement of total body immersion will reward participants with an experience of scale that is contingent and variable. Each body becomes the measure of the work, each individual negotiation of medicine “making and remaking” it.  However, variability in experience of the work should not be understood to evoke ideas about relativism. Panofsky’s translator Christopher Woods writes, “Perspective since the Renaissance also means relativism. It suggests that a problem is always framed from a particular point of view.”[20] In the world medicine describes, however, there is no point of view, only relationships produced within—and that produce—its network.[21]

Medicine dispenses with any need for linear perspective as a necessary component of the artwork. Instead, the work retains only the trace elements—the skeletal outlines of—the cinematic regime of vision that was so central to the experience of the 20th century. The lines of the work converge but never cross; they don’t culminate in an image, or follow the beginning-middle-and-end logic of a film narrative. While referring to cinema in an overt way, the work offers its participants an entirely other experience, in the process pointing to certain emerging characteristics of the Zeitgeist. For instance, in a time of massive digital image proliferation and distribution, medicine cannot be pictured. It definitively does not exist in this way, although the lens of the camera can seek to capture its various aspects, resulting in striking photographs (especially portraits, as if producing a quaint memorial for ‘the human’). This suggests proliferation of the image is the same thing as loss of its meaning as a singular entity. In this sense, medicine has little in common with the pictorial homogeneity which Line Describing a Cone can easily produce as an artwork. The latter activates the subject in a similar way perhaps, but never as a beholder of the work. Instead, a loss of perspective for the participant is central to its experience, which is no less coherent as a result.

Christopher Wood notes “Renaissance perspective…had in Panofsky’s eyes the virtue of insinuating a perfect equilibrium between the claims of subject and object.[22] Medicine, however, requires no subject in “equilibrium with its pictorial object.” Rather, a visitor subsumes medicine within him or her-self in the same way that they are subsumed within the artwork. In addition to there being no correct perspective from which to view the work, the concept of taking a position outside of it is all but meaningless to the worldview it defines[23].  Instead, engaging with the work requires a degree of entanglement within it, the audience’s visual perspective being no longer sovereign but an incorporated and intermittent component within its material. Engulfing the subject, medicine constructs contemporary experience from a position inside, producing within itself certain characteristics of the world we find ourselves emerging within.


[1] Kika Thorne, in conversation, August, 2012.

[2] A related context for posthuman thought is the Deep Ecology movement Thorne suggests the rise of posthuman thought illuminates the demands of the Deep Ecology movement to which she belongs. Naess, Arne. “The Shallow And The Deep, Long Range Ecology Movements”, a Summary. Originally published in Inquiry (Oslo), 16 (1973). Naess states seven main tenets of the movement. I quote from each section: 1. Rejection of the man-in-environment image in favor the relational, total-field image. Organisms as knots in the biospherical net or field of intrinsic relations. 2. Biospherical egalitarianism-in principle. The “in principle” clause is inserted because any realistic praxis necessitates some killing, exploitation, and suppression. The ecological field-worker acquires a deep-seated respect, or even veneration, for ways and forms of life. S/He (sic) reaches an understanding from within, a kind of understanding that others reserve for fellow humans and for a narrow section of ways and forms of life. To the ecological field-worker, the equal right to live and blossom is an intuitively clear and obvious value axiom. Its restriction to humans is an anthropocentrism with detrimental effects upon the life quality of humans themselves. The quality depends in part upon the deep pleasure and satisfaction we receive from close partnership with other forms of life. 3 Principles of diversity and of symbiosis. Diversity enhances the potentialities of survival, the chances of new modes of life, the richness of forms. “Live and let live” is a more powerful ecological principle than “Either you or me.” The latter tends to reduce the multiplicity of kinds of forms of life, and also to create destruction within the communities of the same species. 4. Anti-class posture. Diversity of human ways of life is in part due to (intended or unintended) exploitation and suppression on the part of certain groups. The exploiter lives differently from the exploited, but both are adversely affected in their potentialities of self-realization. 5. Fight against pollution and resource depletion. In this fight ecologists have found powerful supporters, but sometimes to the detriment of their total stand. 6. Complexity, not complication. Organisms, ways of life, and interactions in the biosphere in general, exhibit complexity of such an astoundingly high level as to color the general outlook of ecologists. Such complexity makes thinking in terms of vast systems inevitable. It also makes for a keen, steady perception of the profound human ignorance of biospherical relationships and therefore of the effect of disturbances. 7. Local autonomy and decentralization. The vulnerability of a form of life is roughly proportional to the weight of influences from afar, from outside the local region in which that form has obtained an ecological equilibrium. This lends support to our efforts to strengthen local self-government and material and mental self-sufficiency. But these efforts presuppose an impetus towards decentralization. Local autonomy is strengthened by a reduction in the number of links in the hierarchical chains of decision.

Reprinted in http://www.alamut.com 1999.

[3] Published in Toronto, The Splinter used the self-publishing “zine” (from “fanzine”) format to create a platform for grassroots dialogue about architecture. The terms “zine” originates in the D.I.Y. ethos of punk, and punk attitude defines the tone Hayes and Isenor adopted for the missives they launched against the world of establishment architecture practice. http://laforum.org/content/articles/architects-architecture-activism-by-david-jensen

[4] Wild in the Streets is an artist book, a “mini rock opera” in part based on the 1968 film of the same name. Whereas the film brings b-movie sensationalism to the revolutionary impulses of 1960s youth culture, Graham and MacDonald use the reference as a way to reflect on the failed promises of that cultural moment. https://www.frieze.com/issue/article/the_psychedelic_fantasies_of_the_sixties/

[5] More information about this era in Thorne’s practice can be found at http://kikathorne.blogspot.ca/

[6] Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2010) xv.

[7] Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 1, (Digireads.com, 2006)

[8] Kika Thorne, mediCine, G Gallery, Toronto, July 13 – August 12, 2012.

[9] Adrian Blackwell, “White Wall / Black Hole System: drawing lines between cinema and architecture, galaxies and souls”, poster accompanying the G Gallery exhibition.

[10] McCall cites as precedents to Line Describing a Cone, Warhol’s Empire (1964) and Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967). Both are works that emphasize the material aspects of cinema as a process, to create an experience of the medium that is largely external to the images each one projects.

[11] Colby Chamberland, “Something in the Air”, Cabinet, Issue 35 “Dust Fall”, 2009 http://cabinetmagazine.org/issues/35/chamberlain.php

[12] http://hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2012aprjun/mccall.html

[13] Blackwell, ibid.

[14] Erwin Panofsky, Perspective as Symbolic Form, trans. Christopher S. Wood, New York: Zone Books (1991) 27. Originally published as “Die Perspektive als ‘symbolische Form,’ in the Vorträge de Bibliothek Warburg 1924-1925 (Leipzeig & Berlin, 1927), pp. 258-330.

[15] Panofsky, 28.

[16] With perspectival techniques of the 15th century “painting is sometimes indistinguishable from science.” Christopher S. Wood, “Introduction”, Perspective as Symbolic Form, 23.

[17] Blackwell “today photography, film and video persist as its living descendents”, ibid.

[18] Panofsky, 31.

