October 19, 2020 § Leave a comment
Helena Grdadolnik talks to Rosemary Heather
This interview is part of a series, commissioned by Markham Public Art on the occasion of their virtual public art summit Becoming Public Art: Working Models & Case Studies for Art in Public.
In What is a Public Art Master Plan? Helena Grdadolnik talks to Rosemary Heather about her work with Markham to make a Public Art Master Plan for the city, providing insight into this complex undertaking and what role the public plays in the process.
Helena Grdadolnik is a Director at WORKSHOP Architecture, where she leads the studio’s urban design and cultural projects. In this interview, Grdadolnik talks about her work with Markham to draw up a Public Art Master Plan for the city, a process that involves extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders—including artists, the public, city officials and staff, and private developers. The Master Plan was approved in the Fall of 2019, with the followup Implementation Plan approved this past Winter. How public art gets made and who, in addition to the artist, makes decisions about where it gets built and the form it takes is often an opaque process. With experience that includes creating Public Art Master Plans for the cities of Kingston and Newmarket, Grdadolnik provides insight into this complex undertaking and what role the public can play in the process.
What is a Public Art Master Plan?
I think when people hear “Public Art Master Plan” they think members of the public would really be involved in its development—and you do want that input and feedback on the vision for the Public Art Master Plan. But really so much is tied to details of how a City works. There are three things in most Master Plans—they differ from one city to another—but basically they are: the goals of the program itself where public input is important, then there’s the rules which, in City terms, are usually called policies, and there are the processes, like how things work in the city, who does what, who’s responsible for what, where the money comes from, all that. So when you look through this kind of document, although it has a lot of nice pictures and diagrams, a lot of it is just kind of “city speak”—stuff the City needs to figure out for how it’s going to run the program that crosses a lot of different departments. The task is to try to ensure quality and integrity in the decision-making process and make sure that who they’re hiring is a professional artist who may challenge ways of thinking, not someone who is just decorating the landscape.
So much of a Public Art Master Plan is inaccessible, or hard to understand because it involves the nitty-gritty of City work. One thing a master plan can do is set locations and budgets for a work. It’s disappointing when a master plan stops there—e.g., x marks the spot in five different locations in the city, and we’re going to spend $200,000 here and $1,000,000 there—because I think that really limits the artistic process if you make all these decisions before you get an artist involved. In Markham, people in the city have helped us decide those locations. Another thing is to set out the main goals—like, what is the city trying to do, why even have public art? Also, you always have to figure out where the money’s going to come from for a program, especially in the first couple of years, otherwise it’s not going to happen.
You might have heard of the Percent for Art Program? This stipulates that if you build a new building, one percent of the budget of that project is invested in an artwork on that site. Now, it could be that a good artwork gets made, but it also means that the work has to be in the location of a new building. It tends to be that new artworks appear in these locations where there is all this new development, and not necessarily where artists and community members might want to see new works.
The typical process that many cities follow is to hire an artist through an open call asking for examples of their previous work. From there, three to five artists are shortlisted. At that point, the artists are each required to work out in detail a proposal for an artwork without getting a chance to have any meaningful dialogue with the communities, including with the public art curator for the City, and then one of the proposals is selected by a jury.
This process is codified in a lot of City’s master plans as the only way to commission art. We have tried to move away from that and bring in more options for how to work with artists that better follow artistic practice and give opportunity to involve members of the public. Sometimes, yes it might be that open call, but other times it could be a curated process. In some cases, its by invitation because it’s a very specific project. Other times, it could be you’re sending out a call where artists can propose what they’d like to do and where. I think Vancouver has a good example of that, with their artist-initiated program.
Can you describe who the Public Art Master Plan is for?
Ultimately, it should be for the people who live, work and go to school in Markham. That’s the ultimate goal of any of these City plans. It’s not for the politicians, it’s not for the people who work for the City and it’s not for the artists. In some ways, it should support quality art and fair practices, so it is for artists in some ways, but it really ultimately is for the people; particularly, the Plan’s vision says local residents and visitors. So if you work in Markham but you live in Toronto, this plan should still work for you because it’s making places that are interesting for you to go to, and which are free to see. At the same time, to make quality artworks, we need to make it work for artists and the way they work. I think many plans miss this element of understanding how artists work. That said, it is a different type of process for making a public art piece than in a gallery setting, different types of people will look at your work every day on their way to work, for instance. At the same time, why bother having a public art program if you have this process that just makes the resulting art super safe and you don’t take any risks and you don’t challenge people at all, and it’s just decorative?
