I am moved by my love for human life;
by the firm conviction that all the world
must stop the butchery, stop the slaughter.
I am moved by my scars, by my own filth
to re-write history with my body
to shed the blood of those who betray themselves
To life, world humanity I ascribe
To my people… my history… I address
– Lee Maracle, “War,” Bent Box 
To unsettle means to disturb, unnerve, and upset, but could also mean to offer pause for thinking otherwise about an issue or an idea. Unsettling, presenting the work of Lori Blondeau, Lisa Myers, Duorama, Basil AlZeri, and Terrance Houle, meditates on this idea, or with interfering with the space of the urban/suburban political and social life, and the history of the land now known as Scarborough.
Attempting to grapple with the weight of history, Walter Benjamin writes in his Theses on the Philosophy of History that “history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogenous, empty time, but time filled with the presence of the now." If the structure of the site of history is constructed through the now, there is no better moment to address the history of Scarborough, or for that matter of Canada, than the now. For Benjamin, the moments of the now in which our “now” connects to specific points in the past is not a smooth-flowing bridge to the past, but rather a collision between that past and the contemporary moment. These moments prompt illuminations about both contemporary time and historical time, disrupting the linearity and stillness of history.
Lee Maracle’s poem “War” offers a way into thinking about unsettling the stillness of history. “To re-write history with my body,” Maracle reminds us, is to offer one’s embodiment, one’s being-in-one’s-own-body, as a tool for rewriting history. In other words, Maracle’s very presence, her life, her witnessing-by-living as an Indigenous woman, is a form of rewriting settler-colonial history. The artists in Unsettling offer a similar form of interjection and witnessing by occupying the space of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, of the suburban Scarborough neighbourhood, and, more broadly, of Toronto and Canada, in order to offer – through their bodies and the presence of their work – another story of space and place. They start from an acknowledgement that the space where this exhibition is installed has a particular urban, social, and political Indigenous and non-Indigenous history that carries with it a number of difficult and complex narratives. Such narratives have been written and rewritten many times over, and now exist as deeply buried sediments underneath official language. The artists in the exhibition offer complicated, messy, alternative histories; they are interested in unsettling the linear story of Canada, and the clean, neatly packaged products of the mainstream. Each of the works in Unsettling is a form of excavation of the long-forgotten sediments of cultural and political phenomena around us: identity, politics of space, ghost stories and urban hauntings, cultural hierarchies of oppression, economic inequality, and ecological devastation. These alternative narratives create a space to pause and reflect, to think about both their – and our own – embodied existence on this stolen land.
Moreover, Unsettling is also premised on revisiting the notions of Modernity and its political and aesthetic exigencies. Scarborough is perhaps one of the quintessential sites of North American modernity. In the early twentieth century, Scarborough comprised a mixture of new urban dwellings along Kingston Road (then the major eastward highway) – older, upper-class leisure properties that reflected a Canadian appetite for mimicking the British Imperial centre. Embedded in the history of Scarborough’s modernity is, therefore, a very clear and, more often than not, violent colonial class and racial history. On the other hand, industrial wastelands south of Highway 401 carry with them the stories of post–World War II modernist dreams of large production lines, the automotive industry’s dreams of hyper-fast cars and highways, and efficient worker housing and spaces of leisure. These utopian dreams have been replaced by cramped suburban McMansions, mid-century social housing, and food deserts of the postmodern era. The palpable tension between these often-opposing currents, as well as Scarborough’s situatedness in the new urban sprawl of a megacity preoccupied by its new-found economic and cultural self-importance, is what feeds the unease we find here today. Adding to the various intersecting matrices of the suburban modernity is a steady and continuous shift from its mostly white, Anglo-Saxon population to a racially and culturally diverse one that no longer corresponds to the neatly defined cultural and social mores of its beginnings. What Scarborough’s more recent history reveals is its ambiguous modernity – an alternative modernity that can only be fully understood by rewriting its history to include the millennia of Indigenous occupation that preceded it.
From such a vantage point, this exhibition speaks to the unsettling not just of Scarborough, but of Canada as a whole. Its strategies are transgressive in nature, and challenge still-dominant racial, cultural, and political frameworks. Unsettling also takes place during the summer and fall of 2017, a crucial year for the settler-colonial state. As Canada’s mainstream political and cultural elites are in the midst of ambiguous and self-congratulatory celebrations of the country’s 150th anniversary, the artists in this exhibition seek to disturb such official stories. Echoing a recent call by Indigenous activists of Idle No More to “unsettle Canada 150,” the artists represented in Unsettling use aesthetic, political, and cultural tools to disturb, transgress, and trouble.