[19] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 35.)

[20] Woods, 23.

[21] Within the logic of ANT, this network would be comprised of every component that produced the result of visitors appearing at the gallery door, including the artist’s friends and colleagues, meaningful art historical precedents, the institutions of art education and the Liberal Arts generally, a local art community and the mechanisms by which it publicizes itself, not to mention, the systems responsible for the manufacture of black elastic cord and wall paint, cars, public transit and bicycles, etc. Furthermore, ANT assumes these “networks of relations are not intrinsically coherent” but they can potentially of course crystallize as such.

[22] Wood, 23.

[23] Taking an outside position suggests a number of ideas, all of them arguably concerns no longer relevant to the 21st century, including: mastery and the hierarchy that falls beneath its summit; the proprietary advantage and subject-forming resolution associated with a point of view; the romantic individual who decides to reject the world; the militant who actively fights back against it; and the avant-gardist who presumes to lead it.

This essay originally published in the catalogue for, The Wildcraft, Kika Thorne’s solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Windsor, 2012.

Stimulus Response Mechanism: Lynne Marsh’s The Philharmonie Project (Nielsen: Symphony No. 5)

Lynne Marsh, The Philharmonie Project (2011). Photo: Trevor Good

Moving beyond the iconic architecture of Berlin’s Philharmonie building, Lynne Marsh makes an artwork about what happens behind the scenes. In the process she reveals something not previously thought worthy of our attention—a space and the people it animates when they work there. Marsh’s work about technicians filming the live video broadcast of the Berlin Philharmonie’s performance of Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5, could even be said to create the space she reveals in the process; arguably, it didn’t exist before she filmed it. Disclosing the mechanisms at work behind the spectacle, Marsh creates by implication a portrait of the broader system within which we are all enmeshed.

To understand this proposition, first consider what Marsh doesn’t show us. Viewers of The Philharmonie Project (2011) never see an orchestra performing. Instead, we are presented with a tightly focused performance of four technicians in a recording booth. Each one has a specific role, calling out numbers corresponding to the bars of music and camera angles that film the musicians as they play. A companion piece shows these camera shots in a dry run—the camera choreography in rehearsal before the concert begins. We see empty chairs and sheet music stands on a stage devoid of performers. Shown in the gallery, Marsh positions the two videos at either end—or side, recto/verso—of an angled platform that bisects the room on the diagonal. Set on a scaffold, the structure is the design of the architect team June 14 (Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge and Sam Chermayeff). Audiences sitting on the top of the platform gaze down onto Marsh’s video of the Philharmonie team working together as they film the 45 minute-long performance; on its underside, viewers see the artist’s video of the performance in dry run. The soundtrack unifies these elements, broadcasting Nielsen’s Symphony as it is punctuated by voices of the film technicians. The installation brings together the videos of two distinct moments in time that are musically synchronic. Together they describe an event that is never made visible to us. It is only discernable in terms of its absence; or rather, in terms of the space Marsh defines with her work.

Translating the musical score, the technicians’ work is a performance in itself. Like the camera shots they coordinate, they move together and overlap, performing almost as a singular entity—like the entity of the orchestra itself. The scene conveys all the drama of the music that accompanies it. This is also true of the companion film, which substitutes the intended subject—i.e. the orchestra playing—for the shot; as the framing choreographs incidental images of the empty stage, the camera becomes an extension of the music it articulates. The point of a symphonic work is to envelop the listener in within a totalizing system of harmonic logic and dissonance, and Marsh too envelops her audience within that system, while at the same time ensuring that its apparatus is, figuratively, laid bare. In Philharmonie, virtual space becomes intelligible via the very devices that disseminate its contents. This space exists not in what the camera films or its extension as broadcast. It exists rather in the elements the artist brings together, the filmed spaces, performers and installation. Together these elements create a kind of extra visible dimension, one that points to the infrastructure of which it is an expression.

In his text Notes on Gesture (2000)[1] Giorgio Agamben proposes “gesture rather than image is the cinematic element.” In Agamben’s terms, images are static whereas “the gesture always refers beyond itself towards a whole of which it is a part.” Marsh’s work provides us with a precise expression of this idea. Shot from just below eye level, her camera stays focused on the upper bodies and heads of the camera technicians working within the cramped space of the recording booth. Beyond the context she creates in the gallery, the artist offers no explanation about what they are doing. In the absence of knowing, we interpret their gestures. The musical score animates the performers, the camera frame emphasizing the intense focus of their concentration.

Agamben writes: “an idea is a constellation in which phenomena arrange themselves in a gesture.” The shifting plane of the cinematic image proposes an end point as its organizing principle; narrative films will always carry viewers to the end of the story they tell. By their nature, artworks engage viewers in a process that leads to a different kind of conclusion; the narrative resolution of any one work is an understanding of the mechanism by which you grasp its meaning.  Similarly, as a discursive medium, film has an innate potential to dramatize this process of meaning unfurling, a gradual coming into understanding. The process is, however, not necessarily linear. Rather, phenomena gather into meaningful configurations—in Agamben’s words, into constellations. The significance of this metaphor resides in the space coordinates it conjures up. Further, Agamben resolves his concept in the notion of a “gesture”; filmic space is embodied space. As with living beings, in every instance of its existence, a film intimates the moment of its demise. Marsh’s artwork engages with this concept of gesture by finding deep within the Philharmonie building a space and performers that we can understand as the end points of a broader constellation. Meaning inheres in the apparatus of spectacle implied. By framing a symphony performance at several levels of remove from the actual live performance, Marsh articulates a space that exists as a result of it.

In Philharmonie, the space Marsh illuminates takes on a high degree of specificity. The tight focus of her camera frame offers a glimpse into a vista that, prior to Philharmonie,was left largely unconsidered. By implication, the artist depicts the vast machinery of job segmentation, the performance of which, at each point in the system, the entire entity depends. Like every totalizing vision, this dystopia lacks air and sunshine; Marsh presents a vision of contemporary existence that, in place of the pleasures of everyday life, offers instead the (not inconsiderable) blandishments of job professionalism. If the universe we see, as expressed by Philharmonie, is airless and tense, that is because the artist pictures with great clarity our modern condition of mediation. In the end, Marsh’s vision is less dystopic than factual. She finds a way to express a truth about the world we all live in: Philharmonie is a lens through which we can view our own circumstances. It’s a portrait of the embodied world as it is simultaneously disembodied by the constellation within which it functions.

[1] Giorgio Agamben, Notes on Gesture, Means Without End: Notes on Politics (Theory Out Of Bounds), (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press) 2000.


Text originally publised by http://www.programonline.de/philharmonie.html in 2011.

Why Toronto is trying to evict an arts organization on Queen West

The fate of the Toronto Media Arts Centre on Lisgar hangs in the balance as a civil dispute with the city drags on

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER MARCH 9, 2020

Just John and Dom Dias perform at TMAC for the opening of an art exhibition by Jordan Sook in June 2019. Photo: Jennie Robinson Faber

A years-long dispute between the city and a Queen West arts space could soon find a resolution.

