Substitute City (2001)
This text was originally written in 2001 for a cancelled catalogue to the exhibition Substitute City at The Power Plant (Toronto), March 24 – May 27, 2001.
Scroll to bottom for installation shots.
For Reid Diamond (1958 – 2001): He loved stories of the city.
… a little space of irrationality, like love affairs and sewers in the Utopias of earlier times.
—Michel de Certeau
Pathways and Pathologies
Every day, to and from work, I routinely take Lakeshore Boulevard, a multi-lane road that skirts the old industrial harbour of Toronto and runs beneath the decaying infrastructure of the Gardiner Expressway the length of my drive. Like other decrepit semi-waste spaces of the city, this road is a nondescript place of little visual interest or pleasure, no different from those found in other cities as it cuts through a blighted industrial landscape partly regenerated by the studios of the local film industry. Nondescript, that is, until a couple of years ago I watch a production by one of those studios: David Cronenberg’s Crash, set not on J. G. Ballard’s London motorways but on Toronto’s freeways. In it I recognize my everyday yet now transformed reality, as I am cued by local landmarks of no remarkable character. The scene along the route I drive remains banal. It has not changed in the least. Only my perception of it has—and, perhaps, following Cronenberg’s lead, my desire. All of a sudden Toronto is no longer for me the substitute city, standing in for Anywhere, USA, that I recognize in most films made here. Another city—though the same—beckons me.
The pleasure of recognition, enacted for me through Cronenberg’s grafting of the perverse desires of Ballard’s book onto Toronto’s roads, is not shared by the writer of the British Film Institute book on Crash. Iain Sinclair asserts that “Ballard was delighted to see his novel removed from all the markers that tied it to place, to potentially autobiographical specifics,” but he believes that the “subtopian nowhere” of Toronto “was the place where Ballard’s dream went to die.” Toronto, whose streets are “so featureless they operated like a sick-neon labyrinth,” is apparently so bereft of markers that it actually is the perfect host for a science fiction graft. And Ballard seems to agree: “But I thought Toronto was just right, the paradigm of North American cities (although it’s not recognised like all the others)…. Toronto is anonymous, and most of Cronenberg’s films have been set there. Part of the eeriness of his early Toronto films is because you don’t know where you are.”
For some, anonymity was not the case. In the shock of recognizing the place where I lived and routes I travelled seen inconspicuously but gloriously in Cronenberg’s film, I instantly grasped the origin of my next exhibition on Toronto art: what became Substitute City. A vague idea then set to work subconsciously linked somehow to my actual passage by car through the subtopian nowhere of Toronto roads and to the sterile verge of that passage in which nothing but perverse desires could blossom. In inverse proportion to the public’s vocal desire to tear it down, the outcast character of the Gardiner Expressway grew for me.
Contrary to Sinclair, this zone was not so bereft of markers—at least not for me. Cronenberg’s Crash signalled a two-fold recognition of Toronto: as a place and as its transformative representation in the medium of film. For those of us who could match references and referents, this recognition, of course, was not essential to the film, or to any work of fiction, for that matter. Cronenberg insists on making his films in his hometown, a gesture important to those of us in Toronto but certainly not to Sinclair. The problem for Sinclair, who himself is a novelist, was not only the general untranslatability between a book and a film but the incommutability between the particulars of Ballard’s London and Cronenberg’s Toronto.
Sinclair’s problem is the obverse for those of us who live in Toronto. We’ve all experienced turning a corner in the city and incongruously finding New York police cars and Yellow Cabs waiting for a film shoot, or watching a movie and seeing local landmarks passing for other cities. Only in rare circumstances, such as films by Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Don McKellar and a few others, do we find Toronto standing unselfconsciously as itself. This inability to picture itself or to make itself a character in its own drama is endemic to Toronto’s lack of identity, in spite of the political boosterism that proclaims it a world-class city.
Granted, unlike other world-historical cities, Toronto does not have much to work with to imbue itself with an aura of myth. Cronenberg’s Crash, however, suggests that one route towards mythologizing the city might be to follow deviant pathways through its degraded margins. Mapping desire on the city perhaps can only be observed initially as a pathology. And this pathological desire surfaces first and foremost in the aberrant trajectories traced by works of art.
At first glance, Substitute City is about how Toronto appears in local artists’ works. The city of Toronto itself, however, is not the overt subject of the works in the show, although it is pictured in every one. Moreover, the exhibition is not about architecture or urban planning, although one could say that the images in it are consequences of both. Rather Substitute City is about how artists use the city by moving through it. Ultimately, the exhibition seeks to learn from artists, to find how, through their infiltration of its margins, the city figures not only as an image but as a factor of desire. If the images here represent anything it is the openness of an activity not the closure of an icon. Thus, you won’t find the tourist side of the city whose postcard point of view the city promotes.
Architects shape our everyday perceptions, city planners regulate our routines, but artists cause us to rethink our ways of seeing and thus change our patterns of urban behaviour. Artists achieve this without disturbing a brick: by posing representations of the city that encourage us to refigure our errant desire there. What doesn’t the city satisfy that provokes this restlessness on the part of its artists? Or, what is changing that leads artists to question what is coming into existence in this city? Often critical, the works in the exhibition offer some answers to these differing questions.
Everyone’s experience of the city is unique. That of a bicycle courier differs from that of an agoraphobe. That of a sex worker standing on a street corner is unlike that of a john cruising by in his car. Each of these examples poses an opposition of movement and stasis. That the transitory seems to chart a path that deviates from the habits of place does not give it value over its stationary other. Paths are also habits.
Art disturbs our habits by charting new pathways that literally lead us to new experiences of the city. Art can also potently challenge unwarranted and unwanted incursions on the city, such as expropriations of use and habitation forced on us all by profit-driven development. The images in the exhibition are not just detached, documentary records of specific places but critiques of urban development as well. More importantly, perhaps, they are also testimonies and memorials as well as stories and maps of activities.