In her recent photographic series Asiniy Iskwew (2016) and Pakwâci Wâpisk (2017), Lori Blondeau creates powerful gestures of remembering and sovereignty. Each series consists of four photographs, with the artist following a particular formal and conceptual strategy: she places herself at specific sites, donning a long red velvet dress/robe that gives a regal, elevated air to the performance. The pose is carefully staged, with the artist’s body standing firmly upright, proud, defiant, as she looks into the distance. In short, the artist performs and embodies power, which is amplified when in dialogue with the site she occupies. In Asiniy Iskwew (Rock Woman), Blondeau chose to situate her performance on sites important to Indigenous histories connected to rocks and various geological rock formations, as well as rock art. For many years, Blondeau has been researching her family’s connections to various stories and traditions of healing, ceremonies, and memorializing of events through rocks. The artist has also been searching Indigenous oral histories that speak to how various Plains peoples have used rocks for healing rituals, as gathering places, or markers. One such example in the series is the MistaseniRock (near Qu’Appelle Valley by the elbow of the South Saskatchewan River), a sacred buffalo rock important to the Cree and Assiniboine peoples, dynamited by the Saskatchewan government in 1966 to make way for the South Saskatchewan River Project. Pieces of the rock still remain, after being reclaimed from Lake Diefenbaker.
Pakwâci Wâpisk is situated in Guild Park and Gardens in Scarborough. Whereas with the rock series, Blondeau was looking for Indigenous sites, the site at Guild Park is a settler-colonial one. Constructed as a faux ruin and a site for fictitious imperial history, Guild Park represents the epitome of Canadian modernity and a vestige of the imposed colonial order wanting to tame and control nature itself. There are several places in the park where we encounter what look like bases for monuments. However, the human figures we normally find on top are missing. Blondeau uses this empty seat of colonial power in order to reverse its potential by placing herself as an Indigenous woman (something historically never afforded to Indigenous peoples, women in particular). By claiming the seat, by taking it by herself and for herself, Blondeau completely reverses the colonial power order. Her monumental, life-sized photographs take the form of alternative memorials, ones that replace sites of colonial power.
In their collaborative video project Pilgrims of the Wild (2016), Michael Farnan, Lori Blondeau, and Adrian Stimson create a strange, eerie, and humorous mirror image of the colonial fiction. The video was filmed on-site in Prince Albert National Park, Saskatchewan, where famed fraudster Archibald Belaney (a.k.a Grey Owl) lived out his white fantasies of Indigenous life, in a cabin given to him by the Canadian government. The film borrows from Grey Owl’s strange history as found in his books and archival material and as handed down by people who have encountered him, and incorporates these stories with iconic, strange, and even sinister representations, including stereotypes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous life. We see various characters appear and disappear – colonial white men, an Indigenous princess, a cowboy: all in a peculiar dance of representation, re-enacting the ways in which Canadian myths of origin have been constructed. Within such eerie representations or, rather, over-representations and exaggerations, we begin to understand the violence of history as told by the conquerors. We see the embodiment of distortion embedded in history. Everything in Pilgrims of the Wild is distorted, it is all out of place: the broken narrative, the characters, all of it is shifty, serving to make us feel uneasy, to make the viewer understand the distortion of history from that new, oblique position.
Paul Couillard and Ed Johnson have been working as Duorama for a number of years, producing scenes/performances/actions across Canada and internationally. Their work often explores tensions between people, within relationships, and in representations of the body, especially the queer body. Duorama’s interrogations of representation and publicness often take monumental form, seeking to fill in the gap of the missing queer body in the public space. The works in Unsettling interrogate relationships between presence, action, public, and power, questioning how the space of the city, its streets and geographies, gives rise to specific narratives of normalcy, and investigating the relationship between modernist architecture and urbanism and marginalization. In Duorama #51 (2002), we see the artists embracing and kissing on a train platform in Sackville, New Brunswick. As their protracted, filmic kiss unfolds over the duration of the video, a train arrives into the station. At that moment the scene perfectly mimics the Lumière brothers’ film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat. In Duorama’s interpretation, however, instead of the crowd gathering to greet the train, we see the artists kissing and the bemused – perhaps even offended – onlookers staring. The camera pans and we further see the awkward smiles and plain looks of discomfort. Two artists take up space; they claim this small-town station, enacting a scene of modernity, only now played out in a transformed manner.
