Intersections, of Warden and McNicoll, of Jones and Colville

Essay by Andrew Hunter

We are flying. We are flying, soaring over the surface of the lake, rising up the face of the bluffs, now abruptly confronting the sprawl of the city’s infrastructure. We progress north, as the crow flies, forward in time, from an older settlement near the shoreline of Lake Ontario, over major arterial roads, past highways, new suburbs and shopping malls. A wide expanse of green space, cropped close, paths, hydro towers, power lines, a lone jogger, and now we descend from our bird’s-eye view to ground level, from macro to micro, from an aloof distant panoramic gaze to the intensity of an intimate stare, at isolated concentrated gestures, at bodies in motion, then at rest, breathless.

Such a bold beginning, echoing Stanley Kubrick’s opening sequence in The Shining, with his slow, sweeping trace along a lonely highway into the mountains, stalking Danny in his parents’ VW on their way to tragedy at the Overlook Hotel. Or perhaps David Lynch at the start of Blue Velvet, the camera leading us along a tranquil suburban drive, panning a cliché scene, only to descend into the dark, claustrophobic confines of a severed ear. Here, Simone Jones is leading us into the drama, a seemingly mundane, everyday encounter between two boys, heightened through cinematic gesture, composition and framing, a potent moment, a fleeting encounter, which only hints at past and future. As he was for Kubrick in The Shining, Alex Colville is the catalyst here. This sequence is Colvillian.

Like Colville, Simone Jones explores a single moment in time, hinting at a story but offering no beginning or ending. In her three-screen projection (originally commissioned for the 2014 AGO exhibition Alex Colville), she translates Colville’s small-town and rural settings to a suburban hydro corridor, showing three distinct perspectives on a single charged event: a fight between two boys. That Jones shares with Colville an intense interest in the craft of image-making and a heightened sense of precision and control is obvious here.

“My favourite Colville paintings are the ones that are infused with a sense of danger and creepiness. He makes Canada seem slightly ominous and threatening—definitely not what I was used to seeing when I was growing up.”
—Simone Jones

Warden and McNicoll are these boys’ names. Have you met young Warden and McNicoll? The lads, school chums (to use archaic terms), buddies, pals, my buddy ol’ pal. They go everywhere together, to school, on teams (they’ll choose each other first when picking sides, goes without saying), I’ve got your back, and you’ve got mine, until . . . what? A lie, a secret revealed, a pact broken, perhaps a disagreement over a girl, or another boy, some new friend, an other. These intersecting lives, linked together, I imagine, since kindergarten, or maybe even before that. Perhaps they met through a back fence, dividing new lawns of fresh-laid grass, rolled out by their fathers on some early Saturday morning. New neighbours, tentative at first, best friends by lunchtime. Inseparable for years, but at this moment the bond has become strained and fragile. And so they’ve moved out onto the edge lands, into no man’s land, on the anonymous fringe of a web of meandering streets and cul-de-sacs, where deer graze, coyotes stalk, a red-tailed hawk circles overhead and the shadow of a distant plane races across dry ground, a subtle chance reminder of events and lives beyond this moment.

Did the boys come from nearby, from Sir Ernest McMillan Senior Public School (named for the Canadian organist and composer of choral music), or perhaps David Lewis Public School (key architect of the NDP, father of Stephen Lewis, grandfather of Avi Lewis), or St. Maximilian Kolbe Separate School (a Polish Franciscan friar who died at Auschwitz, having volunteered to take the place of another). More lives intersecting—the composer, the socialist and the martyr—weaving together threads of history. Do the boys know this? Are they conscious of these biographies carrying baggage into this place? Likely not.

Yet Warden and McNicoll may not be the names of boys (not these boys anyway, who may remain nameless)—they are roads, actually avenues. Warden and McNicoll mark an intersection north of Agincourt, south of Markham, in the heart of Scarborough (Scarberia, we once called it). The intersection is on the northern edge of a wide swath of grass, running east to west, criss-crossed by paths and punctuated by clumps of hedges, the odd tree. This major hydro corridor cuts across Scarborough, clearly dividing its neighbourhoods but linking the residential, the industrial and the commercial areas, making it easy for a kid to quickly cross territories, to move into other worlds. For a kid, the distinctions between sites over short distances can be vast. This place can be anywhere—an imagined far-off place or a site of specific purpose. Is this a chance encounter or did the boys agree to meet on this common ground? Is this the prescribed turf for resolving conflicts, like the vacant lot next to the Texaco gas station just a block away from Mohawk Trail School, my school, in Hamilton, in the 1960s?

You’re dead at four o’clock! That was the declaration uttered by Scott, the school bully who tormented me more than he tormented others (at least, I remember it that way). He’d announce the threat at first bell. Why? You never knew why. Some imagined or fabricated slight. At 4 p.m., we’d all march down the block to chants of fight, fight, fight, for a confrontation that only rarely led to physical violence, but always involved verbal abuse and humiliation, tears and cruel laughter. This oft-repeated ritual ended one day when someone (not me) actually punched Scott and bloodied his nose, which sounds contrived, but it’s true. Back then it was an accepted part of growing up, no harm done—such things built character. Thankfully that sentiment is now lost, mostly. But those seemingly brief moments of conflict are not fleeting; they are buried deep in such marginal spaces that become charged ground, their ubiquity spreading anxiety exponentially. I am always crossing over, passing by, observing, these generic spaces on the margins, and so I relive past local traumas in far-off places, places made “interesting” through memory.

