(Un)settled Histories

Essay by Bojana Videkanic

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 my vision.
– Lee Marcle, "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. From May to October 2017, (Un)settled, a six-month-long curatorial project, took place at Guild Park and Gardens in south Scarborough, and at the Doris McCarthy Gallery at the University of Toronto Scarborough (where the exhibition was titled Unsettling), showcasing the work of Lori Blondeau, Lisa Myers, Duorama, Basil AlZeri, and Terrance Houle. The project was a multi-pronged collaboration between myself, the Department of Fine Arts at the University of Waterloo, the Doris McCarthy Gallery, Friends of the Guild, the Waterloo Archives, the 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival’s special project 7a*md8, curated by Golboo Amani and Francisco-Fernando Granados, and the Landmarks Project. As a performance artist, curator/organizer of performance art events, and someone committed to politically and socially engaged aesthetic practices, I was interested in reaching wider audiences by asking the participating artists to create site-specific work, responding to Guild Park and Scarborough as a whole.

The idea behind the curatorial work was to create an opportunity for a mini-residency where each artist would spend time on the Guild Park site, understand it better, consider its geography, social and cultural history, and psychogeography, in order to interrupt it. The intent was also to bring broader audiences to a perpetually culturally marginalized Scarborough. Artistic interventions on-site served as a bridge between the history of Guild Park and the site’s place and meaning in Scarborough’s current socio-political context. The Guild is an important landmark as a park and a public space, a leftover of modernist history in Canada, but also of Scarborough’s post–World War II development. Behind Scarborough’s settler narratives lies much deeper Indigenous history. Through direct exploration of the site, its landscape, and its politics, the project sutured social practice and land. The exhibition at the Doris McCarthy Gallery, where the work of the participating artists was placed into gallery space, provided a much-needed framework for the pieces developed during the residencies to be contextualized in relationship not only to Guild Park, but to the University of Toronto Scarborough as a cultural and educational institution, and Scarborough as a whole.

Grappling with history

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”1 connects to specific points in the past, is not a direct bridge to the past, but rather a collision between that past and the contemporary moment. These moments prompt illuminations about both contemporary 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,”2 Maracle reminds us, is to offer one’s embodiment, one’s being-in-one’s-own-body, as a tool for reconsidering 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 (Un)settled/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 show 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 (Un)settled/Unsettling is a form of excavation of the long-forgotten sediments of cultural and political phenomena around us: Indigenous identity and politics, 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 their—and our own—embodied existence on this stolen land.

Moreover, (Un)settled/Unsettling was also premised on revisiting the notions of modernity and modernism with all their 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 model. 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–WWII modernist dreams of large production lines, the automotive industry’s dreams of 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 suburban modernity is a steady, continuous shift from its mostly white, Anglo-Saxon population to a racially and culturally diverse community 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 be fully understood only by rewriting its history to include the millennia of Indigenous occupation that preceded it.

Within this larger historical narrative of Scarborough’s modernity as a space of intersecting Indigenous and settler histories, Guild Park and Gardens stands as a microcosm of the many complexities mentioned above. The Guild was a project of Spencer and Rosa Clark, a well-to-do Toronto couple who used Rosa’s family money3 to purchase forty acres of the Bickford estate grounds in 1932.4 Inspired by William Morris’s vision of a holistic approach to arts and crafts, the site was named “the Guild of All Arts,” and contained studio spaces, living quarters, and sales and exhibition galleries for artists who might otherwise have had no other source of income or living arrangements at the height of the Depression era.5 Spencer Clark was also interested in shaping the site into a cultural centre to attract tourists. The Clarks hoped that artists who lived and worked on the premises would be inspired by the setting of the sprawling park grounds to continue to use their creative abilities and, in the process, earn a living. The site developed from the 1930s into the early 1980s. Most of the studio production was done in what had been the garage and stables of General Bickford’s estate, in the building now known as the Studio. Artists worked in various materials and techniques, producing a variety of design and craft objects, sculptures, household objects, paintings, etc. The setting and the artists’ work made the Clarks’ initial vision come true—tourists and local visitors came in increasing numbers. Driven by his entrepreneurial ambition, Spencer added dining facilities and guest rooms (the first major expansion of this type was in the early 1940s) to the original Bickford house, and the Guild earned a reputation as a country inn located within a large natural setting surrounded by art studios. The Clarks also purchased surrounding farms to protect their investment and to allow for the expanding recreational needs of the inn. Eventually, the Guild’s lands grew to five hundred acres, stretching from Lake Ontario to Kingston Road, and from Livingston Road to Galloway Road. It also included recreational facilities with a pool and a tennis court, a new hotel building (built in 1960s), and even a heliport.6