In their second video, Duorama #55 (2003), we see a seemingly nondescript peri-urban site, a place that could be anywhere in Canada. The artists take off their shoes, and in their recognizable pyjama outfits, proceed to engage in a series of simple but powerful actions to transform their bodies into a sculptural form. Their gestures are a form of remembering, of placing that which is absent from the public back into that space – and the site is significant: it is where Saulteaux teenager Neil Stonechild was left to die by Saskatoon police in 1990. The nondescript site is a place of tragedy and horror that has been buried deep within the sordid history of urban Saskatoon. Duorama’s gesture is therefore one of memorializing through their bodies or, as Lee Maracle writes, embodying history to reveal the hidden violence of city life.
Finally, their installation in the middle of the gallery, Labyrinth (2017), takes us to a different view of the city. While in the two videos, Duorama present a human perspective of the city life (enacted via their bodies), in the installation they place the viewer in a bird’s-eye perspective, almost godlike, from which we are invited to remake the city to our liking. Referencing both the Google map tool but also older tools, such as maquettes used in architecture, the military, or urbanism, Duorama make the viewers into decision makers, asking us to reconfigure the roofs of the houses into imaginary forms of suburbia. Of course it is an ironic gesture, one that speaks to the impossibility of building a home in contemporary Toronto, in which more and more people are left outside of the modernist dream of the single-family home. As prices of real estate and rental properties keep rising, as poor are displaced to make room for the super-rich who want to live in the downtown core, as people are forced to move farther and farther into distant suburban neighbourhoods without proper public transit or infrastructure, the truth of the failure of modern urbanism becomes inescapable. Duorama embody these narratives in this seemingly simple interactive installation.
Lisa Myers’s multidisciplinary practice includes printmaking, performance, participatory practice, stop-motion animation, video, and photography. In the two related series on view in Unsettling, Strain (2015) and straining and absorbing (2015), Myers works with anthocyanin pigment from blueberries to create prints and videos. The three videos in the main gallery space are in essence three performances in which we witness the artist making prints with blueberry ink. The videos are relatively simple: they show the close-up of Myers’s hands with the silkscreen. Her hands move up and down as she prepares the ink and pours it onto the screen. These gestures repeat in all three videos, yet each features its own small shifts and differences. At one point, before we see the artist, we are not sure if we are looking at an abstract painting or something else – indeed, this short moment in the video echoes Josef Albers’s canvases. And yet, when Myers pours the blueberries, that illusion is broken and another image takes its place. Mesmerizing, the images lure us in with sound, vivid colours, and stunning contrasts, but they also carry a more oblique, less visible but no less potent, undercurrent. She uses blueberries to invoke her own Indigenous heritage and the stories of her family’s survival and resistance, in which blueberries played a significant role. Taking this further, the blueberries function as a form of transgression of both traditional printing techniques and also of modernist abstract art, which in her case is not removed from the political, the social, and personal, but imbued with all those, indigenizing and troubling both the aesthetic form and content. The blueberries used to make the prints are in some ways still alive, because once printed, they keep changing colour (due to the chemical reactions taking place between the blueberry ink and paper), thus making our experience of looking at the prints also a form of performance. The natural dye is not stable: it cannot be contained but rather keeps shifting. In this subtle yet powerful aesthetic truth is also the truth of the undercurrent of Myers’s series – of the ways in which Indigenous stories and narratives are present, alive, and growing over time.