Even though many of these works are documentary in look, something else happens in the image. The exhibition is not merely about picturing the city—or even envisaging another appearance for it. Artists subvert the regulatory realm of the visible by promoting mobile counter-practices that redirect behaviour. These images counter the picture Toronto has of itself and the behaviour city planners want to regulate. Through deviation, artists tell errant tales of migration.
Everyone unthinkingly followed the paths learned once and for all, to their work and their homes, to their predictable future. For them duty had already become a habit, and habit a duty. They did not see the deficiency of their city. They thought the deficiency of their life was natural. We wanted to break out of this conditioning, in quest of another use of the urban landscape, in quest of new passions. The atmosphere of a few places gave us intimations of the future powers of an architecture it would be necessary to create to be the support and framework for less mediocre games.
The critique of the Gardiner Expressway addresses itself to access—to what the expressway obstructs physically and visually in our free passage to the waters of Lake Ontario. Yet access seems to be more about eyesight alone than the body’s wary negotiation beneath the elevated expressway’s imposing structure. An intervention in the fabric of the city, as arterial access the Gardiner does not rend it along the same lines, for example, as the still persistent politico-religious scissions of Belfast, the now dissolved politico-ideological differences of Cold War Berlin, or the brutal racial class divisions of American cities. It merely separates us from the water, not from each other. Rather than dividing classes, it has instigated their movement. The Gardiner destroyed one class’s idea of neighbourhood in Parkdale with the demographic shift of the wealthy to Rosedale after it was built starting in 1955, but the neighbourhood was then opened to new conditions of diversity. Further downtown, its construction is a legacy of a laissez-faire attitude to industrial development of the harbour, which has been reversed the last couple decades, but not to public benefit. The city historically always turned its back on the water downtown. It now seeks and celebrates the demise of the expressway while at the same time building a wall of luxury high-rise condos along its spine, which serves only to disguise the divisions of class interests, where the view to and use of the lake will be the privilege of the wealthy.
Elsewhere downtown, the benign face of condominium development, seeming to revitalize moribund city blocks by residential density, is the contemporary equivalent of what the Gardiner was for its time—a Trojan horse. If the Gardiner represented the victory of the suburbs over downtown, temporarily reversed with the defeat of the Spadina Expressway in 1973, the current “loft” condominium invasion foreshadows a monocultural usurpation of the cultural and ethnic diversity we take for granted in the city core.
Artists are small-scale entrepreneurs. Lacking capital, they are unable to compete either in the erection of large-scale enterprises or in the economic access to the new habitats of the city centre. Yet, they don’t see why they should be forced to move from the areas they helped revitalize. At least, not without leaving a memorial behind in the form of a critique or various retreating guerilla acts. For years they have countered the city’s lack of vision with their own persistent specialization of making do. The ongoing improvisation of an art community is a testament to that ability.
The downtown community of artists had already begun to unravel in the mid-1980s due to the recommercialization of Queen Street West that they had helped to bring into being. Gentrification rapidly began to push artists out of the area. Since then, recovery from the recession of the 1990s (an economic downturn that put an end to an overheated market for office development which had had little effect on artists’ living situations) has taken the shape of an epidemic of condominium conversions and “loft” construction that complete the shove. Such rampant real estate blitzkriegs throughout downtown, in which seemingly every old factory and warehouse building are bought up for this use, might signal the demise of the downtown art community.
In the aim to retool the city towards global economic competitiveness and local redevelopment, artists are among the first front-line casualties. Now almost completely displaced from their downtown studios, ironically they have lent an aura of chic to condo “loft-living,” or they have fashioned, originally out of need, the “aesthetic” of industrial spaces that dot-com enterprises now covet. Many of the works in Substitute City in some way touch upon the issue of housing. Some are direct responses to artists’ loss of studios: for instance, the colour pinhole photographs by artist and architect Adrian Blackwell (2000) document a number of studios/living spaces of a predominately artist-use building after the tenants, himself included, were given eviction notices to make way for high-tech industry occupation of the space. Artists are not alone: the issue of artists’ combined live-and-work spaces cannot be separated from that of faltering social housing in the midst of thriving condo construction.
In a period of transition from one form and site of community to another, my critique may seem a lament for what is, after all, an ongoing historical process. My attachment to the Gardiner Expressway and the portion of the Lakeshore Boulevard running under it, as well as to assorted industrial wastelands like the port lands, probably expresses an individualist and contradictory notion of community as marginality. There is no use lamenting change. Artists are not necessarily a privileged class who deserve special treatment by the city. The “crisis” may only affect one idea of community, and, thus, may be a generationally-based complaint that privileges itself and recognizes neither what came before nor what attempts to succeed it. Each generation of art community asserts its own vision of urbanity in rooting its practices in particular places.
An art community is fluid. It cannot simply be captured by a series of markers that commemorate a neighbourhood, and thus be legislated into existence. Perhaps this is why there are no signs marking the precinct of blocks that the art community has infiltrated, like those street signs around Spadina Avenue that read “Fashion District,” or, around Richmond Street, “Entertainment District,” the heart of the art community in the late 1979s and 1980s. As well intentioned and laudable the 401 Richmond Street building is—it houses a variety of galleries, services, and studios—this “ghettoized” quarter can sustain a particular idea of community but cannot mobilize one into existence or insure the collaboration of its inhabitants. Rather, an art community comes into being and improvises itself through the indefinable pathways and activities that delineate a (moveable) territory. Its coalescence is as unpredictable as the ways that stray cats mark territories. As it does not respect convention, we cannot anticipate where the art community will resurface next. It is destined to be migratory. The history written about it will consist of stories of continually renewed foundations.