“I’ve never had the slightest interest in going to an ‘interesting’ place, because places are equally interesting to me. Wherever I am is reality, things are happening here, and this is ‘as good as it gets,’ as they say.”
—Alex Colville
“I think any life can be interesting—I think any surrounds can be interesting. I don’t think I would’ve been nearly so bold as a writer if I had lived in a [bigger] town.”
—Alice Munro

Alex Colville often expressed this idea, in numerous ways, this firm belief that remarkable things happen in unremarkable places, that you don’t need to be in an exceptional place (Manhattan, London, Tokyo, Berlin . . . ) for extraordinary things to occur. It is in these apparently nondescript marginal spaces that the most poignant moments can occur. This is particularly true for a child: the surroundings seem less critical than the presence of another, a friend, an enemy, a stranger. Intimacy is essential, the intensity of an engagement marking the spot, in time. Superficially extraordinary surroundings become a distraction from the essential elements, and those elements make the unremarkable environment suddenly exceptional, a trigger for the most potent of memories. Jones’s Warden and McNicoll reveals this, leaving behind the sublime cinematic gesture of the helicopter sweep over lake and city that sets up the core scene; we descend into the heart of the matter—two boys awkwardly squaring off, their physical grappling slowed down, their gestures becoming heightened, drawn out. They teeter between love and anger, friendship and aggression, caught in an embrace of ambiguous intimacy. Jones’s audio tracks focus on the minimal and, matching the stripped-down encounter between the boys, offers only the persistence of fundamental sounds, of garments ripping, of the heavy weight of breathing, of sod being torn up, all slowed, exaggerated. As with Colville, no before and after, timelessness reinforced by the intermixing of shots, of detail and distance, constructing a disrupted chronology. Where will it end? Does it end?

She charges through the scene, thundering past the boys as they continue their endless struggle. The horse appears spooked, the rider perhaps losing control, barely holding on. Jones’s video triptych has faded and will loop over again, and again, but the narrative projection she has established has stayed with me, and now I’m dreaming out of it, dreaming this horse and rider out of Colville, now racing across that expanse of dry grass lined with giant towers that walk over the landscape, linked by high-voltage wires gripped in their stunted limbs. Now I am at the intersection of Jones and Colville.

There is a subtle buzz of power surging along the wires. The woman on the horse heads north and west, crossing McNicoll and running up Innislawn Road to join Fundy Bay Boulevard. She heads west and then north, turns right, heading into Fundy Bay Park, and finally disappears in a sparse cluster of trees just past the ball diamond. It’s now silent, except for the sound of thin rope brushing concrete as a young girl skips alone at the edge of the playground.

“They drive past a park with swings, a slide, a merry-go-round and teeter-totters. Paved footpaths run between houses and open onto empty fields full of possibilities invisible to the adult eye . . . ” The new school is “deserted, deep in its summer sleep. The flagpole stands empty. The swings hang motionless, the slides and teeter-totters static.
—Ann-Marie MacDonald, from The Way the Crow Flies

How strange that Jones staged Warden and McNicoll only blocks away from Fundy Bay Boulevard and Fundy Bay Park. The Bay of Fundy was Colville’s home, first at Amherst, Nova Scotia, then Sackville, New Brunswick, and finally Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where he died in 2013 not long after his wife, Rhoda. The girl in the painting is Colville’s daughter, Ann. Back then the school was new, still awaiting sod around the freshly cast concrete sidewalk. You can see the roof of the Colville house peaking just above the horizon, and the girl is caught in mid-air, trapped in time’s tension, caught forever in that moment, haunting the space. And the girl leads me back to Kubrick, to the Overlook Hotel and the ghosts of the twin girls enticing Danny, and us, to come and play. How many children still play on their own, unsupervised, not watched over by helicopter parents? How much trust among neighbours remains? Are we all now suspicious strangers? And so who is watching me, as the girl, Ann, hovers in mid-skip, neither rising nor falling?

“I think if anything I am perhaps more inclined than most people are to be polite and considerate because I am aware that human relationships are innately fragile and kind of dangerous.”
—Alex Colville

Fight, fight, fight—a line of children emerges from the back of the school and I turn to follow, crossing the playground, down curving streets and back out onto the hydro corridor. I wait beneath one of the towers as the parade of youth carries on then stops, the chant fades, and the two boys emerge into the open, alone. They position themselves, facing each other, and begin circling slowly, like two grapplers, hands up for the inevitable lunge and grasp that begins all scripted wrestling matches (men in tights). The boys charge, embrace, struggle, then collapse to the ground, rolling, straining; they are holding each other, not striking, and so the crowd grows restless and moves off, and they are left, like the girl skipping, caught in the moment.

A lonely jogger drifts by on the path, a shadow races across the ground as another jet passes overhead, a solitary horse thunders past, then a murder of crows glide by, low to the ground. And the murder turns out to be the same crow, repeated seven times, at different moments in flight, time compressed into a single moment, like Warden and McNicoll, looping, a sticky thought.