Since 2015, the artist-run Toronto Media Arts Centre (TMAC) has been in a fight over its occupancy of a building on Lisgar south of Queen West. The 30,000-square-foot facility is home to four non-profit art organizations focused on media arts: Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) and Charles Street Video – early partners in the project – and video game arts organizations, Dames Making Games and Gamma Space.

TMAC wants legal title to the space. Without it, the organization can’t make full use of the location, which is staffed by volunteers. TMAC members were closely involved in the design of the facility – the build was financed through the city’s Section 37 provision, which allows developers to add density or height to a building in exchange for community benefits – and in 2015 the organization signed an agreement of purchase and sale.

However, within a year, city hall moved to cancel the agreement, citing a lack of confidence in TMAC management, in part due to infighting between the various organizations. (At the time, there were different organizations under the TMAC umbrella.)

In response, TMAC sued the city, and the parties agreed in 2018 that TMAC could take occupancy provided the organization met certain fundraising targets. Whether TMAC succeeded in meeting these targets is being challenged by the city, which asked TMAC to vacate the premises last March.

“It is the city’s position that statements on TMAC’s website regarding the funds it raised do not satisfy the clear targets it agreed to,” Pat Tobin, Toronto’s director of arts and culture services, wrote in a statement to NOW, adding that the organization has failed to demonstrate that it has “the financial capacity to successfully fit up, own and operate the facility over the long-term.”

In response to the city’s demand that TMAC leave the building, TMAC filed a motion against the city in June.

At stake is the future of the purpose-built space, home to a community of artists and makers. TMAC estimates more than 60,000 people have attended workshops and events at the centre since April 2018.

Complicating the situation is the building’s developer, Urbancorp, filing for bankruptcy in 2016, leaving the building unfinished and not up to code. Concrete floors are unpolished and accessibility considerations were never provided. TMAC’s 200-seat cinema space is half-finished, though potentially functional.

“Under the terms of our agreement with the bankruptcy trustee, TMAC can’t use the cinema,” says Lauren Howes, executive director of the CFMDC. “We know we are getting a space loaded with deficiencies, but the benefit TMAC brings to the community is clear.”

The idea to create a hub on West Queen West devoted to film, video, photography and interactive web art dates back to 1994 when a feasibility study for the project was commissioned by six Toronto non-profit arts organizations.

As originally envisioned, it would bring together production, exhibition and distribution services for media-based artists and create a home for a broad cross-section of creators, as well as enabling cost savings for the tenant organizations. Ownership would, in the words of the study, “anticipate the future needs of the organizations.” Today, the phrase reads like a grim foreshadowing of the ongoing fight for arts organizations to find – and hold on to – affordable real estate in 2020.

In late February, the two parties underwent a cross-examination. In civil disputes, judicial mediation provides a non-binding opinion on evidence given by the opposing parties. The finding can then be used as a basis upon which to negotiate a settlement, avoiding the expense of a trial.

Henry Faber, founder of Gamma Space, a co-working space for game and interactive media makers and president of the TMAC board, spoke on behalf of TMAC at the cross-examination.

“We maybe saw a glimmer of hope,” Faber told NOW. “My cross-examination took four hours. But I was asked no questions about TMAC’s ability to deliver benefit to the community.” Who benefits from TMAC’s existence is at the core of the organization’s appeal to the arts community for support in the dispute.

“I spent all day being grilled about the viability of TMAC and then came back to a vibrant event at the space,” Faber said, referring to an all-day symposium about the future of arts management in Toronto. It is one of more than 450 events TMAC has hosted since 2018.

Howes told NOW that TMAC has received over 250 detailed letters of support.

“These are impassioned letters. TMAC is a meaningful organization within the community,” she says. “What we have provided to the community is well beyond what even we envisioned,” she adds.

The city remains unconvinced.

In March 2019, TMAC announced it had secured over $2.5 million in sponsorship. Partners include the gaming giant Ubisoft, and local internet provider Beanfield Metroconnect.

But, according to the city, TMAC agreed in writing to abide by a decision made by an independent adjudicator about whether the more than $2.5 million in fundraising partnerships fulfill agreed-upon targets.

“The city has made repeated efforts to support TMAC in its fundraising efforts, including reducing the financial targets over time, providing extensions to deadlines and consenting to the monitor granting TMAC interim occupancy over part of the space,” says Tobin. “Despite these efforts, the city’s position remains that TMAC has still not raised the funds in the manner it agreed to in the minutes of settlement.

“For almost a year, the city has repeatedly asked TMAC to participate in this independent adjudication process on the basis it agreed to in these minutes of settlement,” he adds. “But TMAC has declined.”

TMAC disputes this assertion.

“We followed the steps outlined by the city [in the adjudication process], but the city instructed the adjudicator to disregard our fundraising, then halted the process entirely,” a spokesperson for TMAC said in a statement. “We filed our motion in June precisely because of the city’s interference with the independent adjudication process. We’ve heard nothing further… about proceeding with the review as agreed.”

Transcripts from last week’s cross-examination will be reviewed by a judicial mediator on April 15.

@rosemheather

Cassils turns the act of looking at trans bodies into performance

While suspended from a harness in a Plexiglas box, the Montreal artist made a big impression – and a mess – at the Gardiner Museum

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER MARCH 2, 2020

Cassils explored trans visibility and isolation in the performance Up To And Including Their Limits at the Gardiner Museum. Photo: Cassils with Alejandro Santiago.

How hard is it to scape raw clay off the walls of a plexiglass box while suspended from a harness? Very hard, judging by artist Cassils performance at the city’s Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art on February 20. For 90-minutes, Cassils swung themselves against the confines of a 10 x 10 box, moving to different levels within the space with the help of a theatrical rigger.

Visitors to the sold-out performance initially could only hear the sounds – grunts and hard breathing – of Cassils at work. Gradually the artist became visible through the clay-smeared apertures they made with their hands. Visibility was the point, with Cassils being the stand-in for the trans body in public consciousness. During the performance, it was easy to see how the audience becomes a stand-in for society at large.

The performance is part of the exhibition RAW, opening on March 5 at the Gardiner. Unfired clay is the medium for work by artists Magdolene Dykstra, Azza El Siddique and Linda Swanson, along with the performance by Cassils, the remnants of which will be on view in the gallery.

In person, Cassils is an imposing presence. They are of modest height (about 5-foot-6) but packed with muscle. Not surprising for someone who has worked as a stunt person and semi-pro boxer, and who runs a personal training business in Los Angeles. Originally from Montreal, Cassils attended California Institute of the Arts and went on to build a powerhouse art career that includes international recognition, gallery representation in New York City and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

NOW spoke with the artist at the Gardiner Museum the day after their performance.

As a viewer, looking in and hoping to see more as your performance progressed, I felt self conscious about the role I was playing as a voyeur. This faded, however, and I became invested in your efforts to remove the clay. Is that because as we see more of you it becomes easier to identify with you as a whole person?

It’s hard for me to be succinct about the thesis of the work since it’s the first time I performed it. I am making the audience’s act of looking performative, not just being an experience of passive enjoyment. They are going through a process of witnessing my struggle. There is a fascination with the trans identity. In the performance, I am both enacting and denying this dynamic.