Perhaps only an artist could like the Gardiner as it is today, almost a museum piece, or, like Cronenberg, love its seedy underbelly, Lakeshore Boulevard. The Gardiner has two dimensions, a top and a bottom. If the surface of the expressway suggests untrammeled speed and the bright light of day (and offers up commuters to advertising), its underside represents the reverse: the Lakeshore stands as the Gardiner’s unconscious. Although Lakeshore Boulevard is a surface road, here it has a subterranean feel. If the upper elevation of the expressway embodies the suburban dream of separation from downtown while still maintaining functional access to it, its underside symbolizes the contamination that suburbanites were fleeing. For those who remained in the city, or who arrived to pursue professions intertwined with the city’s urban diversions, the Gardiner is a monument we live with. For those who return from the suburbs, it is a reminder of their class’s flight. Like the city walls of medieval cities, it must ultimately be torn down to realize the concept of the new city state as renewable capital.
We travel the Gardiner Expressway by car. But under the Gardiner, Lakeshore Boulevard is not just a road, it is also a place. Territories are marked not by transit through but by use. The migration over the last few years by squeegee kids to Lakeshore Boulevard to earn their living under the Gardiner has given it another use. We usually experience the Gardiner and Lakeshore through speed. Other uses—or misuses—of it that impede our flow, in turn, change the tempo of our experience. Photography similarly can change our relationship to a particular site. For instance, Peter MacCallum’s photographs of the Gardiner Expressway (1998 – 2000) slow our usual perception and allow us to see detail we cannot concentrate on while in transit. His photographs of the repair and demolition of the Gardiner (for which he is the City’s official photographer, and that issue from his larger investigation of concrete industries) confirm this reviled structure’s status as a transportation system. But since they also show the roadway removed from normal use without cars, his photographs also reveal the Gardiner as a piece of architecture, a place of labour, and for some homeless a buttress for their flimsy, ad hoc shelters.
MacCallum, I know, has no love for the Gardiner and might object to my romanticizing it. His images are not made for aesthetic purposes but to document the labour processes that construct the infrastructures that support our daily activities—what we experience but do not really notice.
The Gardiner Expressway is an uncelebrated monument and Lakeshore Boulevard as used by squeegee kids is a contested public place. No one would suspect that these sites express public values that need be commemorated. If such sites come to consciousness at all, it is only through an aggravation (such as squeegee kids pressing their services on motorists, a practice now legislated out of existence). So the experience of them generally remains one of uncontested passage through—a passage that, in the cocoon of one’s car, is private, non-committal, and nearly unconscious. By contrast, the city is seeking to create a monument out of the commercial intersection of Yonge and Dundas Streets. The proceeding plan is rife with the contradictions of a public place—the streets—given over to private enterprise, which the advertising and commerce that now dominate its corners proves. The plan implicitly recognizes the failure of City Hall’s Nathan Phillips Square to symbolize civic virtues through its inability to galvanize a public on its site. At Yonge and Dundas, the new non-place of vehicular and pedestrian circulation, the values of commercial spectacle are to be celebrated. One of its exaggerated features, an exposed metalwork advertising tower, modelled on the colonializing elsewhere of New York’s Times Square, symbolizes that the supposed heart of the city is not only a non-place but a not-here as well.
Huge billboards advertising the clothier Gap fill the city landscape while electronic jumbotrons loom from tops of buildings and along the Gardiner Expressway to sell McDonald hamburgers as if they were gleaming gems. Up above the rationalized urban grid, in the traditional zone devoted to spiritual apotheosis, in this domain of pure visuality unleashed through mobility, advertising rules. Meanwhile, as Michel de Certeau contends, “The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below’, below the thresholds at which visibility begins.” Yet, here as well pedestrian and driver are constantly addressed by advertising that fragments their attention. Whether advertising billboards or storefronts, signage imposes itself on our visual field. This visual anarchy reflects the contradictory relations of private property that dominate the city and that we take for granted or think we have little power to change. (Perhaps because the whole history of settlement of the continent is coincident with the development of capitalism, we know no other civic values.) Every year, more of our social domain is fractured and monopolized by the ever-encroaching messages of advertising. Any place an audience can be captured is recruited to the service of selling an image and a product that promises to deliver it. Privilege and profit accrue from the private ownership of a site from which a public is addressed. Transparent one to the other and to the products they represent—advertising and site—each is a “surface” from which capital can be derived and profit made. This anarchy of appearance, where even the lubricant of money advertises itself in billboards selling financial services, disguises the organization of social relations now pursued through the image.
“The spectacle is not a collection of images,” Guy Debord maintains in his book Society of the Spectacle, but on the analogy of the Marxist analysis of the commodity, “a social relation among people mediated by images.” Advertising is the means by which society ensures not only the continuity of commodity exchange but also the social relations they embody. More and more, the cityscape itself is the matrix of these social interactions that are the source of profit. For instance, the advertising on hoardings around condominium development sites sell both the property and the values of downtown living to which residence there purports to gives privileged, yet undeserved, access. On the model of Marx’s concept of labour surplus-value, we know that this is not a value that the seller or the purchaser produces: it is drawn from the labour of the art community. The art community creates cultural capital that it cannot bank on. As history has shown, monetary capital institutes no community, but is the great dissolvent of its traditional values. Unfortunately, as we know all too well, during the twentieth century, urban planning has been capital’s unwitting accomplice.
In street planning, it seems that the dominant relationship of user to site has been usurped by one between cars and commodities mediated by signage. As if to test the threshold of visibility at which signage operates and to understand its inflection of our sense of the city as we move through it, Robin Collyer (over a period from 1992 – 2000) has engaged in an experiment with a series of retouched photographs that deletes all text from street signage. Through a simple technique offered by computer manipulation, Collyer’s photographs of city streets almost imperceptibly, yet radically, alter our view of our milieu and reveal, by signage’s imperspicuous absence, the never-ending degradation of the public sphere by commercial interests. Even in his photographs where people generally are absent, these deletions show how social relations pre-exist in the image.
