Session 1. Urban Art Histories

Convened by Johanne Sloan, Professor, Concordia University and Deputy-Director, Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art.
Report completed by Tobias Ewé, Doctoral researcher, Department of Art History, Visual Art & Theory, University of British Columbia.

Moderator Johanne Sloan opened the first session, entitled Urban Art Histories, by addressing how art and urban culture intersect in specific and distinctive ways across Canadian cities. This emphasis on urban art history is evident in a number of exhibitions, biennales and conferences in recent years, including Intertidal: Vancouver Art and Artists (Antwerp, 2005); My Winnipeg (Paris, 2011) and Plug In (Winnipeg, 2013), La Biennale de Montréal (2014, 2016), and the This is Paradise: Art and Artists in Toronto conference (Justina M. Barnicke Gallery and University of Toronto Art Centre, 2015). Laying the groundwork for the conversation, Sloan asked: “Can urban art histories supplant regional or national (or nationalist) art historical narratives? What aspects of a city’s history, built environment, neighbourhoods, social context, economic development or demographic changes are most relevant when constructing this history? How might urban art histories be inscribed within an increasingly globalized art-world? What urban theories and concepts—ranging from Henri Lefebvre’s ‘urban revolution’ or Jane Jacobs’s ‘art of the street’ in the 1960s, to more recent notions of the ‘networked city,’ ‘urban citizenship,’ or ‘sanctuary cities’—might be brought to this discussion?” Sloan suggested that the city is more than a mere container for artistic practice; each city is distinctive and has the potential to supplant national narratives.

The two lead presenters were Luís Jacob (Artist and Independent Curator, Toronto) and Cynthia Hammond (Professor of Art History and Lead Co-Director of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling, Concordia University, Montreal). Jacob outlined his concerns about how the question of place is fraught with tension and entanglements, while Hammond focused on how critical place-based histories inform art history. Stakeholders at the table included: Peter Dykhuis (Director and Curator, Dalhousie Art Gallery, Halifax), Alice Ming Wai Jim (Concordia University Research Chair in Ethnocultural Art Histories, Concordia University, Montreal), Daina Warren (Director of Urban Shaman, Winnipeg), and Scott Watson (Director, Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery/Head, Art History, Visual Art, and Theory, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver).

Form Follows Fiction

The first presentation of the day was not a history of art from Toronto, but an analysis of how art in Toronto says something about the city it’s made in. Although Toronto is a global centre of finance and real estate speculation, it is also teeming with local narratives. Each area of the city has a different story. Mirroring the maxim “form follows function,” Toronto-based artist and independent curator, Luís Jacob showed how Toronto is formed by the fictions artists create around the city. Yet, as Jacob states; “Torontonians are constantly told that the art is not from here,” as if the city’s global aspirations negate the possibility for art practices grounded in their local milieu. Jacob pointed to a tension between the local art scene versus its placement in a globally orientated city. He does not wish to resolve this, since a certain truth is found in these tensions. What does this local vs. international split tell us?

One central aspect of Jacob’s analysis is the city’s need for novelty in the form of urban redevelopment in the name of commerce and cultural districts. “Everything is up for grabs; here today, gone tomorrow.” Jacob claimed that the flipside to Toronto's vibrancy is a historical amnesia, positing that maybe one of the reasons Toronto does not seem to have a fascinating history is that its past has been bulldozed over. As Jacob points out, this lack of historical perspective is not a recent fashion in Toronto but rather a constitutive force inherent to its foundation.

The Toronto Purchase was the surrender of lands in the Toronto area in 1787 from the Mississaugas of New Credit First Nation to the British Crown. Instead of using the natural topography of the land, the British surveyors chose to demarcate the borders according to a grid. As Jacob notes, the representation of the land as an empty quadrangle stretching up from the Lake Ontario shoreline is a symbol of forgetting and an erasure of what was already there. Although the space on the map of the Toronto purchase is blank was not empty. Jacob takes this erasure of the pre-colonial land as the motor of capital, stating that “dying so often and so soon is the driving force of neoliberalism, deeply inscribed into the colonial project.” The city’s amnesia was recently exemplified through plans for a new Toronto city hall building that bears a striking formal resemblance to the quadrangle of the Toronto Purchase.

The quadrangle, a rectilinear tool of enclosure, has often been used by artists to draw attention to their ambient surroundings, to demarcate a territory, or reprogram the perceived purpose of public spaces. Jacob talked of this repurposing of local spaces through the idea of entanglement, which he connected to The Tangled Garden (1916) by J. E. H. MacDonald. According to Jacob, the tangled garden is an oppositional idea: while entanglement invokes a sense of disorder and unruliness, the garden is a space of planned organisation. Jacob invokes the creative juxtaposition to speak to the complexities of urban art history; the tangled garden has a cultivated sense of order, yet an entangled liveliness. Living as an artist in Toronto is to live a life entangled with the social and creative scenes within which one is immersed. As Jacob says—referring to the tensions within Toronto’s sense of itself as a city—“entangled life is only apparent up close, while the skyline is best viewed from afar.”