In his practice, Basil AlZeri often mines personal experience, of working as an educator and community organizer, to get to a truth of a broader social and political context and, in effect, translate the personal into the political. AlZeri’s interactive works strive to erase artist-audience dichotomy in order to create a new kind of artistic engagement. His constant probing of questions of power, hierarchy, everyday survival, and necessity forms elements of the ways in which his aesthetic practice unfolds. For Unsettling, AlZeri creates an installation, Crooked Homes, Towers and Structures (2017), by using his own collection of pedestals or plinths, alongside those from the gallery’s collection. Exhibition pedestals are curious objects, existing within museum and gallery institutions as a form of shorthand for the physical, textual, and semantic separation from the everyday and the ordinary. They also, however, designate a lack of power, as the objects put on a pedestal are often separated from the context of their regular use and understanding. This tension between power and powerlessness deeply embedded in the Western museological history is partly what AlZeri questions with his current installation. Another part of his work is an interest in modernist, minimalist aesthetic, with its quasi-disinterested, apolitical stance that celebrates the cerebral, architectural, and monumental. Indeed, when a visitor enters the gallery, s/he stumbles upon AlZeri’s work almost by accident. And while the pedestals are many, and curiously arranged in a corner of the space, what strikes us most perhaps is the installation’s resemblance to the downtown core of a North American city, a “nowhere place.” The towers in this case are not gleaming but, in fact, in need of repair and cleaning. In this one gesture, the artist manages to touch upon multiple trajectories of meaning: referencing modernist architecture, minimalist art, and referring to the work of urban planning and development. Most of all, he communicates a sense of irreverence, most clearly embodied in the leaning towers and unflattering placement of these tall, curious objects. The gesture continues as the artist invites visitors to sit on the piece, walk around it, touch it. During various programs throughout the run of the exhibition, the installation becomes a place from which food and refreshments will be served to people who sit on upon it, chatting and drinking. Art in AlZeri’s case is a movable target that one will end up sitting on.
Finally, Terrance Houle’s photographic and audio-video series GHOST DAYS (2014/2016) offers complex narratives that mine the personal and fictional history of Indigenous ghosts. Houle’s work spans many disciplines, from sound and music to video, performance, installation, and photography. In the photographic series for Unsettling, Houle works with the relationship between nature, storytelling, and ghosts. GHOST DAYS is a long-term project in which Houle traces not only the ghosts of his ancestors, but also histories and ghosts of the colonial past through the oral traditions of his own family and, more generally, through the oral tradition of the land. The four photographs on exhibition explore how ghosts appear in nature. The anthropomorphized trees look like ghosts as they emerge from the darkness of the photos – they also appear to be emerging from water. Nature in Houle’s work is both fragile and sinister, carrying with it stories of past generations, of people who have lived on the land, and among the trees that now occupy the photos. These photographs are a part of this larger narrative that Houle has been telling and retelling in collaborative performances and in music across Canada. He weaves the stories of his parents and grandparents, of his mother’s survival in residential school, of his long-time ancestors, whose photos he has found, and now imagines how these might occupy his psyche. In a recent GHOST DAYS performance in Alberta, Houle worked with a brick factory to produce bricks, which were then used in his performance. The factory, now decommissioned, had once made bricks for the residential school where his mother went. All of these personal and national memories and ghosts are intertwined into a complex story told to us by the artist over a long period of time. The section of the story at the Doris McCarthy Gallery offers one piece of the larger puzzle, of ghosts of Canada’s colonial past and its consequences on Indigenous peoples – in Houle’s case, on his immediate family.
As I write these words and think about the works of the artists in this show, I cannot escape considering the events of Charlottesville, Virginia, which are still fresh in my mind. The artworks in Unsettling powerfully reverberate as they deal with memory and violence, reminding us of the tensions and hostility that emerge over sites of memorialization, public memory, and history. Ultimately, the artists ask who decides what we remember. In his now-classic study of monuments, Michael Taussig argues that as much as every monument speaks to the prevalent ideological narrative that made it, it also contains the seeds of its own destruction. “The ‘law of the base’ [the base of any monument] at the heart of religion and things sacred” points to its fissure. “Like Flaubert’s concept of the act of writing,” Taussig continues, “to erect a statue is to take revenge on reality." Rather than thinking of monuments as sites where a truth might reappear, what is at work in the mechanism of monumental representation is the fact that all monuments are always already toppling. The artists in Unsettling took those seeds of destruction and used them to reveal an alternative history, a deep history, of the lands that are currently called Scarborough and Canada. This deep history is Indigenous history, and is often buried under settler-colonial modernity’s many utopian and dystopian projects; and yet Indigenous history and culture stand unabated by Canada’s violence, continuing to unsettle its dominant narratives. This show is conceptually and formally structured around the idea of the “law of the base,” or the notion that ultimately memory, especially its dominant forms, will topple – and artists will point to its cracks.
1. Lee Maracle, “War,” Bent Box (Penticton, BC: Theytus Books, 2000).
2. Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History, Gesammelten Schriften I:2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1974).
3. “UNSettling Canada 150: National Day of Action,” May 5, 2017, Idle No More,www.idlenomore.ca/unsettling_150_a_call_to_action, last accessed August 2017.
4. Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labor of the Negative (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999): 21.
5. Ibid., 21.