The to-and-fro between work and home defines the rhythm of our workday. Some of us live downtown; others live in the suburbs and commute to work. For those who live outside the city, the neutral time getting between is a surplus labour garnishing their free time. But the interplay between suburbs and downtown affects those living in the city as well, by creating pressures that overwhelm planning supposedly meant to enhance our lives. Traffic engineering supersedes urban planning and thereby tyrannizes the resident downtown pedestrian. Through the car, the suburbs are parasitic on downtown. But the suburbs themselves are far from idyllic. They detach themselves from the city only by erasing the past where they are located. The suburb’s “utopian” non-place carries no remembrance of the fertile farm fields and country communities they supplant. These fields of homes are not even known by proper names, but commonly referred to by a telephone area code—the 905 region—instead of by the Edenic names their developers propose. These names signify but do not memorialize: they are sellers’ signs, not proper names. At most, they label a product. And so the homes’ false fronts, like so many like commodities, are no different from the billboards that surround their perimeters and that sell property while baptizing them erstwhile with their generic names.
Geoffrey James’s 1999 series of photographs have captured the instant apparition of some of these artificial communities in the 905 region surrounding Toronto. Tellingly, they are undignified by place names. James’s titles—for example, House on Zafarullh Kahn Crescent, Maple Township or Construction: Highway 7 and 400— only designates them by street names or highway intersections. Their sleight-of-hand appearance in the landscape disguises these insular communities’ disconnectedness to more rooted inhabitation inasmuch as they have to be invisibly serviced by infrastructure construction of new sewage systems and roadways. Nonetheless, they are alienated not only from the past of a community history but also from the presence of the site. No conviviality softens their placement in a denatured landscape where they have been erected by the expedient principles of the assembly line. In this process, the yard, once the heralded symbol of the suburbs, has been sacrificed, yet its absence still signifies the anti-social inwardness of this new congregation of people.
Roads and houses are symbiotic. So it is natural that James’s 905 photographs on speculative residential development were prefaced chronologically by his 407 Series that documents the privately financed and built, then yet-to-be-opened, toll expressway north of the city that gives speedier access betweenthis housing and the city of Toronto.
The possibility of a place of human inhabitation and what actually emerges through its squandered history is examined in a commissioned collaboration for this exhibition between Geoffrey James and Atom Egoyan. Based on Egoyan’s 1992 film The Adjuster, the collaboration integrates a loop from the film that shows a drive across a muddy field of a once productive farm to three isolated, newly constructed houses within a large-scale photograph by Geoffrey James of the current site, now densely inhabited in 2001. The site of these houses, coincidentally, is the same area where James took his other 905 photographs. One in particular, House on Zafarullah Khan Crescent, Maple Township (of a new Muslim community surrounding a mosque pre-existing the new residences that for years was freely visible across farm fields from Highway 400), reminds us of the historical migration of dissenting groups to the new world to found religious communities. Their contemporary ethnic counterparts—like the characters from Egoyan’s film—now choose the suburbs, not isolated settlements, for their segregation.
Temporal change is the corollary of spatial displacement, but temporality also internally enfolds itself on a place as the projection back of memory. Utopia and memory inhabit one continuum of imagination; the past as well as the future can be dreamed. “The memorable is that which can be dreamed about a place. In this place that is a palimpsest, subjectivity is already linked to the absence that structures it as existence and makes it ‘be there’, Dasein.” Contrarily, the tabula rasa speculative housing development performs only forgets a past in its false imagination of a future.
Absence functions in the heart of the city where history—memory’s muse—is even more ruthlessly extirpated than it is in the suburbs. Vid Ingelevics makes this absence an organizing principle of his project, Panoptic: St. Clair Place, 21 Vaughan Road, Toronto (2000 – 01). His project partly stems from his return to live in the residential neighbourhood around Vaughan Road and St. Clair Avenue where he was raised as a child. Any return must acknowledge a disturbance of memory of the visual field where “what [now] can be seen designates what is no longer there.” During the intervening period, in 1973, this neighbourhood had a visually dominating, high-rise apartment block bluntly imposed on its streetscape of, generally, two-to-three storey homes and businesses. It dramatically changed the character of the place.
Ingelevics documents this building but hides the actual structure from sight. Instead, he negatively suggests it by photographing the apartment dwellers’ views of the city. (The octagonal configuration of its balconies offers a 360° panorama, and Ingelevics takes an image from each tangent.) The building’s physical imposition on its site is reinforced by this panoptic scan that commands the neighbourhood. We realize that the occlusion of our view by the building’s own point of view, so to speak, is a ruse of power. At the same time, though, if the building is signified by its absence, it is an absence that coincides with the building’s pre-existence. Through this act, the neighbourhood is thus restored to its condition before the building’s construction. By operating within power’s own precinct, Ingelevics’s subtle manoeuvre liberates the memory of what the building destroyed and replaced.
All too often the practice of city planning erases history. Over a century, commercial development has led to the loss of many beautiful business buildings and stately residences in downtown Toronto. But probably greater damage to the everyday histories communities preserve has been caused by city housing projects alone. Ingelevics’s commercial apartment block is a small-scale version of the wholesale destruction of other areas of the city, particularly the working class east end. In the name of urban renewal, Regent Park, Moss Park, Alexandra Park, and St. Jamestown destroyed the interwoven complexity of interpersonal histories stitched into the built fabric of their sites. In these developments, priority was given to separation of activities, and the reduction of through streets ensured that these zones of inhabitation lost their integration with the city as a whole.
Zoning rationalizes function by allocating activity. Even when there is mixed density—as enlightened planning calls for today—planning still parcels out dominant use. The appendages to street signs, which read Fashion District, Entertainment District, [Film] Studio District, etc., exemplify such thinking. In a commercial climate that usurps planning for its own purposes and that understands property only in terms of its potential for development, what areas of the city will remain free for the more imaginative inhabitation that abandoned buildings, fallow industrial wastelands, and semi-natural preserves allow? Utopian promise has been reduced to such places of clandestine activity. When the last remaining downtown “wastelands” are designated for development within the plan for the current Olympics bid, where will our delinquent dreams roam?