Why would it be less desirable to have a public artwork that is just decorative?
In terms of public art, do you want it to make you think? And do you want it to be more than a one liner of, say, oh that looks pretty. You don’t need artists involved to make something that’s prettier or eye catching. You can do that in other ways, whether that’s through landscaping, or whether that’s through building design, or the decoration on the outside of the building. The purpose of having an artist is to make you think a bit differently, to make you notice things. There’s a term in public art called “plop art”, which has a negative connotation, and which is this idea of just putting a statue on the corner of a building site and calling it a day. It is put there with no attachment to the community, it doesn’t really talk about anything about the site, you could have picked it out of a catalogue and then placed it there. I personally go back and forth on whether we should expect public art to be a more socially engaged process? Not always. But you need different ways to engage with how artists work if you’re going to have a program that is not just about making visually appealing work. I think there’s nothing wrong with something that is visually appealing, but it’s not the only aim. If you have a lot of public art in the city, you’re not going to always love every piece, but hopefully you love some of them and they go beyond just looking good in an Instagram photo. And maybe some of them you don’t like at first, but then they grow on you over time.
Part of the goal of a Master Plan is to get urban planners, developers, artists, elected officials and staff to be in alignment on the role public art can play in a city. Did you have input from any or all of these stakeholders when making your Master Plan?
Yes. With a Master Plan, I might have personal ideas of what I think is best but my job is to work with all these different departments and stakeholders and listen and try to make sure that we are making a plan that’s flexible and responds to the place. We had engaged the local developers that play a major role in development in the city, and the City’s urban planners, public realm and facilities staff were part of that process. It can be really hard because this document needs to balance and create consensus between a multitude of stakeholders. Then we also need to bring the public into moulding the plan’s vision and that can be challenging. But we did weave all of those voices and then try to make a workable plan. The first chapter in the Master Plan is the public art vision, which describes what the vision is, I’m reading: “Innovative Public Art will highlight the city’s unique characteristics and create new experiences and destinations through which local residents and visitors can engage with each other and the rich surroundings in Markham.”
Basically we are saying that the public art will be specific to the city and will give people new experiences. Then you get into objectives, and you always have trouble crafting the exact wording to speak to so many different perspectives. Many of these professionals know planning policy and understand the ramifications of a single sentence in an official plan that could really make a difference to what is asked from a developer. We had a public workshop and we got people to literally cross out the words in the first draft that they didn’t like and then we took the next draft to a public art advisory committee, which is mostly made up of residents in Markham, some of whom have art knowledge and some of whom don’t. They again picked through words and we went through a few more revisions. The vision sentence is always going to be aspirational and hard to pin down. The objectives need to get more tangible, (and again, I’m reading) to: “Inspire people to live in, work in, visit and invest in Markham; Celebrate the diverse cultures and heritage in Markham from multiple points of view; and Connect residents to Markham’s built and natural environment.” The plan states that every public art project needs to meet at least two of these objectives—to inspire, celebrate or connect. A work is not going to do all of these things every time; every piece of public art does not need to celebrate the diverse cultures of Markham, for instance. If you try to say it has to do all of these things every time you are getting to a weird point where the work does nothing. We can judge what an artist is developing based on these three things, but they don’t have to hit every point in every work.
The last element in the Master Plan vision is the Guiding Principles. There are seven of them and that’s where you make sure, for instance, that there’s quality control. One of these is “artistic excellence and innovation”. You want to make sure that you’re not getting just any artists, but the best artists. Another one is “protecting artist integrity, copyright and fair pay”, which is needed to protect artists’ interests. This is needed because when budgets get tight, like they are right now, the City might be tempted to say “Well, we are using this artist we found who will do it for free”. Instead of paying an artist that is really well-respected, we’re going to have this other person. So 1) that’s not meeting artistic excellence, and 2) it’s not fairly compensating artists for their work. Other points of quality control are “meeting accessibility standards” or “geographic reach”—making sure that public artworks are not only located downtown. Those are the elements in the Master Plan that are probably the easiest for people to understand who are not in the art world or in the City policy world. This means that when a person is starting in the Public Art Curator position and starting a project with staff from other departments, it makes sure that there are standards and objectives that can be referred to, without this detail getting lost in a 50-page document.