I hadn’t before done a work where there was a barrier between me and the audience. At first, this cut my energy. But I see this as an expression of trans isolation. We are in this heightened moment of trans visibility. But without systemic change, it puts the trans body at risk. I am a white, middle-class trans person. I don’t represent the most stigmatized trans people. This is one reason why I trouble visibility.

The body obscured in the performance is a form of resistance to examination. But another element of the work is the way it puts you in control, are you doing this to reverse that dynamic?

No. I don’t feel in control. I am attached to a rope, controlled by someone who I can’t control. When I am upside down, there are straps in my harness that… if they press on my femoral artery for too long, I will die. I don’t have a lot of control over my velocity when I am swinging. I also have the responsibility to make a connection with the audience. The burden of representation is on me – the responsibility to make the work, and to connect with my audience.

The performance evokes a number of artists. I really thought about certain works by Yoko Ono, and especially Cy Twombly.

When I’m pulling the clay off the wall, I’m throwing it on the ground to create a platform I can stand on. When it’s high enough, the performance ends. Most of my work is about the indexical. Clay picks up every gesture. In the process of making the platform beneath me, I’m throwing the clay on the ground, and each time you can see the negative space of my fist. Doing this in a ceramics museum, it’s about self making and embodiment. It’s also about making a mess.

When Cassils pulled enough clay off the walls to create a platform to stand on, the performance ended. Photo: Cassils with Alejandro Santiago.

In one of your works, Cuts: A Traditional Sculpture, you gained 23 pounds of muscle in 23 weeks. I consulted a fairly technical article on bodybuilding.com about muscle gain. Turns out, gaining one pound of muscle per week is pretty much the optimum a bodybuilder can hope for. Sustained over 23 weeks, it’s an incredible feat. Did you do this bodybuilding to make yourself into an object?

It’s not bodybuilding. I was responding to a 1972 work by Eleanor Antin, Carving: A Traditional Sculpture, in which she crash diets and documents the effect on her body. She documents performing an act of starvation. In 2011, when I did this work, there was very little awareness of trans identity. I identify as trans-masculine, not non-binary. I don’t believe I need to have a double mastectomy to be trans. I am an athlete and have my own personal training business. I think of my body as both an instrument and an image. To do this performance, I had to lay off the weight training and focus on my core flexibility. This is part of the vocabulary I am working with.

Looking at my snapshots of the performance, I was surprised to see how painterly they are. This is a thread that runs through all your work: becoming image. Formally, the work is very strong, very legible. Since all of it revolves around your body, are you making art as a pretext for circulating images of a powerful trans body?

Yes. I was trained as a painter. My work is always a material exploration; a tremendous goal of the work is formal investigation. I use a formal language that isn’t didactic; though it is still complicated, it can’t just be a clean read. Right now, I am working on something about for-profit immigration detention centres. That needs to be didactic.

@rosemheather

Army of YouTube

Faced with the awe-inspiring popularity  of web-monoliths like YouTube, contemporary art  risks becoming nothing more than a quaint relic of the 20th century.

It’s probably not fair to compare contemporary art practice with YouTube; yet there is evidence to suggest that somewhere in the ulterior of its collective brain, the art world does just this, and finds itself lacking. How else to understand the ongoing assurances given in art exhibition press releases and catalogue essays about the important  role the viewer plays in the construction of meaning – and the intention to facilitate it with this very exhibition?

If artists once played a leading – avant garde – role in providing a complex and forward-looking framework for reflection on the contemporary world, it now seems most comfortable bringing up the rear, providing explanations for developments already intuitively understood and widely enjoyed by the culture at large.

Of course, the argument can be made that conceptualism’s emphasis on the disembodied life of the mind presaged our current embrace of virtual experience; and that the early networks fostered by post-minimalism and its precursors – Fluxus, mail art, conceptualism, etc. – anticipated today’s social media. Emphasis on the relational in the last decade of art practice can likewise be seen as having the relevance of putting face-to-face human interaction back into the social media equation.

Still there is something desperate in the artworld’s current desire to kowtow to its audience – through invitations to throw coloured darts at a map, or converse with one another on bean bag chairs, or whatever. By all accounts the Guggenheim New York’s recent theanyspacewhatever, which featured work by known Relational practitioners like Liam Gillick and Rirkrit Tiravanija was a boring show. A cursory Google search will turn up dismissive blog reviews of the exhibition as such by its intended public; viz.,  Apparently, drinking coffee and standing around is art. Who would have thought ... 

In a recent E-flux article, Dieter Roelstraete voices similar doubts about contemporary art’s relevance, but from a different angle. In The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art he ponders the reasons for current art’s archaeological tendency – which ranges from artworks that investigate modes of museological display and historical re-enactments, to those artists who undertake actual archaeological digs. In Roelstraete’s analysis, such practices are symptomatic of two conditions: the first, to function as a corrective to a mass-culture that consumes its own products – movies, pop stars, best sellers – so quickly that it threatens to suck all cultural memory into a black hole of oblivion; the second, more troubling and readily suggested by the art world’s small army of past-reconstructors: an inability to imagine the future.

According to Roelstraete, this amounts to a failure on the part of current art practice to live up to its role as the avant-garde of our culture. But I would argue that the author’s reliance on a modernist framework when thinking about this problem, a construct that believes in the necessity of an art avant garde, is itself misplaced. Clues to what the future of our culture will look like are abundantly available elsewhere. All you have to do is look on YouTube.

The site is an ongoing argument for why its millions of users everyday have little reason to care about contemporary art practice. That said, it is only fair to point out that in terms of video technology’s cheapness, ease of use and sheer pliability, 70s art practice undertook some essential R&D that was cannily predictive of the technology’s current user-generated centrality to our culture.  For instance, when I look at the videos put on YouTube by San Francisco’s Jib Kidder to accompany the songs, sample-derived mash-ups, from his album All on Yall, I think of the 70s video work of, say, Dara Birnbaum or Christian Marclay’s work made in the decades after . But it’ iss hardly important to know these art historical precedents to enjoy what Kidder does.

When I asked Kidder by email why he chose to use the cut-up technique when making his videos, he responded that the data itself solicits this response to it: “It’s what it’s best at –  being copied.” In Kidder’s video for the song Windowdipper, morphic resonances between each seconds-long “slice” of data creates  a visual tempo connecting with the music’s beat. At the same time, through these resonances, the images editorialize not only on the artist’s chosen technique but also their context of presentation: YouTube itself.

Windowdipper’s rhythmic edits of video-viral clips of kids dancing visually reinforces the rhythm of the song. B By doing this, the artist  points to the way content on the web tends to self-replicate – the reason why the metaphor of ‘the viral’ – played out as dance fads and the hundreds of ‘answer’ videos that users’ uploaded daily – is so aptly applied to YouTube as a phenomenon.

Kidder’s videos provide a glimpse into YouTube’s labyrinthine grandeur. His comment that the data – a lot of it sourced from YouTube – elicits this response from him, is a reflection on the awe-inspiring amount of material that is available to be viewed at the site. It is also suggestive of the way that certain entities on the web are manifesting characteristics of an emergent intelligence.