Documentation and Narration
Not surprisingly, since the city appears in them, many of the photographs in the exhibition—such as those by MacCallum, Collyer, James, and Ingelevics—seem to serve a documentary function: catching the city simply being there. Yet, recording what is according to the category of verisimilitude is not really an issue for any of these artists. We already know that documentary photography is a constructed practice. Even if their images match the appearance of their sites, is there not a rhetoric implicit in James’s Construction: Highway 7 & 400 and a ruse operative in Ingelevics’s Panoptic: St. Clair Place, 21 Vaughan Road that contaminates any idea of documentary transparency?
Photography is always discrepant. For most people, what is “true” is what they want to believe corresponds to the image, not what the image actually depicts. So the Mayor of Toronto might say that the images here do not represent the city; they are not true to his idea of it. Hasn’t the realist aesthetic of documentary photography, though, always been put to the service of social ideals whose imagined ends do not correspond to actual depictions? Historically, documentary photography has been inseparable from an explicit critique of things as they are, the evidence of images sometimes commissioned by authorities, sometimes used against them to effect social change.
While critique is not necessarily the aim of these images, criticism is implicit in many of them. Often the photographs here equivocate by bringing something other to view than what appears to be there. Robin Collyer’s photographs are a ready example. His seamlessly altered prints seem but don’t exactly correspond to their referents. Slightly off, they make us see what is before us in ways we have never experienced. Something strays in the image and this deviation stirs us to follow some errant trajectory through the work.
Such deviation implies that the task of the photographer is not just to depict but to subtly narrate, so to speak, by providing an oblique movement for the viewer to follow. What the camera captures is a lure to beckon us on. In order to make their images in the past, many photographers have been itinerant. The task now is to turn that movement itself into a story for others to pursue.
These stories, though, probably would not grace the pages of the city’s tourist pamphlets. Nor would their sites be depicted as places to visit. Ours is not necessarily a pretty exhibition because Toronto is not a pretty city. (In their lack of visual coordination or period style, many of our streets, such as Queen Street, have the ragged look of a frontier town.) Yet artists have found ways to compensate for the city’s bleakness. For instance Rose Kallal covers it with the cloak of darkness in her nighttime photographs (1998 – 99) of industrial sites and locales lit by artificial light. What is it about the nighttime that implies wandering? With the passage into darkness, a place changes: a site is severed from production and opens itself to other uses and meanings.
Through photography, one and the same site can have two appearances—documentary and poetic—as different as night and day. Traditionally, in depicting an industrial site, documentary photography has valued labour in letting its own non-aesthetic stand transparently for the authenticity of the worker. On the contrary, in Kallal’s work, the photographer—the trespasser on the site, the wayward nighttime negotiator of its grounds—insinuates another value by pursuing a different aesthetic. This aesthetic corresponds not to the producer but to the illicit other instead, which in our case, is the viewer. We could call this an aesthetic of the flâneur.
Cartographies of Enamourment
Daniel Bowden and Reid Diamond wander the city to ends other than documentation. In their collaborative Danny and Reid’s Motion Machine, they turn Toronto into the subject of an ode by adding music to their portrait of the city. The two artists shoot short Super 8mm films of city sites, splice new and old footage together, and compose organ, guitar, and drum music that is played live as the film is projected in a gallery. Toronto is put on show as if we were out-of-town guests being chauffeured by these proud artists. Playing off the title of Vivaldi’s famous concerto, Five Seasons (2001) leads us through the city streets during different times of the year, lifts us above them by means of elevator rides up and down the CN Tower, and over them in a helicopter. The music interprets a site, while its temporal measure charts the artists’ movement, as if motion could be scored like music. (Having to adapt on the spot to the idiosyncrasies of Super 8 projection during their performance keeps the artists responsive in the same manner that the spontaneity of the Super 8 format captures their agile negotiation of the city.) The artists hauntingly depict favourite sites, such as the now demolished, then down-and-out, turn-of-the-century east-end tavern, The Derby, or musically mimic them, such as the landmark lights of the Canada Life weather beacon. Some of the city’s signage is playfully detourned, as when the grand Tip Top Tailors sign on Lakeshore Boulevard is made anagrammatically, through in-camera editing, to spell out another message, letter by letter: “top sailors tip sails to airports.” The artists unlock and liberate such secret messages embedded in city sites as some of the city’s many tales and as clues perhaps to the artists’ bonus of a utopian fifth season.
The works in the exhibition that extend into narrative forms and the time-based medium of film and video are the results of flânerie. The city still figures in this seemingly aimless wandering of the flâneur/artist, but not as a foregrounded subject as in documentary photography—and not merely as background either. These works begin to map out experiences in which the city itself, through the artist’s infiltration, now figures as a factor of desire. These works go beyond critique as they seek out pockets of resistance to the restless capitalization of the city. They transform our notions of the commonplace and the distressed and in so doing change our consciousness, making of Toronto a city we could love, and not just enjoy—but not according to the aesthetics of a Paris, London, or Berlin.
The artists move us through the city in particular ways, and we track them through the paths their works create. Each path is a narrative, criss-crossing terrain subjacent to our daily experience. These paths do not just lead us from one place to another. Collectively, they compose a territory whose maps do not pre-exist. Mapping is a process, not a product: it must be discerned through activity. Paths are a record of this activity. They are proof of more than just passage, however. They are signs of unofficial use or inhabitation in the absence of their users, whether human or animal. Paths are not predetermined, but appear spontaneously over time. Within a pre-imposed urban grid or through a stretch of unoccupied property, they reflect, rather than regulate, a use the agent determines. Over time, they register a history of this use as a persistent deviation from the norm. And as they escape regulation, they slip from the bounds of visibility to become grounds for some other enactment.