As an example of this local entanglement, the show curated by Jacob, Form Follows Fiction: Art and Artists in Toronto (2016), featured artists visualising the Toronto art community. These artists produced self-fashioned images of an art scene looking at itself. In this feedback loop of representation and signification, the Toronto art scene refashions itself through its own self-understanding. The artworks in the show were at once self-reflexive and in dialogue with one another throughout the exhibition space. These articulations were not striving for consensus. Instead, they were attempts to make visible the complexities that make up an active art scene. As Jacob put it, “curatorial care is not about dissolving puzzles, but about opening them up.”

Urban Art Histories and the Right to the City

How can critical place-based histories inform art history? Cynthia Hammond, Professor of Art History and Lead Co-Director of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling at Concordia University, presented a range of examples of how critical pedagogies of space could be used by students outside of classrooms and how critical place-based histories can be decolonial in urban spaces. As Hammond writes in the abstract for her presentation, “if the city may productively be seen as a platform for the uneven expression of individual and collective ‘spatial agencies’ (Awan, Schneider, Till 2011), the urban art historian must also take into account the historical, social, and cultural specificities of the city in question.” According to Hammond, taking account of these specificities involves strategies for listening, hearing, recording, and accounting for presence through a critical place-based approach. As she said, “no site is empty” so urban art history must look closely and participate in the city to uncover its many lost histories.

The first example of a critical place-based approach to the urban environment referenced by Hammond was the Broadway Estate Community Garden in Tilbury developed in 2003 by the cooperative of artists, architects and urban designers muf architecture/art based in London, England. When responding to the call for designs to build a new public area by Thurrock Council, instead of a design, the collective proposed a research project to explore what hidden histories the space already held. This took the form of several creative experiments in the public estate and resulted in a new public area including a dressage arena for horses, since horses were already being brought to graze in the nearby fields.

Their example informed Hammond’s approach to her work with students in and around the historically working-class neighbourhood of Point-Saint-Charles in Montréal. Hammond discussed the visibility of institutions such as Maison Saint-Gabriel, now a well funded public museum in the Pointe. The original purpose of the building was to house les filles du roi, a group of young women who immigrated to New France under Louis XIV. Maison Saint-Gabriel stands as a preservation of local history but—as an emblem of European colonization—its centrality tends to obscure the fact that other histories, such as the presence of Indigenous peoples and the major historic phenomenon of deindustrialization, are underrepresented (to put it mildly). The institutional narrative is one of Franco-settler history and culture.

Hammond pointed to traces of collective action in Point-Saint-Charles, found in the remnants of Le Collectif CourtePointe, a grassroots women’s movement active in the 1960s and 70s. The goal of the collective was to restructure their environment from the ground up in a sense not too far from Henri Lefebvre’s idea that everyone has a right to the city. Yet, as Hammond states, the history of women's protests in the 60s and 70s is fragile. Due to the nature of political self-organisation in grassroots movements, little is written down and most evidence of its existence must be found in oral histories or gleaned from architectural remnants. One such remnant is the building that housed the former fire Point-Saint-Charles station, saved from demolition by Le Collectif CourtePointe in 1973 and afterwards turned into a library and community centre. Although the library still stands to this day, Hammond reported that municipal employee, a city councillor tasked with overseeing and facilitating a public consultation about the library with a view to a future expansion of the building, did not remember and outright denied the attempts to tear down the building in the early 70s.

Hammond also expressed an awareness of the potential negative consequences of creative research interventions in working class neighbourhoods. The dangers of accelerated gentrification caused by efforts to revitalise and modernise a neighbourhood is an all too familiar characteristic of this type of research. Hammond was therefore quick to point out a method inspired by the work of urban and cultural geographer David Pinder, who asks students and educators to question and explore social problems without prescribing solutions. In Point-Saint-Charles, projects carried out with the students included exploring the railway tracks and learning about the sonic history with Hammond’s supervisee Muriel Luderowski. Another highlight that Hammond focused on from her work with students in Point-Saint-Charles, was the 90-minute audio walk along the Lachine Canal organised by oral and public historian Steven High.