The standard example of what a properly defined emergent intelligence looks like is provided by the social world built by ants. Possessing only the most infinitesimal of mental capacities, these insects work together to create a second level intelligence: the exceptionally well-run entity that is ant society. Strictly speaking, the web at this stage of its development is far too heterogeneous to meet the criteria of an emergent intelligence. But still, it makes sense to suggest that there lurks within the myriad of hands that continually contribute to the social world comprised by YouTube a kind of autonomous intelligence that wants to be organised into a second level of meaning.

Somewhere within the dynamic tension that exists between its excess and its accessibility, the web offers its users the tools for potentially profound moments of self-reflection on their use of the medium itself. For instance, the numerous Flash Mob tributes to Michael Jackson available on YouTube in the wake of the pop star’s death function like a metaphor for this possibility. Organised via the web and instant messaging, each such tribute is filmed in public space from a high-enough angle to facilitate the pattern recognition that is central to the meaning of the event.

Choreographed with the idea that the individual movements of a few dancers will ripple out, so that within minutes the whole crowd is moving in unison, the Flash Mob dance event creates itself in the very image of the self-organising entity – ie web culture. In this way, it performs the function often attributed to contemporary artworks – to provide a framework of intelligibility for tendencies in the culture as a whole.

The ant-YouTube analogy has further application in that it suggests a demotion of the individual in favour of the many. In this sense, YouTube makes good on Joseph Beuys’ faith in the universal potential of human creativity. Absorption of the one into the many also provides a fair description of the art world today – as it functions, if not how it currently sees itself.

If the phenomena generated by the web do what art is supposed to do, only better, then at the very least this should expand and clarify the definition of what art is – but it also has the effect of relegating much of the activity that currently takes place within the art context proper to the status of mere mannered relics of a bygone age.

The author would like to thank Ann Dean, Willy Le Maitre and Jacob Wren for their comments on this article.

Jib Kidder’s music can be purchased at: http://www.statesrightsrecords.com/

Originally published, September 2009 at the now defunct site apengine.org

The AGYU is opening a major new art gallery in North York

Still in the early planning stages, the $8 million standalone gallery will be located steps from the York University subway station

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER JANUARY 12, 2020

R.I.S.E., AGYU, Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca,
The agYU commissioned Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca’s 2018 video RISE, which was shot in the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension. Courtesy of Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro

The Art Gallery of York University (agYU) wants to make North York a destination for art lovers.

Thanks to a $5-million donation from patrons Joan and Martin Goldfarb, York University is planning to build a standalone new home for its contemporary art gallery.

Still in early planning stages – the search for an architect has yet to begin – the new agYU location will be adjacent to the current gallery in York’s East Accolade building, just steps away from the York University subway stop. 

“The new gallery gives the agYU an opportunity to expand its art collection,” explains agYU director Jenifer Papararo, adding the school is pitching in $3 million toward the building. “The current collection is limited mostly due to limits in storage.”

Papararo, a Torontonian who recently returned to the city to lead the agYU after stints running galleries in Vancouver and Winnipeg, will head up the project. She hopes the new building will be open in two years.

It’s not confirmed yet whether agYU will continue to occupy the current gallery after the new one opens, she says. Details around the new location also have to be worked out. 

“Decisions have not been made yet about how the building sits in this location,” says Papararo.

“The gallery’s location on the subway [line] is huge,” says Toronto-based museum planner and consultant Gail Lord. “And the accessibility of North York to the rest of the province is very important.”

Lord sees the initiative as contributing to an ongoing democratization of the arts across the city. Recent developments include the city’s new public art strategy, which will get a big push in 2021, and annual art event Nuit Blanche’s forays into Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York.

She notes the new gallery will join the Ontario Science Centre, the Aga Khan Museum and the Meridian Arts Centre as North York venues with an arts focus.

“The data tells us the more art presented, the bigger the arts audiences,” she adds.

York University TTC subway station
A standalone art gallery at York University subway station would make the area more of a destination. Photo: Samuel Engelking

Before the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension opened in 2017, getting to York University was an arduous journey for students and gallery goers reliant on public transit.

The new subway stop meant the commons space situated just beyond the entrance has become more animated. An art gallery would only make it more of a destination.

“The new building could break out into this space,” Papararo says. “It has the potential to be a focal point of the campus.”

How might the new gallery fit in with the York’s large, brutalist concrete structures, which were built in the 1960s?

Newer buildings tend to stand out as experiments in new architectural styles, a sometimes risky gamble. The Bergeron Centre, home of the Lassonde School of Engineering, is one such example on the York campus, with its modish curves and showy glass facade. When asked if there’s an opportunity for the school to build an iconic architecture, Papararo’s response was measured.

“The architect’s vision shouldn’t fight the use,” she says.

It’s a consideration that has special relevance to an art gallery. The building should not overwhelm visitors’ ability to experience artwork. “It’s important to picture the body in front of the artwork,” Papararo says, “and the building should also be situating the viewer within the experience.”

Getting bodies in front of artwork is a challenge all galleries face.

Papararo’s predecessor was writer/curator Philip Monk, who helmed the agYU for 14 years. Along with senior curator Emelie Chhangur, he made community outreach an integral part of programming – not just token gestures toward inclusivity.

Under Chhangur, the agYU commissioned a short film by artists Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca and Scarborough collective R.I.S.E. that was shot in the Toronto-York Spadina subway extension. It screened at the Toronto Biennial of Art last fall and is currently exhibiting at the Jumex Collection in Mexico City.

The agYU’s current programming includes a collaboration with R.I.S.E. Edutainment, which kicked off with a series of arts-based workshops for youth at the Malvern public library. They will take place through June.

The agYU opened in 1988 and moved into its current 3,000-square-foot space in 2006. The gallery served as commissioner for Rodney Graham’s celebrated 1997 Venice Biennial and has had a strong publishing program. Especially under Monk, the agYU has focused on exhibitions that  document the history of the Toronto art scene. Major shows have included The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic, and DONKY@NINJA@WITCH by FASTWÜÜRMS.

The university’s Keele campus is also home to a Centre For Fine Arts, established through a donation from the Goldfarbs in 2001.

@rosemheather

Nine art exhibitions to be excited about in 2020

Look out for shows by Laurie Anderson, Michael Snow, Wendy Coburn, Tau Lewis and Nuit Blanche’s move into Etobicoke and North York

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER JANUARY 2, 2020

Art, OCAD, Wendy Coburn, Toronto, Slut Walk
Wendy Coburn’s UHAUL Suite, a giclee-print photograph from 2012. Photo: Courtesy of the Estate of Wendy Coburn/Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto

It’s fitting that a Michael Snow survey exhibition kicks off Toronto’s 2020 art season. The influential Toronto-born multimedia artist’s practice has been a baseline for contemporary art in the city for an incredible 70 years. A marvel of productivity – and longevity – Snow deserves much of the credit for the sheer eclecticism of formats and styles that comprise contemporary art today.