The paths these artists beat escape observation. They cannot be surveyed by eyesight alone. We must enter them with our bodies, fully negotiating their twists and turns, their ups and downs. On a path, the foot takes precedence. On city streets, our experience is more abstracted. We all have our habitual tracks through the city that our feet routinely tread. Artists reground our experience in their own, making us stumble on the uneven terrain of an unfamiliar desire, bringing the unconscious to bear in differing perambulations. Before the optics of surveying was employed, the foot was a measure. To perambulate was an official act, a means to trace a boundary. It was a performative event whose ceremony marked an enclosure, for instance, of a manor or a parish. As a figure of authority, a policeman, too, has his beat. Contrary to these circumscribed and authorized paths, the exhibition’s images allow us to discover how an individual takes possession of his or her own territory, a field that is both shared with others and that escapes official surveillance. Images map personalized cartographies of enamourment. Sometimes these are imaginative zones, other times they mask an actual erotics of place.
John McLachlin photographs paths as evidence of the persistent footfall of users that tread and deepen them, but without these people being portrayed. Excerpted from a larger series, The Erotic Possibility of Melancholy (1997), these photographs picture footways through Toronto’s parks and ravines. More than just shortcuts between a and b, these paths offer an idyllic respite from the city in the heart of it. The picturesque quality of the images, nonetheless, hides the fact that these natural refuges are also cruising grounds for gay sex. McLachlin’s images cannot explicitly reveal the sites’ double nature whereby the insinuation of a semi-covert usage turns public into queer space, they can only hint at it allegorically. Depeopled in these photographs, the paths are melancholy reminders of absences, which makes this project a collective memorial of sorts: in the age of AIDS, death claims “et in arcadia ego.”
It may seem unusual to follow a comic book character through a city that we know. But in Seth’s Palookaville comic books we can do exactly that. In It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken (1996), the underground cartoonist Seth wanders like a peripatetic philosopher as one of his own characters, with the real city of Toronto appearing in the background. (Attentive to the character “Seth’s” wanderings, we probably can detect the real life Seth’s habitat, passing by, like Danny and Reid, what are probably the artist’s cherished places, his favourite buildings and shop fronts.) While the city is a backdrop to the narrative, Seth’s loving portrayal of the fringes of Toronto’s downtown business core is essential to his lament for things past. Walking, stopping and looking not only propels narrative development, it is a narrative form itself in which the city becomes a character, fiction and reality enmeshed.
Seth’s narratives are traces of passage as evanescent as the remnants of the periods he laments passing. If his narratives mark actual paths, ultimately they exist for himself alone: Flânerie is a condition of the alienation of modern life. Another lament of separation—however now ironic—is played out in Mike Hoolboom’s In the City (2000), a film about breaking up in public. In this film, building façades, like the backgrounds of Seth’s stories, play a role in organizing the narrative. Over successive images of restaurant fronts, where the breakups took place, ordered alphabetically by restaurant name, a narrator relates his short, sad tales of frustration. As witnesses to the event placed by the camera outside the restaurant windows, it is not as if we are transported physically from place to place: the alphabetic ordering makes space discontinuous. All the same, Hoolboom’s film creates a specialized map of the city through places of disappointed love. Melancholy hollows out a space through place names and these names now create imaginary locales for our haunting.
From McLachlin’s photographs, where place indicates an absence, to Hoolboom’s film, where a name hitherto fills the same function, mapping coincides with allegorical acts of melancholic memorializing. Yet within this mapping of interrupted love in Hoolboom’s film, another movie plays out, superimposed and interwoven with the “first,” but without its ironic relation of narration to image. Here daily life and dreams (drawn from movie footage) merge in a circuit of restless, unnamed desire carried by the city.
Since one might wander by foot, car, or bicycle, the exhibition spans both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. In some cases, such as the videos by Leslie Peters and some of the panoramic photographs by Michael Awad, the car is a camera. Leslie Peters drives the city’s expressways—the 401, the 407, the Don Valley Parkway—pointing her video camera out the window. These videos from her the 400 series (1998 – 99) offer a different impression of expressways than the still images of James and MacCallum. About the length of music videos, these short tapes sublimate that mundane road experience—that dead zone of passage—through abstracted images reminiscent of experimental film. Speed reconfigures our perception: vision is abstracted in striated patterns of light and colour, and sound is pressured into rhythm. Peters’s videos reveal no path, only pure movement.
If the body is fugitive in many of the photographic images in the exhibition, it is because we track the figure’s movement from his or her point of view for which our surrogate is the camera. However, in Michael Awad’s photographs from 1995 – 2000, we are brought right into a street crowd, into the flux of its movement. To create his images, Awad has modified a reconnaissance camera that was specially designed for aerial mapping. He tinkered with the still camera’s mechanism (originally constructed to compensate for an airplane’s speed in order to record a clear image of terrain) so that his panoramas, shot on the ground and not from some panoptic viewpoint above it, capture the movement of people in the street but delete any stationary objects such as buildings. In street level scans of Chinatown, the Caribana parade, the Beach, and various downtown scenes, Awad gives us not only an image of the spatial density of the crowd but also a temporal cross section of its movement. Because the camera creates a panoramic image through using the whole length of 2 1/4 inch film, and because the film thus takes time to move past the aperture of the lens, the camera registers any motion in front of it as a distortion. Distortion distills time in these images where movement becomes dense. Alternately in other images, Awad restores the camera to movement and thereby returns the buildings to the street but now, analogously, distorted by the motion of the camera/viewer.
From the Poetics to the Politics of Infiltration
The flâneur or flâneuse is a wanderer. He or she hardly breaks the law. Others are more covertly infiltrative, while some are publicly interventionist.
The two films October 25th + 26th, 1996 (1996), by Kika Thorne, and Mattress City (1998), by Thorne and Adrian Blackwell, document political interventions, albeit neither the interventions nor the documentation are typical of their respective political actions or artistic genres. Deriving more from an experimental than documentary tradition, the films’ styles are appropriate to the serious urban play documented there in that they depict actions that attempted to bridge activism and aesthetics by exposing each to the other’s utopian essence.