The Clarks’ idea to bring together various artists and craftspeople carried clear links to modernist educational institutions existing in Europe and elsewhere (art schools such as the Bauhaus, and the newly established Ontario College of Art, and William Morris’s Arts and Crafts workshops). Spencer Clark’s ambitions however were larger; interested in heritage and cultural tourism, he decided to collect discarded architectural facades from various buildings in Toronto that had been rapidly demolished after WWII to make room for the new International Style skyscrapers such as Mies van der Rohe’s TD Centre.7 Various salvaged pieces found their way back to the Guild and were used to erect versions of English and French garden follies. These follies, historically used as eye-catching and sometimes extravagant architectural structures, were meant to provide visual spectacle for visitors and artists alike. Seemingly haphazard, these faux ruins usually decorated gardens of villas and country estates, and in the case of the Guild were supposed to provide inspiration for the artists. Such deliberate structuring of the inside and the outside—so that the main Guild Inn building mimicked a stately palace, and its surrounding landscape looked like a country estate with sprawling studio buildings, rustic cabins, a sprawling park with garden follies, a Greek theatre, sculptures, and footpaths—signalled the site’s antecedent in the British imperial model. Embedded in the idea of the Guild, therefore, just as in the very structure of suburban Scarborough, was an imposed order of clear colonial settler-class history, which also translated into the nature of the artistic production that took place there. Art, architecture, and craft embodied a hierarchical vision showing clearly how each of these disciplines intersected with economy, money, power, and social order. The Clarks’ patronage of the arts and the vision of the Guild were therefore embedded in a much deeper imperial history that was always a part of Western art, its patronage, and, finally, its political contexts.

Such a vision of aesthetic production reflects a much larger issue at the heart of the Canadian national consciousness, namely its positioning between its persistent settler-colonialism and its liberal dreams of building a national identity outside of its violent histories. The national dream never included a history of how the country came to be: on the one hand via the erasure and forceful forgetting of the Indigenous cultures and histories existing before the so-called “first contact,” and on the other creating the image of “Canada the good.” The unsettling feeling that visiting the Guild produces (as a number of artists and visitors have noted) comes from what is both present and absent on the site—the visible mythologizing of Indigenous cultures and societies, as exemplified in some of the sculptures and the architecture of the Guild—while at the same time concealing those histories. Canadian identity based on the fantasy of land and its ownership was structured over and against the land as it was seen, used, and lived on by the Indigenous peoples. The Guild’s follies, erected as symbols of the colonial-settler identity, aimed to erase and forget the layers of histories of land underneath and around them, and in the process exclude the possibility of looking beneath the settler past. But just like nature itself, which constantly encroaches and disrupts all attempts at confining, manicuring, and taming its powerful processes, the artists in this project were asked to disrupt the narrative of the Guild as it has existed for the past hundred years and more. If history is created and fuelled by its contemporary readers, then the impetus is on us, contemporary witnesses to the site, to once more re-engage it, and bring to the surface its multi-layered and problematic trajectory.

Artists’ interventions

During their (Un)settled residency and subsequent Unsettling exhibition, each artist produced responses to the challenges of the site, and of Scarborough’s history. 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 her performance a regal air. The pose is carefully staged, with the artist’s body standing firmly upright, proud and 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 situated her performance on sites important to Indigenous histories and connected to various rock formations, as well as rock art. For many years, Blondeau has been researching her family’s connections to stories and traditions of healing, ceremonies, and memorializing of events through rocks. The artist has also explored Indigenous oral histories that speak to how various Plains peoples have used rocks for healing rituals, or as gathering places or markers. One such example in the series is the Mistaseni Rock (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.

On the other hand, Pakwâci Wâpisk is situated directly in Guild Park and was produced during Blondeau’s stay there as a form of performance-for-the-camera in order to restage the history of the settler architecture, decentring its meaning and placement in Canadian history. Whereas with the rock series, Blondeau was looking for Indigenous sites, the site at Guild Park is deeply and inevitably a settler-colonial one. As already mentioned, the park is the epitome of Canadian modernity, a vestige of the imposed colonial order wanting to tame nature itself. There are several places in the park where we encounter what look like bases for monuments—or architectural fragments taken out of their context and placed randomly in the park. The human figures we expect to find on top are missing, however, and this opens up a space of intervention. Blondeau used this empty seat of colonial power to reverse its potential by placing herself as an Indigenous woman on it (something historically never afforded to Indigenous peoples, women in particular). By claiming the seat of power, 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 that replace sites of colonial power.