Indigenous Artist Run Centres: Urban Shaman Contemporary Aboriginal Art Gallery

After the two lead presenters, stakeholders presented on a wide variety of exhibitions, offering interjections that broadened discussion to the vast variety of issues facing Canada’s manifold urban art histories. Daina Warren was the first of the four stakeholders sitting at the round table to present. After an acknowledgement of her Akamihk Cree background, Warren spoke to the founding of the Aboriginal artist-run centre Urban Shaman, where she is a director, outlining the organization’s recent work and pointing out ongoing tensions between settler and Indigenous communities. Urban Shaman was created in 1996, by a group of Indigenous artists in Winnipeg, including Lita Fontaine and Louis Ogemah. Warren noted how exciting the recent period has been for Indigenous art in Winnipeg. With exhibitions, such as “Close Encounters: The Next 500 Years” (2010), featuring not only local indigenous artists but indigenous artists from across the world. Warren highlighted how for some time almost every show in Winnipeg has featured Indigenous art and exhibitions centering local indigenous artists, like “My Winnipeg,” have travelled internationally.

Which Montreal Is It? De quelle Montréal s'agit-il ? Three Curated Network Futures

Concordia University Research Chair in Ethnocultural Art Histories, Alice Ming Wai Jim, started her presentation by asking some foundational questions to herself and the audience; “Do I have stakes in this? Do I make claims?” Through examples of city-focused exhibitions, Jim raised the role of identity and cultural knowledge in curatorial practice, and warned that, if these elements are left unstated or underexplored, misrepresentations are bound to occur. As she stated, “Exhibitions about cities are often the curator's vision of what a city is or should be.” One example Jim brought to the table was Andrew Hunter’s This is Montréal! (2008). Jim said the show was not representative of her city but rather Andrew Hunter's city. Attempting to trouble these proposed or received historical narratives about a city Jim explored the connections between Asian diasporic and Indigenous communities across the Americas and what their experience of Canadian cities might be, examining artworks such as Montreal-based Mohawk artist Skawennati’s machinima series TimeTraveller™ (2008–13), about a Hunter, a young Mohawk living in Montréal in 2121, and Vancouver-based Chinese Canadian artist Karin Lee’s film, Small Pleasures (2016) set in the late 1800s in Barkerville, BC featuring three women (First Nations, Chinese, and European) who use the pre-colonial trade language of Chinook Jargon to convey to each other complex ideas about feminist resistance in late 19th century Canada. Lee’s film is based on the life experiences of the filmmaker's great-grandmother Tsang Ho Shee. In her graduate seminar “Aspects of Curatorial Practice: Curating Global Asian Indigenous,” Jim introduced her students to Lee’s exhibition QueerSUM 心 (2017), the title of which is a “Chinglish” play on words for “Queer Love” – “sum” means “heart” in Cantonese and the word for queer in Chinese 同性戀 has Sum 心 in it. Jim’s goal was to explore alternative points of contact between peoples as “a protocol to reconstruct the dominant idea of coloni­al first contact as having been only between Indigenous men and white malesettlers.”

Curating Halifax: Archival Knowledge

Director and Curator of Dalhousie Art Gallery, Peter Dykhuis, started his presentation by emphasizing the small gestures and chance operations that organise smaller galleries and archives. He described the “From the Vault” series of exhibitions started in 2015, prompted by Dykhuis taking a box of objects from the archive and sorting the content chronologically instead of alphabetically. Consisting of judicious purchases and generous donations from more than sixty years of Dalhousie Art Gallery’s existence, this new system laid bare the economic and directorial decisions made throughout the years. It also exposed how frugal spending led to interesting choices, such as the gallery’s exquisite collection of drawings. Yet the collection is lacking in other ways, as Dykhuis mentioned, “when you look back on the archives, it's very white.” Dykhuis also talked about his experience curating the 2017 The Halifax Explosion: 100 Years Later exhibition, exploring the impact of the 1917 maritime disaster in the Narrows, when the Norwegian vessel SS Imo collided with SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship laden with explosives. Rather than looking at the explosion from a military perspective, Dalhousie Art Gallery worked with artists, urban planners, social historians, cartographers, and artists to re-examine this definitive historical moment in the city’s history.

Curating Vancouver

Scott Watson, Director of the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, began his presentation remarking on “the importance of the term ‘unceded territory.’ Not land, but territory.” He added that it was Elder Grant who introduced the word “unceded” into the land acknowledgement, and vernacular of the University of British Columbia – the word was not decided upon by a committee, or a university, but from within the Indigenous community. The majority of Watson’s presentation dealt with what he called the ruins of process – how so much art and so many communities in Vancouver have disappeared and been lost over time. As Watson pointed out, in the 50s every artist lived in the suburbs in an architectural home, but by the 60s they lived in dilapidated old houses in the centre of Vancouver. Through research for an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery, Watson uncovered a report created by the Community Art Council about the art scene in Vancouver and a plan for what to do with the artists. The goal of this report was to transform “delinquent artists” into middle class working folk. If the city became the utopia in the 60s, then condominiums must surely be the opposite of utopian living according to Watson, who described the later as “self-built prisons for enslavement.” A mode of living counter to the freedom and rich history of squats in Vancouver.