These films document two ad hoc collections of artists, architects, and activists, known as “the October Group” and “the February Group” as they created temporary, guerrilla constructions in the symbolic public space of Nathan Phillips Square in front of Toronto City Hall. On two occasions the groups came together to contribute to Metro Days of Action, labour’s protest against the Harris Conservative government’s agenda (1996), and to react against homelessness (1997). The first intervention by the October Group, documented in October 25th + 26th, 1996, consisted of a 150-foot-long structure of polyethylene sheet sustained—inflated actually—by an exhaust vent running along the front of the square. On the sides of the tunnel-like tube, texts combined from poets Mike Heron and Vladimir Klebnikov read: “Have mercy I cry the city; to entrust the streets to the greed of developers and to give them alone the right to build is to reduce life to no more than solitary confinement. Have mercy I cry.” A pneumatic sculpture, a sound installation, a passageway, a shelter for the homeless who sleep on such vents, an agit-prop machine: the ephemeral structure served as many functions as its participants desired, no one valued over another.
The second intervention by the February Group, filmed in Mattress City, responded to both the then pending amalgamation to be forced on greater Toronto by the provincial government against the wishes of the vast majority of its citizens and the related, ever growing problem of homelessness. A similar crowd of architects and artists gathered discarded mattresses from around the city and assembled sixty of them on Nathan Phillips Square. They took possession of the square disposing the units of the mattresses with their decoratively patterned surfaces into a Carl Andre-like sculpture. For a twenty-four hour period, on March 1–2, 1997, the sculpture was animated during the day and inhabited under a tent-like plastic sheet overnight. The intervention addressed the city’s administration in the same manner perhaps that this new order of temporary public sculpture created a dialogue with a representative of the old artistic order adjacent to it, Henry Moore’s The Archer.
Under the spontaneous conditions of an urban festival, political organization and aesthetic formation combined: activism became performative; aesthetics was organized along the lines of political anarchism. The interventionist creation of temporary hybrid structures (both architecture and sculpture at once) in a symbolic public space was the architectural equivalent to a (free) speech act. The films become one with that process as another form of its animation.
A seemingly playful, yet darker and private vision of the city unfolds in Karma Clarke-Davis’s video Doom Eager: Heavy Duty Black (2001). Doom Eager (an Icelandic term referring to the eager embrace of one’s destiny, come what may) combines Kallal’s nighttime photography with Motion Machine’s passage through the city, but now the soundtrack that underscores the narrative is provided by a bootleg tape of Black Sabbath’s 1971 concert in Toronto. In a rock-star limousine drive through the city, the larger-than-life, Devil-masked persona of the artist visits various sites of her nighttime domain—institutional (City Hall), financial (Toronto-Dominion Centre), entertainment (Sky-Dome, Air Canada Centre, Exhibition Place), and realty development. Yet, we cannot fathom whether this character is (land)lord or outsider. The garbled heavy metal music that determines the length of the video and propels the character’s movements evokes this conflict: on the one hand, it advocates the over-weaning arrogance of a demonic overlord; on the other hand, we know it as the music of alienated youth. Has this masked character struck a Faustian dot-com bargain in order to rule the streets, or is she a dispossessed wanderer of them? The conflict registers itself now in a cartography of disenchantment. We can no longer call this the enamoured wandering of the flâneuse. The flâneur feels in place, however alienated; the (racial) immigrant is always unwelcomely displaced.
As the transition to dot-com technology redefines the downtown fringes through the inhabitation of the spaces of old forms of production (factories, warehouses, and garment industry buildings), artists in response begin to change their tactics of art making. But even while new technology companies are usurping their studios, artists refuse to follow the schema of production and consumption demanded by new urban economies. Sometimes this means as well that they do not necessarily respect property rights. In changing political and economic climates, artists need to adopt new survival techniques. For some, the ruses and disguises they insinuate might be inspired by those of the little foxes and other animals that shelter and forage in city waste lots and ravines. Except the terrain of the artist is also entwined with the communication networks of new technology.
Istvan Kantor’s video, Broadcast (2000), is a manifesto of these new tactics. Dedicated to Wasteland, a group of young Toronto artists who infiltrate abandoned properties and derelict buildings to create performance events there. Broadcast is a science-fiction simulation of like artists’ tactical response to a “deadly condo-epidemic” that swept through an unnamed metropolitan business district, obviously Toronto. An opening text-over reads:
Responding to the situation, a clandestine syndicate penetrated the rest of the abandoned buildings, broke into empty offices, infiltrated public facilities, climbed up to the roofs, took over the streets, manifesting their inherent differences and individual autonomy, they appealed to the architecture of noise and the decay of technological society. Nobody knew who they were, criminals, refugees, cult members, illegal aliens, or terrorists? They emerged from nowhere, emitting confusion, and went on the air to broadcast their feverish messages. They discovered and introduced their own bodies as telecommunication hyper-devices.
The fractured narrative both follows this group through its actions (a hybrid synthesis of bodies, communication devices, and machines in erotic congress with their surroundings) and simulates (through visual noise) its breaking into television transmission with its counter messages.
Kantor’s old studio, from which he was evicted, is visible as the building adjacent to the new condo construction, but the possession he and others take of other buildings is not neighbourly; nor is it merely parasitic. Forced to migrate, artists temporarily take illicit possession of territory. This field of activity, however, is open to the scrutiny of legal authority. Any activity there operates both within the dual registers of a physical space and a space of vision, which intersect each other discontinuously. Legal and delinquent possession follow different strategies and tactics. On our part, we are concerned only with creative deviations that variously escape the panoptic scans administered over the cityscape. These might be achieved through dodging sight by hiding within the gaze (infiltration by mimicry or camouflage); through acts of provocation; or through temporary guerilla take-overs, as in Broadcast’s fictionally mimicking breaking into the channels of television transmission and actually taking over spaces. The virtual site or physical space of this transmission is fluid: “every body is a transmitter, any object can be a transmission device,” every space is an erotic site.