As artists like Snow made increasingly experimental and challenging work, the venues where art is shown also expanded. All-night art event Nuit Blanche, which will take place in North York and Etobicoke for the first time this year, is possible because artists have an ability to consider any venue as suitable for showing work. The annual event is part of a wider push to grow art audiences in the city, which includes a major emphasis on public art in 2021. In the meantime, Torontonians have plenty of mind-expanding options in the coming year. Here are our most-anticipated shows.

Laurie Anderson: To The Moon

Royal Ontario Museum, January 11-25

Like Snow, American avant-garde artist and composer Anderson is another influential name with a long track record of experimentation, to great success, across a range of art forms. This winter, she’s exhibiting a VR artwork made in collaboration with Taiwan’s Hsin-Chien Huang. The 15-minute experience is an immersive trip into outer space, and through the DNA of dinosaurs. Anderson is also performing a sold-out show at Koerner Hall, giving a lecture and screening her film Heart Of A Dog at Hot Docs Cinema during her visit to Toronto.

rom.on.ca

Listening To Snow: Works By Michael Snow

Art Museum, University of Toronto, January 18-March 21

The sheer scope of 91-year-old Snow’s practice allows galleries to experiment with the presentation of his work like this exhibition, which focuses on the artist’s use of sound. Sound installations, two recordings and a film will create a sonic experience within the space of the gallery. U of T’s Innis Hall will also screen three of Snow’s most celebrated films, including his landmark 1967 short, Wavelength. Snow will also give a solo piano performance in the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery on March 21.

artmuseum.utoronto.ca

Naufus Ramírez-Figueroa: Asymmetries

The Power Plant, January 25-May 10

Absurdist and mordant humour, often about the civil war his family fled when he was a child, infuses the work of this Guatemalan-Canadian artist. Something of a superstar internationally, this is his first major exhibition in Toronto. It will mostly include works from the past decade, as well as a newly commissioned work based on the cacaxte, a ladder-like tool used in Latin America for carrying objects on one’s back.

thepowerplant.org

Tau Lewis

Oakville Galleries, January 26-March 22

Currently on a tear through the international art world, Toronto-based Lewis is a self-taught prodigy. With a focus on “telling stories about Black identity,” Lewis creates gallery installations in which multiple figures and their accompanying landscapes and backdrops are sculpted from found textiles and other materials.

oakvillegalleries.com

Krista Belle Stewart’s 2019 installation Truth To Material.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist/Sean Fenzl

Fatma Bucak and Krista Belle Stewart

Museum of Contemporary Art, May 1-June 2

Part of Contact Photo Fest, this show presents the two artists’ work in dialogue. Kurdish-Turkish artist Bucak shows photos from an ongoing series, still lifes of found objects taken from border landscapes (including Syria-Turkey and U.S.-Mexico). Stewart, a member of the Syilx First Nation and now based in Berlin, presents work about the artist’s investigation into “Indianers” – the notorious German hobbyists who enact a fantasy of Indigeneity each summer.

museumofcontemporaryart.ca

Fable For Tomorrow: A Survey Of Works By Wendy Coburn

OCAD Onsite Gallery, May 13-October 3

This is a posthumous exhibition of work by the much-loved influential artist and OCAD University professor, who died in 2015. For those introduced to her work through the mind-blowing investigative video Slut Nation: Anatomy Of A Protest – documenting the world’s first SlutWalk protest in 2011 – this survey will provide an excellent chance for Toronto audiences to better understand Coburn’s wide-ranging art practice and activism.

ocadu.ca

Vector Festival

InterAccess and other venues, July 16-19

This festival, which showcases art about digital technology, takes place online and at venues across the city. For the eighth edition, the festival asks what happens after the gamification of everyday life – how do artists respond to tech’s ability to engineer our behaviour? The deadline for art and curatorial proposals responding to this theme is February 1.

vectorfestival.org

Nuit Blanche

Various venues, October 3

The annual all-night art event keeps getting bigger. Judging by the crowd sizes, its expansion to Scarborough (starting in 2018) has been a huge success. Next up: moves into North York and Etobicoke. The event has also appointed Dr. Julie Nagam as artistic director for the next two years. Nagam is planning a city-wide exhibition focused on Toronto’s ravines and waterways. By connecting exhibits via the city’s historical trade routes, visitors will enjoy an entirely different experience of the city.

toronto.ca

Kristiina Lahde: Follow A Curved Line To Completion And You Make A Circle

MKG127, November 21-December 19

A coolly inventive artist, Toronto’s Lahde makes delicate, geometric artworks using everyday items like wooden rulers, envelopes or paper clips. Her upcoming exhibition promises more of her precise minimalistic abstractions, with a focus on circular sculptural works, including circles discovered in found items and the “zeros clipped from advertising flyers.”

mkg127.com

@rosemheather

Look closer at the Toronto Man sculpture on St. Clair West

German artist Stephan Balkenhol’s polarizing public art work bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s globalized reality on its sturdy shoulders

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 17, 2019

Photo: Samuel Engelking.

It was always going to be controversial. A 25-foot-tall sculpture of a man cradling a condo, standing on multi-coloured cubes. Commissioned by the developer Camrost Felcorp and made by celebrated German artist Stephan Balkenhol, Toronto Man (2019) is one of the city’s newest public artworks. It got a mixed reception when it was unveiled in August.

Balkenhol spends his time living between Meisenthal, France and Karlsruhe, Germany, where he teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts. He’s been a commanding presence on the European art stage for decades, and the work is the sculptor’s first commission in North America.

NOW spoke with Balkenhol by email over a number of weeks this fall. His comments made clear why he thinks his work has sparked dialogue: The sculpture is just a pretext for a conversation Toronto needs to have with itself about rapid development in the city.

Where to find it

Located at 101 St. Clair West and facing the street, the work is part of a three-condo development complex on the site of the former Imperial Oil building. It has provoked consternation ever since it went on display: here is the invasion of the city by developers made literal. Is the artist mocking us? Toronto Man inspired a social media debate, with one Twitter user noting that it represents “a certain class dominance over the society that is supposed to be diverse and multicultural.” It’s a fair summation of the ambivalence the work has prompted.

Why it stands out

Toronto Man is big. At 25 feet in height, it’s not at human scale. When asked how he decided on the size of the work, Balkenhol called the sculpture “big, but not too big.

“The location on the street in front of the high buildings demands a certain height of the sculpture,” he said. “It was meant to be a kind of landmark and should be perceived [by] the people driving on the road as well for those who walk by.”

The rough-hewn surface of Toronto Man is characteristic of Balkenhol’s practice. Using a carving style that dates back to the Middle Ages, he hacks and chisels his figures out of single blocks of wood. Casting the figure in bronze and adding a coat of paint is the artist’s contemporary update on this tradition. At the same time, the rustic look conveys a message about the technique’s medieval origins.

The figure of a standing man wearing slacks and an open collared shirt often recurs in Balkenhol’s work. A Twitter comment noted that Toronto Man has “a Soviet messianic look in his eye.” Is the figure some kind of new New Soviet Man? Or, more likely, John Galt, the libertarian architect hero of Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged? In the book, Rand conflates architecture with a maverick world-building that cares not for the destruction it leaves in its wake. Torontonians could be forgiven for feeling that developers are equally disruptive, given the impact of condo development on city life.