Duorama (Paul Couillard and Ed Johnson) often explore tensions between people, within relationships, and in representations of the body, especially the queer body. Their interest in representation and publicness often takes monumental form, seeking to fill in the gap of the missing queer body in the public space. The works in (Un)settled/Unsettling interrogate relationships between presence, action, public, and power, questioning how the space of the city, its streets and geographies, gives rise to narratives of normalcy, and investigating the relationship between modernist architecture, urbanism, and marginalization. During their stay at Guild Park, Couillard and Johnson produced a number of images within and against the space of the park. Donning their usual pyjama outfits (signifying the space of domesticity and intimacy) and wearing lion masks, which mimicked the recurring sculptural detail of a man in a lion’s mask (in architecture usually representing the Greek hero Hercules), they ventured into the faux ruins of the Guild. In one instance, the two use red mulch to create not only a possibly violent relationship between two men (the two lions rolling across the green grass in the park leave a red trace that could be read as blood), but also a disruption of how the city wants us to navigate and behave in the park. At each place, the two disrupted the usual relationships between nature and human intervention, using natural materials (tree bark, bird feed, mulch, water, etc.) to make us aware of how nature continuously fights human efforts to curb it. One of the most poignant moments was when the two brought in bird feed and lovingly placed it on an architectural fragment found in the park, to reveal its intricate bas relief design and to invite birds to land on it and eat it.

Duorama’s intervention at the Doris McCarthy Gallery pursued many of these ideas as their installation, Labyrinth (2017), encouraged us to see the suburb of Scarborough from a different perspective. While in the two videos included in the exhibition space, Duorama presented a human perspective of city life (enacted via their bodies), in the installation the viewer is given 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 the 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, where more and more people are left outside of the modern dream of the single-family home. As the 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. For her work during the Guild Park residency, Myers collaborated with her students to form the Shored Up Collective, which functioned as an interdisciplinary group project. This largely involved living and working/making on-site and engaging with the site’s living and hidden histories. Their interventions included walks, fabric dying, cooking, and performances. Each intervention, with its thoughtful and careful engagement, sought to make visitors and the group itself aware of how Indigenous histories interact with natural histories, with urban development, and order imposed on the park by city bureaucracy and policy. While subtle and open, their interventions were also deeply disruptive to the life of the Guild. For example, on the final day in the park, this large group set up in the middle of the most visible and traversed place in the park, offering blueberries, wild rice, and tea to the passersby. They made maps of the site and talked about their experiences of nature at the Scarborough Bluffs, and their encounters with the new lessees of the park space (a large corporation that entered into a partnership with the city to offer a 7,000-square-foot wedding venue on-site), who were less than welcoming. As the collective sat and chatted with visitors, several wedding parties passed by to take photos inside the park’s famous architectural ruins. Shored Up Collective was in their way, subtly but no less potently disturbing the goings-on, reminding us of the political and social complexities of public space, of nature’s continued presence despite human negation of it, and, of course, of the Indigenous history of the site (especially via food such as wild rice and blueberries) that has been covered up by colonial architecture.

In the two related series of works entitled Strain (2015) and straining and absorbing (2015), exhibited at the Doris McCarthy Gallery, Myers again offered subtle and powerful symbols of Indigenous history that continuously intervenes into settler spaces. Myers works with anthocyanin pigment from blueberries to create prints and videos. The three videos in the main gallery space are, in essence, a trio of performances in which we witness the artist making prints with blueberry ink. The videos are simple: they show a close-up of Myers’s hands moving up and down as she prepares the ink and pours it onto the silkscreen. 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—a short moment in the video that 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. Myers 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 the personal, but imbued with all those, indigenizing and transgressing both the aesthetic form and content. The blueberries used to make the prints are, in a way, still alive, because once printed, they keep changing colour (due to chemical reactions between the blueberry ink and the 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 (a dye that will not stay stable) also lies the truth of the undercurrent of Myers’s print series—the ways in which Indigenous stories and narratives are always present, alive, and growing over time.