Did you have artist input on the plan?
Yes. We worked with the York Region Arts Council and the Markham Arts Council. They had helped us circulate the invite to a public event, as well as working through the public art advisory. As well, we did get input from artists from Markham, but I would say the number of artists we spoke to wasn’t that large. I would say, it could be better. As part of our public workshop, we had local artists and other art patrons on a panel to talk about their perspective and give their thoughts as well as an artist who has worked a lot in public art and was commissioned for a piece in Toogood Pond Park, by Mary Anne Barkhouse. She gave a great presentation in which she just talks about her perspective working on these projects, including what a city gets wrong in the process and how they could improve. There were a lot of people who work in city departments in the audience, so I think for them this was really helpful. So we had some artists that were engaged, though I would say that’s where generally Master Plans could be better but, as I said, the plan is not for artists, so engaging them is not the primary focus. We were also really lucky to be working with the Varley Art Gallery, based in Markham, and Yan Wu, Markham’s Public Art Curator. They already work with artists and have a lot of processes in place for working with and commissioning artists.
In a talk you gave you defined the goal of public art as “Letting you know that you’re in Markham” I love this idea. Another way to say it is: You’re creating landmarks. Do you strategize in this way so that you have a project that’s created at such a scale that it is iconic for the city?
No, every public art project doesn’t have to be iconic, every project doesn’t need to do the same thing. At the same time, the City of Markham is pursuing a “gateway strategy” that means, for instance, you are driving on the highway and how do you know you’ve gotten to Markham? Their thinking is that public art is one of the ways that you can make this kind of gateway. The easiest way doesn’t involve art, you could just literally make a big sign that says “Markham”. So you could consciously have a public art project where part of the stated goal is that the work is a kind of signpost. But I don’t think every project has to do this and I do think that some projects can do this in a subtler way, or that they aren’t intended as a symbol of a place, but become this over time. Ken Lum’s East Van sculpture, for instance, is a place maker that was a result of Vancouver’s artist-initiated public art program. The program wasn’t saying “We want a marker for East Vancouver, can you make one?” Ken Lum said he wanted to make a marker for East Vancouver and he decided where to put it. With a lot of other pieces, it’s the other way around. I think of Angel of the North in Northern England at the edge of Newcastle, which is this Antony Gormley piece that was intentional in making a landmark. That’s one thing you could do but there are other projects that I like that are just kind of quiet and almost hidden and small that maybe make you stop and notice something, redirect your attention to look on the ground. I personally tend to be less interested in the iconic pieces. I think they’re easier to conceive but don’t always have the same level of depth or staying power.
Recent trends are favouring more temporary works or digital screen based works. In your plan, do you make a recommendation for a balance between the two types, more traditional and the latter, and do you think temporary events like Toronto’s Nuit Blanche, for instance, could provide a model for Markham?
In the Master Plan, we included a few relevant case studies from similar-sized cities to get people to visualize what could actually happen within a public art program. Surrey B.C. has a lot of similarities to Markham. It’s a suburban community that is rapidly urbanizing but is close to a larger urban centre (in this case Vancouver) and it has a huge immigrant population who bring a different vision to the place and lots of good food. Surrey Urban Screens, for example, is a large screen on the side of a community centre featuring a rotating program of curated digital artworks. That was one suggestion we had for Markham as it bills itself as a “high tech capital”. The City has a lot of high-tech companies located there, which I hadn’t known before this project. So that was a question: Could they build on that branding? There were also many people we heard from living in the villages in Markham, who tend to want to mark the nineteenth century colonial heritage of the place. And we wanted to make sure that there’s some balance that that’s not the only thing that gets marked. We heard from other community members that they wanted to diversify the stories that are being told. And to tell the other stories that aren’t being told. There are segments that were very focussed on putting up monuments to the location’s heritage and see public art as only putting up these monuments. We also heard from people who were interested in looking at other aspects of the city. An example is the Rouge National Urban Park, it goes partially through Markham. National Park staff and non-profit Park People came to our meetings and brought the idea that, as the Trail Network is not complete, how do you make people know about the Park and when you are in it? Can you do something different that doesn’t involve a monument? In the Master Plan, we used the Münster Sculpture Project as a case study example. Could you have an event, like Münster, that would build up a program of public art overtime, that was more focussed on the wider national or international arts community coming to the place, but that also would be of interest to the local population and leave a legacy?