But this reading falls short of seeing the sculpture as a whole. The cubes at the Man’s feet are as important as the building he is holding.

Who exactly is Toronto Man? “This guy in Toronto is a nobody in an everybody – he could be you,” says Balkenhol. “This sculpture invites you to take his place and hold the tower [while] standing on the coloured cubes.”  

The cubes are a decisive detail. On a traditional sculpture, the pedestal separates the viewer from the figure it represents. The base of Balkenhol’s work suggests a more playful invitation.

That said, Balkenhol makes clear that seeing the man as a developer is not a misreading.

“I don’t want to illustrate stories but invite people to invent some by looking at my sculptures,” he says. “I do make proposals but don’t tell a story myself up to the end.”

Vice writer Mack Lamoureux couldn’t decide if the work was intended as a celebration of developers’ hold on the city or as an indictment of it. Is the “sculptor shitting on the developers for gentrifying cities by putting up some ‘luxury condos,’” he asks, while conceding “there’s also the real possibility that the developers are in on the joke.”

Balkenhol said in a 2014 interview: “It is the viewer who fills it with meaning. Astonishingly enough, many beholders can hardly bear this ‘openness.’”

Photo: Samuel Engelking.

The bigger picture

In the last decade, Toronto has been utterly changed by condo development. The skyline is more glossy, the population is bigger and rental prices keep going up. All of this is rolled up into one big, 21st-century package of globalization.

The Yonge + St. Clair BIA is also pushing to raise the profile of the neighbourhood and make it more of a destination. Public art is a big part of the strategy. Other recent projects include an eight-storey mural by Sheffield, UK street artist Phlegm and the pop-up Tunnel of Glam, an 80-foot long tunnel of sequins running to January 6.

More broadly, the city has a policy that requires a percentage of large-scale development projects go toward public art. Until Toronto Man, no public work has been funded through that program while overtly commenting on the city-building phenomenon that made it possible. Toronto Man bears the heavy weight of Toronto’s new lived reality on its sturdy, capable shoulders.

Look Closer is a column in which a writer visits public art or an art exhibition and explores why a specific work jumped out at them. Read more here.

@rosemheather

The best of Toronto’s art scene 2019

Our picks for the year’s top exhibition, performance, film program, new art spaces and more

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 10, 2019

Artist Althea Thauberger and composer Kite’s collaborative performance of with the brass and reed band of the HMCS York was a highlight of the year. Photo: Gillian Harris / Toronto Biennial of Art

This year, Torontonians saw a new vision of the city thanks to the Toronto Biennial of Art. The inaugural, 72-day event was a thoughtful if low-key blockbuster that spanned several sites along Lake Ontario. Curators Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien, brought an outsider’s perspective on the waterfront as a site of rich thematic potential. They commissioned a video by New Mineral Collective, a group of artists based in Tromsø, Norway, that revealed the innate strangeness of Ontario Place, a view local curators may have missed.

Homegrown artists are typically under-represented in the international art world, but current and former Toronto residents are changing that. Brendan Fernandes was the star of this year’s Whitney Biennial in New York; Berlin-based Stephanie Comilang won the Sobey Art Award; and the prolific sculptor Tau Lewis exhibited in Miami, Los Angeles and Yorkshire.

Meanwhile, the Art Gallery of Ontario’s new pricing scheme – free admission for visitors 25 and under and a $35 annual pass – is here to stay, making one of the city’s biggest museums a bit more accessible. The city is following suit, firming up plans to expand Nuit Blanche to North York and Etobicoke, part of a commitment to ensure public art works are installed across the city, and not just downtown.

Here is our list of the best Toronto’s art scene had to offer in 2019.

Best Art Performance

Althea Thauberger & Kite, Call To Arms at Toronto Biennial of Art

Vancouver-based Thauberger and Montreal composer Kite collaborated with the brass and reed band of the HMCS York, a reserve division of the Royal Canadian Navy located at the foot of Bathurst, on this remarkable performance.

Call To Arms (which was also presented as an installation work) saw conch shells used as instruments to play a musical score based on the Fibonacci sequence (each number is the sum of the two previous numbers). The score echoed the conch’s nautilus shape, which the musicians further echoed while walking in a slow procession to the centre of a spiral. The coordination of two groups of people that rarely work together (artists and the military) was the point and executed to sublime effect.

Best Film Program

Drowned World at Cinesphere, curated by Charles Stankievech for Toronto Biennial of Art

Artist Stankievech made resplendent use of the Cinesphere’s giant IMAX screen with a five-hour film odyssey during the Biennial that included works about the deep sea, water, and islands. The result was a truly immersive experience.

Casting the Cinesphere as a monument that embodies both ambition and decline, the artist’s accomplishment is also notable for envisioning such a resonant use of the Cinesphere – turning the theatre into a holistic space for visual and sound installation in a way we haven’t quite seen before. A highlight was the audio work For Ann (Rising), from the 1969 composition by James Tenney. Based on the auditory phenomenon known as the Shepard tone (the illusion of a sound that is continually rising), this new version in multichannel sound proved how perfectly suited the Cinesphere is for immersive art, not just retro blockbusters.

Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers (2011/2014), a chromogenic-print photograph with tape, postage and ink, was on display at Ryerson Image Centre as part of a survey show. Photo: Courtesy the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; greengrassi, London

Moyra Davey’s Subway Writers (2011/2014), a chromogenic-print photograph with tape, postage and ink, was on display at Ryerson Image Centre as part of a survey show. Photo: Courtesy the artist; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne/New York; greengrassi, London

Best Art Exhibition

Scotiabank Photography Award: Moyra Davey at Ryerson Image Centre

There was an off-the-cuff virtuosity to the work New York-based Canadian photographer Davey presented in this expansive survey show. Her colour-saturated photo-mail-artworks were the most stunning. Davey took intimate snapshots of people on the subway, or ultra close-up images of pennies, folded them up and mailed them to people in her life. The resulting works were presented with fluorescent tape she used to fold and pack the photos, making for a compelling visual puzzle. Once decoded as mailing remnants, the works cannily vacillated in meaning between their past lives in the postal system and newfound status as art on the wall.

Best Symposium

What Do We Mean When We Say “Content Moderation”? at Art Museum, University of Toronto

Organized by designer/curator Pegah Vaezi as part of her Master of Visual Studies degree at the University of Toronto, this symposium asked essential questions about how art and activism are affected by the web.

How to make web-based artworks was not at issue – instead, the discussion focused on what an ethical internet would look like. Panelists included the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Jillian C. York and Jonathon Penney from U of T’s world-renowned cyber-security think tank Citizen Lab. A presentation by Montreal artist Skawennati, cofounder of the Aboriginal Territories in Cyberspace project, lightened the event’s dystopian vibe with a reminder that the idealistic goals of the early internet are still within reach.

Best Curatorial Initiative

The Black Curators Forum

The goal of this three-day event organized by the AGO and the Power Plant was to bring together Black curators from across the country, strengthen networks, excavate forgotten Black art made in previous eras and provide support to young Black artists in the present.