In his practice, Basil AlZeri often mines his personal experience of working as an educator and community organizer to get at a truth of broader social and political contexts and, in effect, translate the personal into the political. AlZeri’s interactive works strive to erase the artist-audience dichotomy and create a new kind of artistic engagement. His constant probing of questions of power, hierarchy, everyday survival, and necessity reflects elements of the ways his aesthetic practice unfolds. For (Un)settled, AlZeri created several interrelated performances and installations. During his residency at Guild Park, he spent his time strolling the grounds to get a sense of their history and everyday use. In the end, he chose to create a guided tour, mimicking tours offered by Friends of the Guild and other heritage associations and groups. While a typical heritage tour consists of a guide talking about the Guild and its history, its architecture and art, AlZeri completely reversed this by creating a tour in which he, as the guide, attempted to (somewhat unsuccessfully but still powerfully) hide the architecture and gardens by using a large green screen, and instead talked about the disruptions to the site. For example, on the first stop of his tour he covered a large classical Doric column with the green screen, revealing only a piece of its pedestal, where a small patch of moss grew. The artist then proceeded to talk about moss, its history and use in everyday life, its importance in the natural order. As he continued the tour, he repeated a similar gesture of hiding the hierarchical narrative of heritage, of what is deemed important to be preserved and what is not, and at the same time continuing to make us aware of the invisible histories of land and political struggle.

In a similar vein, AlZeri created an intervention in the Doris McCarthy Gallery. For Crooked Homes, Towers and Structures (2017), he used his own collection of pedestals alongside those from the gallery’s own 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 displayed on a pedestal are often separated from the context of their everyday use.

This tension between power and powerlessness, deeply embedded in the Western museological history, is partly what AlZeri questions in his installation. Another part of his work reflects an interest in modernist, minimalist aesthetic, with its quasi-disinterested, apolitical stance that celebrates the cerebral, architectural, and monumental. Indeed, visitors entering the gallery stumble upon AlZeri’s work almost by accident. And while the pedestals are many, and curiously arranged in a corner of the space, what perhaps strikes us most 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 and minimalist art, and alluding to the work of urban planning and development. And, most of all, a sense of irreverence is clearly embodied in the leaning towers and unflattering placement of these tall, curious objects. This gesture continues as the artist invites visitors to sit on the piece, walk around it, touch it. The food and drinks at the opening reception were served to people who sat on the installation, chatting and drinking. Art, for AlZeri, is a movable target that one ends up sitting on.

Finally, Terrance Houle’s performance, photographic, and audio-video series GHOST DAYS (2014/2017) offers complex narratives that mine the personal and fictional histories of Indigenous ghosts. Houle has been working on this project for a few years, and through it he 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 through the oral tradition of the land. During the residency at Guild Park, Houle collaborated with artist Matt Walker on a multi-day interdisciplinary series of audio-video live performances for which the two artists recorded sounds of nature, then edited and fed them back into their performances. They also visited Taber Hill, an ancient Wyandot (Huron) burial mound situated in today’s neighbourhood of Bellamy Road and Lawrence Avenue. This important yet awkwardly preserved site is a reminder of the rich, lively Indigenous history of Scarborough. However, as with all Indigenous history in Toronto, it is not properly marked and interpreted. Houle and Walker visited the hill and recorded its soundscape, which was then incorporated into a live performance in Guild Park at the edge of Scarborough Bluffs. An enormous sound amplifier/sculpture built by Walker projected the music played by Houle. The intersection of the live sounds of Houle’s Theremin, his mother’s prayer for the land, and the recorded nature sounds (especially birds) created an eerie, haunting homage to nature’s hidden histories, as well as to Indigenous stories that exist in the land.

All the artists who participated in (Un)settled/Unsettling chose to work with tensions and hostilities that emerge over sites of history, sites in which nature and human intervention clash, and sites of memorialization and public memory. Whether in the park or the gallery space, memory and history are questioned. 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.8 “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.”9 Rather than thinking of monuments as sites where truths 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 (Un)settled/Unsettling took those seeds of destruction and used them to reveal alternative histories—or deep histories, if you will—of the lands that are currently called Scarborough and Canada. This deep history is Indigenous history, a history from the bottom, of those who are often forgotten—immigrants, the poor, those who are marginalized, racialized, queer, and placed outside monuments, architecture, or history books. And yet Indigenous histories, and the histories of those who are marginalized, still continue, and stand unabated by official history’s violence, unsettling its dominant narratives. This project was 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.