Thinking about the programming that Markham did over the summer, in a project called Delimit, people were invited to make a proposal for hypothetical artworks for sites in Markham, chosen partly by the public and partly by the curatorial team. There was no expectation that these would get built, which gave participants licence to dream big. Regardless, is there any chance that any of those projects could get made?
I was involved in the jury. Yes, some could be built, but I don’t think they will be. I’m probably not the right person to ask, and it wasn’t the intention that the City moves ahead with any of the projects. But I think the program was helpful, a lot of people have an idea about what public art looks like and this program had artists show people what different types of projects could look like, and the way artists think when considering a site. I think it was helpful in that respect, but I don’t think any of them went through a feasibility study determining if they could work on a site. For instance, is there a manhole underneath or will the proposed connections harm a healthy tree? To make artwork in public spaces there is a lot to consider. Many of the proposals would be doable, like the idea for temporary projections onto the Town Hall, but others would need more development and changes to make them work. There was a nice mix of artwork proposed, and I feel if you showed people the range that everyone would find one that they would really like, and also other things that they didn’t or that weren’t what they’re used to.
You’ve worked on the Public Art Master Plan for a number of cities, including Kingston, and Newmarket, what was different about Markham compared to these other jobs?
I would say the biggest difference is that Markham has someone, Yan Wu, who is the City’s Public Art Curator, and who is also working meaningfully in the art world. I think that’s really helpful for a real understanding and grounding in not just City processes but also art-making practices. An individual in that role can really be key to connecting all the different players and communities that have to be involved in a public art project. I think that really was helpful in the process of going through the Public Art Master Plan and also for what happens next and how the program is implemented. The other thing is that Markham is a really interesting mix of small-town, heritage sites and newly developed urban form. It has a really unique mix and differs in how people expect a suburban city to operate when compared with some of the other GTA cities around it, of a similar size. This creates interesting prospects for its future, which is why it’s important to make sure that the Master Plan makes recommendations to accommodate those different voices and perspectives.
Interview conducted by Rosemary Heather on September 24, 2020 as part of Becoming Public Art: Working Models and Case Studies for Art in Public, a nine-week virtual summit presented by the City of Markham in partnership with ART+PUBLIC UnLtd. Framed by current discussions happening at the intersection of contemporary art, public realm issues and urbanism, the summit features working models and case studies that address the challenges and opportunities faced by those working in this constantly evolving field.
March 10, 2020 § Leave a comment
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
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.
March 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
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
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.
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.
January 13, 2020 § Leave a comment
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
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.
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.
January 3, 2020 § Leave a comment
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
December 17, 2019 § Leave a comment
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
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.’”
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.
December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
Our picks for the year’s top exhibition, performance, film program, new art spaces and more
BY ROSEMARY HEATHER DECEMBER 10, 2019
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
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.
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?”
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
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.
December 16, 2019 § Leave a comment
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
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.
September 30, 2019 § Leave a comment
After learning their ancestors were adversaries, AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson explore what it means to personally reconcile Canada’s colonial legacy
A PUBLIC APOLOGY TO SIKSIKA NATION by AA Bronson and IINI SOOKUMAPII: GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER? by Adrian Stimson as part of TORONTO BIENNIAL OF ART Photo: Samuel Engelking
The paths of history can make for improbable crossroads in the present.
Take the case of AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson. The artists have a lot in common – both are queer and use performative personas in their practices. But the two discovered they had a deeper connection: the historical antagonism of their ancestors.
Bronson’s great-grandfather, the Reverend John William Tims, was an Anglican missionary from England who worked to colonize Siksika Nation, the territorial home where Stimson lives in Alberta. Bronson felt he could acknowledge this past with an apology. Seeking a connection with the Siksika people led him to Stimson, a meeting that proved serendipitous. In 1886, Tims founded the Old Sun Boarding School for Boys. The residential school was named after Stimson’s great-grandfather, a chief of the Siksika Nation, part of the Blackfoot Confederacy in Western Canada.