The title Substitute City has multiple meanings. Negatively, it refers to the film industry where Toronto stands in for any other city, or to the vague feeling among its citizenry that Toronto is not a real city, in spite of, or more likely because of, its claim to be world-class. More positively, it suggests the counter city artists make for themselves, which lends a utopian dimension to their practice.
In a period of rapid urban change through speculation and development, the neighbourhoods that traditionally inspired or housed artists’ activities are disappearing. With the downtown core given over to administered loft living and regulated entertainment zones, and the city’s peripheral, waste spaces (so essential a setting for artistic expression) destined for large-scale development, the time now seems crucial to examine the role artists play in our perception of the urban experience.
1. Iain Sinclair, Crash: David Cronenberg’s Post-mortem on J. G. Ballard’s ‘Trajectory of Fate,’ (London: British Film Institute, 1999), pp. 76, 88. Parts of this introduction first appeared in “Generic City: Robin Collyer’s Retouched Photographs, 1992–1998,” Robin Collyer Photographs (Toronto: Art Gallery of York University, 1999).
2. Sinclair, 87.
3. As I write, the easterly portion of the Gardiner from Leslie Street to the Don Valley Parkway is being torn down to reveal Lakeshore Boulevard to the light of day.
4. Over the last decade, Toronto has stood in for almost every major American city in the hundreds of Hollywood movies made here. It has also substituted for cities in Europe, the Mid-East, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean.
5. Philip Monk, “Picturing the Toronto Art Community: The Queen Street Years” published as a supplement in C Magazine, 59 (September –November 1998).
6. The nature of art in Toronto necessarily will change determined by new spaces, forms and tactics of production. But this has happened already with a younger generation of artists who began to work in the 1990s who exhibit in more ad hoc situations, for example, in one-night exhibitions/parties in homes. Shop-front galleries have begun to proliferate further along Queen Street West, but, in spite of their welcome energy, their conventional appearance is accompanied by the more traditional forms of art that they exhibit and sell.
7. When in 1984 the artist-run centre A Space moved from its location on Queen Street (the result of expropriation by the new owners, Chum and City TV) to Spadina Avenue, one of its first exhibitions recognized the immigrant and labour history of its new neighbourhood. [See Rosemary Donegan, Spadina Avenue (Vancouver, Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985.)] What recognition will there be for the downtown art community supplanted by this new influx of “loft” dwellers? What monument will memorialize it?
8. Walter Benjamin calls this the space of phantasmagoria: “The world exhibitions glorified the exchange-value of commodities. They created a framework in which their use-value receded into the background. They opened up a phantasmagoria into which people entered in order to be distracted.” Walter Benjamin, “Paris—The Capital of the Nineteenth Century, “ Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn, (London: NLB, 1973), 165. The Eaton Centre arcade, which anchors one of the corners, architecturally is a descendent of Benjamin’s world exhibitions, but the interior landscape of the dream thatits commodities represent are exposed and now glorified first in advertising images that infuse the cityscape.
9. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 93.
10. Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black & Red, 1977), §4.
11. The primary organization of a city consists of production, exchange, and habitation; secondary organization consists of the relations between the categories of the first, namely, circulation and consumption, which are also the means to bring goods and people together. In the “society of the spectacle,” the second order appears to take priority over the first.
12. The three houses in The Adjuster are the stranded beachhead of a failed development project. The Adjuster, like Egoyan’s Exotica, examines imaginations of moral complexity in the context of the policing of desire, very much a “downtown” theme, even though the main action of the film is displaced to the suburbs. The principal characters in The Adjuster are like pioneer settlers, whose freedoms in their new settlement merge with the “perversions” associated with downtown, perhaps presaging the internalizations of suburbanites who communicate perhaps more widely by internet than by foot or neighbourly hellos.
13. De Certeau, 109.
14. De Certeau, 108.
15. The erection of this building caused a by-law to be passed in 1974 by a reform City Council to restrict building heights to forty-five feet, a by-law since dispensed with.
16. See John Sewell, The Shape of the City: Toronto Struggles with Modern Planning (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993).
17. This shift of value would rid us of an opposition between objectivity and subjectivity, the former applying to the “documentary”-type images in the exhibition and the latter to the sometimes fictionalized, time-based images discussed below.
18. Even within the literary form of Realism (photography’s birth mate), there exists a surplus to the code of realist identity. As Roland Barthes has shown us, the insignificant notation of “description” is one such supplement that allows the reader to set out on another path, to make a detour even within a supposedly closed text. According to Barthes, the structure of narrative is essentially predictive: “if you act in this way, if you choose this alternative, this is what will happen.” On the other hand, “Description is entirely different: it has no predictive mark; ‘analogical,’ its structure is purely summatory and does not contain that trajectory of choices and alternatives which gives narration the appearance of a huge traffic-control center, furnished with a referential (and not merely discursive) temporality.” [Roland Barthes, “The Reality Effect,” The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 142-143.] In our case here, city planning would be predictive; photography, as a counter-response, would be “descriptive.” What is “summatory” within the photograph opens up the image to a subjacent terrain lying latent within it. That latency can be activated by the viewer in a new narrative.
19. Clarke-Davis emigrated from Trinidad to Toronto as a child in the 1970s. The immigrant experience of a new place and the inability to familiarize it by naming, specifically using the streets and terrain of Toronto, is powerfully expressed in Dionne Brand’s novel In Another Place, Not Here (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 1996).
20. See Judith Doyle’s video Fox: Past (2000) and CD-Rom Fox: Future (2001).
21. The Toronto-based Infiltration: the zine about going to places you’re not supposed to go specializes in such illicit penetrations, but without the performance aspect.
22. The distinction between strategies and tactics is De Certeau’s (pp. xix, 34-39). Artists’ skills are adaptable to guerilla tactics: knowledge of terrain, mobility, and spontaneous inventiveness.