Q & A

After the presentations, Johanne Sloan exclaimed that she was in awe of the interconnections that came up between all the papers and expressed surprise at how focused most of the papers were on historical consciousness. Sloan opened the floor to discussion between the presenters and participants, to give everyone a chance to speak to each other.

Martha Langford focused on the affective relationships to space and how thrilled she was about Dykhuis’s presentation, and how we can think cities in different places even if we haven’t been there. What Langford called “the being-there of space – the thrill and joy” of the urban. Dykhuis replied by saying that his relationship to The Halifax Explosion was always very personal, recounting a story from when he lived in Bedford. Through an historical document, Dykhuis had found out that he been jogging by Arthur Lismer’s house every day. Through that coincidence, Dykhuis felt that he got to know Lismer by walking in his footsteps and knowing the territory in a different way.

Speaking to the problem of a city’s erasure of history, Luís Jacob said that he thinks of a place as a structure that structures aspects of experience. The places we inhabit already have forms and structures built into them. The types of stone in Halifax shape the kinds of building that can happen there. If the materiality of Halifax were different it would influence the type of images one could produce, “you would have a hard time saying whether it was this or that place.” For Jacob, it is exciting to see how different people respond to the structure and structuring of different places and their histories. Referencing Bruno Latour, Jacob noted how places only provide us with fragments and hieroglyphs of their histories, which is all we ever get access to: “You know these traces mean something – you know it's a language – but what it says is not apparent.” So how do you narrate this? Sloan agreed that this is one of the most fascinating things about studying the city; everything is shifting all the time, which makes cities difficult to describe and forces us to think of art in the city as part of an ongoing process.

Cynthia Hammond notes how place is very much involved in what Raymond Williams calls “structures of feeling,” given that every Canadian city is so different. Yet Hammond quickly remarks that in Canada there is a “family resemblance” across all cities because of their shared colonial history. A viable methodology of urban art history would be able to access these structures of feeling in a way that is neither monolithic nor homogenous. To find ways to do this we have to be able to do so outside of any neo-colonial methods, as “The land is still in question, contested and for the most part unceded. As an example, Hammond brought up the ubiquitous billboards tempting people to move to Point-Saint-Charles, “a neighbourhood steeped in history!” Yet building developers have erased that history and are trying to capitalise on new possibilities of what the neighbourhood might become. These ongoing tensions make politicised work about the history of public space and the built environment urgently necessary.

At this point Maureen Matthews, Curator of Cultural Anthropology at the Manitoba Museum, asked “if there were any ideas around art education happening at the time,” mentioning the New School of Art in Toronto, which was associated with Rochdale in the ‘68-era. Jacob responded that he would love to research the bohemia scene in the Yorkville neighbourhood associated with music, and how that later morphed into the experimental student-run space Rochdale College, which then created offshoots that are still alive today like Theatre Passe Muraille, General Idea, Coach House Press, and House of Anansi Press. Jacob then asked, what cultural traces of these experiments in education and cohabitation remain? He posited that these educational-creative projects must have had influences in various places across Canada, suggesting a rhizome of arts-based educational spaces. Robin Simpson, heralded as the “Rochdale expert in the room,” commented that Rochdale is interesting because at the time there was a different sense of experimentation with reform across elementary and high schools that came up as a response to the anti-war movement, especially in the institutions connected to the university environment around University of Toronto. Rochdale is interesting as a pre-artist-run centre moment, in the early 60s for the particular sense of porousness and interconnection it encouraged between different types of education and alternative artist-run spaces—babysitting collectives, free clinics—which became more atomised in the 70s and 80s. From an art historical perspective, Simpson adds, these institutions compel us to think of art more broadly as social structures and networks of counter-institutions.

Alice Ming Wai Jim raised questions around informal networks and how urban centres might come into play as educational spaces, especially thinking about the potential of the many different Indigenous languages that intersect in cities. Jim addressed these concerns to Daina Warren, asking where these networks might go in the future? Warren replied by describing an example of an initiative started by one of her interns around language in the Urban Shaman gallery. The intern wanted to translate all the centre’s promotional materials and essays into the seven different Indigenous languages of Manitoba—a huge undertaking that Warren sees as a way for Urban Shaman to grow. This was not a project steeped in identity-based conversations, but rather an Indigenous led-initiative addressing relationships between place and language.