In a phone interview from his home, not far from the grounds of the now-shuttered school, Stimson agrees the coincidence is uncanny. “The Blackfoot believe in a higher power. It does give you the feeling that larger forces are at work.”
This encounter led to three years of meetings and discussion that is now coming to a head in Toronto. In response to their shared history, the artists have made dual works that debuted at the Toronto Biennial of Art. As part of their work, Bronson also apologized to Stimson in two performances on the exhibition’s opening days (September 20 & 21).
Addressing Stimson, the Siksika Elders and biennial visitors, Bronson gave a relaxed, measured and sometimes emotional performance of his text. Wearing ceremonial dress, Stimson noted in his introductory remarks that all members of the Siksika delegation present were residential school survivors. After thanking Bronson, saying, “We accept your apology,” Stimson went on to personally shake hands with and thank all members of the audience. This open-hearted gesture powerfully underlined the emotional gravity of the moment.
It’s one of the more high-profile projects happening as part of the mega-art event, which organizers hope will eventually develop a larger international pull, similar to the Toronto International Film Festival. There’s a special focus on venues located close to the waterfront, giving substance to the theme “What does it mean to be in relation?,” which encompasses how the city relates to the body of water at its doorstep.
Biennial senior curator Candice Hopkins, a member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation in the Yukon, originally introduced the men in 2016. “AA is moving into difficult territory in a way I haven’t quite seen before,” she says. “[The project] is not about the past, but setting a relationship for the future.”
By working together, she adds, the artists “bring a personal dimension to ideas of reconciliation.”
Adrian Stimson’s installation Iini Sookumpaii: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Photo: Samuel Engelking
To date, conversations around reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have primarily focused on government and institutional culpability. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 and this year’s final report by the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls make clear the devastating and ongoing impacts of colonization on Indigenous people.
During a trip to Winnipeg in 2010, Hopkins had the opportunity to attend the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation hearings. “I was struck at the time by how much emotional labour was put onto the backs of those who testified,” she recalls.
With A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, Bronson and Stimson are creating the conditions for a cultural reckoning: reconciliation in Canada is a shared responsibility.
Stimson expresses a similar idea about what the possible outcome of his work with Bronson could be. “To make change is to recognize that history. It’s a first step,” he says.
The two men first met in person under the glare of TV cameras while filming the CBC Arts documentary show In The Making. In an episode profiling Stimson’s work, the artists had dinner at his home with friends and elders from the Siksika reserve, some of whom are residential school survivors. Despite the initial awkwardness, Stimson describes the meeting as a “seamless first step in what would become three years of constant discussion.
“It was a generative process,” he adds. “Artists have their way of doing things.”
In the CBC show, he talks about their working relationship as part of a wider process of “rebuilding our histories together.” It’s not that Indigenous people just want settler Canadians to apologize, Stimson emphasizes. Rather, the simple request is being made that this historical legacy is acknowledged, so that the country as a whole can move forward together. These are the next steps that lie beyond artistic and ceremonial gestures.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a public dimension for the residential schools,” says Hopkins. “The land acknowledgments [that now precede most cultural events] came out of the TRC. But I want to see how this becomes actionable.”
A Governor General’s Award recipient in 2018, Stimson regularly exhibits in Toronto and has often performed as Buffalo Boy, a drag alter ego that takes a camp approach to macho stereotypes. The performance subverts the more threatening parts of masculinity to explore painful aspects of the past, for himself and his people.
Bronson, born in Vancouver and now based in Berlin, is a legendary artist whose career cuts a wide swath through the international art world. Starting out as a founding member of the renowned Toronto artist group General Idea in the 70s and 80s, the 73-year-old is a self-styled art shaman and healer. He founded the New York and Los Angeles Art Book Fairs, and was executive director of NYC art bookstore Printed Matter, a counterpart to Toronto’s Art Metropole, which General Idea founded in 1974.
General Idea had a kind of camp composite identity, a three-person art group (Bronson is the sole surviving member) known for arch commentary on the workings of their own aspirations for glamour and success.
Neither man’s artistic persona played a role in the apology at the Biennial. For this performance, Bronson knew he had “to strip down to his naked self.
“Making myself exposed for the sake of the apology was much harder to do than it would be if I was simply working in character,” he says. “The General Idea persona was embedded in a narrative.”