“While there is Black Art in the U.S. and the UK, it’s only just emerging in Canada,” writer and Canadian Art associate editor Yaniya Lee tells NOW. “Canada as a nation-state still thinks of itself as European. In actuality, Black people have been part of this settler colony for over 400 years.”

She adds that the forum ended up being “very practical. After thinking and theorizing about these issues, what comes next?”

he Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts co-founders Jeff Bierk and “Jimmy” James Evans. Photo: Jeff Bierk.

Best Community Art Space

The Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts

Artist Jeff Bierk is known for his large-scale photo works made in collaboration with friends who live on the streets of Toronto. Run out of Bierk’s studio on Dupont, the Jimmy James Evans Friendly Meeting Place and Centre for the Arts is an extension of his art practice.

Since launching in late 2018, Bierk has made the space available, for free, as a drop-in centre, and for a host of events, including art exhibitions and workshops put on by the mental health non-profit, Regeneration Community Services (which resulted in an exhibition at the independent art space the Loon). The goal is to resist gentrification or, as Bierk says, to assert the value of “lives that are often erased in a profit-driven urban context.”

Best New Art Space

SUGAR Contemporary

Named for the nearby Redpath Sugar Refinery, this waterfront space launched in the fall. Curators Ala Roushan and Xenia Benivolski initiated the project so they could propose alternative formats for public artworks, which typically take the form of sculpture or mural.

Instead, SUGAR offers themed programs that invite the public to attend an ongoing series of lectures and performances. A three-year experiment partially funded by developer Daniels Waterfront, SUGAR is a way to continue having vibrant and eclectic dialogues about city life that unaffordable rent and housing costs are putting under threat.

@rosemheather

Toronto wants to make the year 2021 all about public art

The city is revamping its public art strategy for the first time in 30 years, but Doug Ford’s developer-friendly Bill 108 is causing uncertainty

BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 4, 2019

After a move to Scarborough, city-run art event Nuit Blanche will expand to North York and Etobicoke in 2020. Photo: Samuel Engelking.

Toronto has declared 2021 “the Year of Public Art,” but new legislation proposed by Doug Ford is already causing uncertainty.

Mayor John Tory announced the city will update its public art strategy for the first time in around 30 years.

“We want to grow Toronto’s reputation as a creative city,” he said during a press conference on November 18, adding that the inspiration for the 10-year strategy – which delivers on one of his 2018 campaign promises – was a 2017 study led by OCAD University president Sara Diamond and University of Toronto associate professor of sociology Daniel Silver.

“This is a rare example of academic recommendations being put into action,” said Diamond, an advisor on the new strategy, at the press conference.

The 2017 study called for an update to the city’s existing public art policy, which was drafted in the 1980s. The program’s costs will be determined through the city’s 2020 budget process, and the proposed strategy will be considered by the city’s Executive Committee on December 11.

Tory noted that since 2017 the city has delivered on its goal of investing $25 per capita in the arts.

The public art strategy took the OCAD study as its starting point and added to that an extensive process of city-led consultation with the arts community, stakeholder groups and an advisory committee.

According to the proposed strategy, the city will coordinate an overall vision for Toronto’s public art offerings and ensure art is evenly spread out across the city. The idea is to create more landmarks, like the dog fountain at Berczy Park, that can foster stronger neighborhood identities and a deeper sense of belonging.

Another recommendation is better integration between public art and city planning, including coordination of how pieces might work together in dialogue with one another. The study also advises the city to broaden its definition of public art to include temporary works – basically, public art pop-ups that might include performances or screen-based works.

At the press conference, the mayor talked about Toronto Man, the controversial sculpture on St. Clair West by German artist Stephan Balkenhol. “I felt joy to see the debate that this work has inspired,” he said.

He added that art plays a role in branding a city’s identity. “I visited Austin,” he said, “to try and understand how that city got its reputation as a creative hub.”

Fostering Toronto’s reputation as a similar hub is a goal that lies behind the new strategy.

However, incoming provincial legislation from Doug Ford’s arts-averse conservative government could complicate the strategy.

Late last year, the Tories cut the Ontario Arts Council budget cut by $5 million, and chopped more than $2 million from the Indigenous Culture Fund, effectively eliminating it.

Now the premier’s developer-friendly Bill 108 jeopardizes Toronto’s ability to obtain benefits such as public art from developers.

To date, “developers are responsible for over 300 public art projects getting built,” councillor Gary Crawford, one of the leads on the Year of Public Art’s advisory committee, noted during the press conference.

The city runs three public art programs, including the Percent for Public Art Program, which mandates that one per cent of a new development’s cost is budgeted for public art initiatives. New commissions are funded by developers on a per-project basis and administered by the city.

Bill 108 puts the future of the program in doubt.

The Percent for Public Art Program dates back to the mid 80s, but the last 15 years saw the majority of new projects built thanks to the explosion of condo developments. Though the rate of new condos developments is slowing, the first quarter of 2019 saw 242 condominium projects constructed, an all-time high for the city, according to Urban Toronto.

“The province has replaced development-related revenue and benefit tools with the community benefits charge,” a city spokesperson told NOW. “The impact on the city’s Percent for Public Art Program is unknown.”

However, others see less reliance on developers for public art funding as a good thing.

“If [Bill108] helps to uncouple public art from condo development, this would be a positive effect,” says Rebecca Carbin, a public art consultant who advised on the city’s strategy. “One goal of the strategy was to look at other sources of funding. Currently the city’s dependence on developers creates public art deserts.”

Ensuring that public art is evenly spread out across the city is one of the strategy’s goals. Carbin notes the majority of new major public art commissions are concentrated in the core. The suburbs are home to many street mural projects, but the exact number of these and other works is a question that will be answered by a newly announced public directory of projects.

But public art is more than sculptures and murals. “One-hundred-year monuments and one-night events” are also considered public art, says Carbin.

At the press conference, the mayor made clear his commitment to the latter format, announcing that annual all-night art event Nuit Blanche will expand to Etobicoke and North York in 2020. The previously downtown-centric initiative branched out to Scarborough over the last two years.

The Year of Public Art will also be supported by new funding opportunities for artists, administered through the Toronto Arts Council (TAC). There will be grants of up to $20,000 for Nuit Blanche projects and up to $50,000 for Year of Public Art projects.

Given that Percent for Public Art Program budgets are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the TAC grants will cover only a portion of an ambitious art project. As such, major art institutions like the Toronto Biennial of Art and the Power Plant will partner to help raise funding.

While new money to make art is always welcome, how artists will  continue to afford to live in the city was not discussed at the mayor’s press conference.

Giving funds to public art initiatives is an easy concession developers can make. This allows them to expand the terms of a building project in the face of opposition. Working with artists helps to burnish their image, and Toronto condos are increasingly home to some impressively ambitious projects like Balkenhol’s sculpture or Israeli artist Ron Arad’s monumental work at Yonge and Bloor, Safe Hands.

But many people who make art may not be able to afford a unit in these buildings. A November 2019 report says that the average rent in Toronto is now $2,350 for a one-bedroom apartment. As a next step, Mayor Tory could declare 2020 as the Year of Affordable Housing.

@rosemheather