Self-mythologizing their lives as artists was a major early focus for General Idea. To make the apology, Bronson opted for what he calls a “declamatory approach.” It’s a different artistic tradition, one reserved for expressions of sincerity, as opposed to the ironic commentary that infused his earliest work.
Bronson’s work on this apology began when he was a child. “I have been hurtling towards this project for the last seven decades,” he writes in the opening sentence of A Public Apology To Siksika Nation, 14,000 copies of which are available as a free booklet at the main Biennial site on Lake Shore East.
In many ways, family legacy has shaped his existence. “I always planned to address this,” he says. In the text of his apology, Bronson writes: “We are a community of the living and the dead.”
“As a child, I felt the presence of spirits,” he explains. This continued into his adult life. “My intense experiences of spirit life were related to people who had died.”
His relatives passed down a story about an uprising against his great-grandfather on the Blackfoot reserve in 1895 that forced his ancestors to flee. On a 2015 visit to the archives in Calgary’s Glenbow Museum, Bronson discovered letters he had written to the museum in the 70s to request – unsuccessfully – documents about the uprising. At the time, his plan was to write a biography of Reverend Tims. He couldn’t confirm the uprising – it would remain hidden, mirroring the tendency among Canada’s official histories of settler relations with Indigenous people.
Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking
Stimson’s response (Bronson says their artistic partnership takes the form of a “call and response”) is a multifaceted installation that includes three large sculptures based on Blackfoot pictographs, a dining table set for 10 that features 10 small bronze bison sculpted by the artist. “Nine people were at the dinner where AA and I met,” he says. “I am adding the tenth setting for the ancestors.”
Also included are 68 photos taken from a family collection that feature boys who attended the Old Sun school. Used with permission, Stimson observes that the figures in these photos are “all our fathers from the Nation.”
Making tangible the connection between historical crimes and present political realities is part of the goal. Bronson describes the residential school practice of keeping children from their parents “very Trumpian.”
In his apology, the artist addresses an expansive range of people. Along with those on the Blackfoot Reserve who would have known and ultimately rebelled against Reverend Tims, Bronson addresses the people closest to him and his artistic collaborators. And he makes clear he also speaks to all political refugees, an acknowledgement that the colonial narrative continues in more ways than one: “the dispossessed and the abandoned… those who travelled across oceans but never made it to this safe haven of Canada.”
“When Bronson first reached out to me,” Stimson explains, “he was looking for someone to facilitate a connection with the Siksika Nation.”
Stimson describes himself as a “scout” reporting back to the Elders, and plans to arrange a private ceremony for Bronson to conduct his apology at the reserve.
Beyond merely “performing trauma,” Stimson sees Bronson as well-suited to the task, calling him “an agent of social change” because of the work he has done throughout his career as a representative of queer communities. General Idea is especially renowned for their activism during the AIDS crisis.
Noting that public discussion on Indigenous issues has taken steps forward in recent years, Bronson sees his participation at the Biennial as the beginning of a process. He does not simply want to perform an apology in front of an art audience. Asked about how he felt after the ceremony, Bronson said, “Having gone through it, I feel it is an ongoing process and I doubt I will have the real answer for some years.”
For his part, Stimson said “given the gravity of the apology” it needed to be him, and not his persona, who performed accepting it from Bronson. “The elders say ‘be humble, be generous,’” he says, adding that he is using the occasion to “put Buffalo Boy to bed,” as the logical conclusion of this phase of his work as an artist. “Every now and then Buffalo Boy has some sort of death, and then renewal,” he explains. “Putting him to bed lets us all have a little rest from his antics.”
Through art, the two men find a context that provides a useful – and non-confrontational – platform for people who are connected by past events to work through Canada’s cultural genocide and its continuing effects in the present.
Adrian Stimson’s “response” to Bronson’s apology includes 68 photos of boys who attended the Old Sun residential school, which was named after his great-grandfather. Photo: Samuel Engelking
“The apologies to the First Nations and Inuit peoples [by Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper, respectively] were important to the elders who were present. I can’t diminish that,” Stimson says. “But you need to walk the talk. What we are really looking for is systemic change.”
AA Bronson’s ancestors colonized Siksika Nation and were forced to flee in an uprising in 1895. Photo: Samuel Engelking