Parks Canada or the Technonaissance?
The Khyber, 10 July – 5 August 2001
I. Prelude -
A constructed geography.
How did I begin to think about what an idyllic landscape was? I am fond of springtime mud, since it reminds me of good times in the springs of my childhood. But I’m thinking of how cool it would have been to play in some of the landscapes of Ajax…that stream, that hill, seem perfect for imagined scenarios, playing soldier, playing castle, and yet, they are so unsuitable because of the pollution, because of the highways. They are fragments of a greater ideal
Where 22nd Century characters walk, and say,
“My, look at that stream, these lovely trees, this beautiful park”.
For my adult mind, where sci-fi has taken over the role once occupied by castles and forts, there is something “utopian” in the ways these parks are designed, and I think about how things like this, parks, the landscaping, in residential areas are built to last. (Although, unfortunately, it is conceivable, that they too could be plowed over one day for another high-rise).These parks are beautiful, in the same way that Chinese social realist art is beautiful – well designed and executed, but undermined by a disturbing ideology. The parks are like IKEA furniture made with grass and trees. Here, it’s a human imposition upon nature, which is something that needs no human presence to function correctly.
The stream is now clear,
in this constructed geography.
On the net I saw Florence Italy from the sky.
It too once had walls, but these have been absorbed by its own red-brick urban development. Could it be that in 500 years, historians will look back and talk about our time in a similar way?
It’s a comforting thought, to see the all of our creative energies, to look at all of the resources we use to construct art objects, like films, and TV shows, which future historians would look at without the hierarchies of High and Low that we use today, and they would marvel at this time period, when computers and cars and robots are new.
But at the same time, what are the chances that civilization has at least 500 more years to go, what with the way we are squandering our resources (for example, plastic comes from oil, oil is non renewable, and look at the waste plastic grocery bags represent)? In addition to the stockpile of nuclear weapons and the shortsightedness of the business and the political elite?
At least, if we go out, it’ll be on a high note, eh?
The technonaissance, or The Late Age of Capital.
The Late Age of Capital – I borrowed this term from an historian, who wrote a book called A Short History of the Future1. The book is many things – a sci-fi novel, a projection of current trends, and an academic exploration of our current utopian ideas. In the book, the mid 21st Century is marked by the third world war. Nukes destroy the Northern Hemisphere. From the ashes of this capitalist civilization, a new socialist world government arises [Utopia # 2] whose economic philosophy is anti-capitalist along the lines of: Never again will we allow the world to become so crappy by allowing short sighted profiteers to override human concerns.
The early days of plastics
I was going to the Royal Ontario Museum a lot last year. I had seen the movie Gladiator and was struck by certain aspects of it that clashed with the world as I knew it today. Especially the line where Maximus tells the Emperor about how his child plays with wild ponies. I certainly wasn’t able to play with wild ponies as a child. This reminded me of our relentless desire to “tame” nature and the fact that we are driving so many animals to extinction, which is an immeasurable loss.
Not: Don Boudria. Liberal House Leader slams the MP pay raise through in record time, the endangered-species bill still waiting four years after it was first introduced.
—The Globe and Mail, Saturday 9 June 2001, page A5, Political Notebook Who’s Hot Who’s Not
One of the things that struck me going through the rooms, was the lack of colour in the ancient world. We forget today the power of purple, and how expensive blue was for most of our collective human history. I’m standing there looking at clay pots and jars, everything is coloured in browns, and other earth-tones, and I think about growing up with coloured Tupperware, inexpensive and mass produced.
With a Nova Scotia Tuscany and an Ontario Rome.
Let’s not kid ourselves. New York is the place to be an artist in North America. It is the “capital of the world” as many have said. But I was struck while living in Halifax with how vibrant the artistic culture was, and how so many things my fellow art students were doing seemed to me to be just as cool as the stuff I was reading about in Artforum. But the media structures are set up in such a way so that only when you read about something or see it on TV, only when it is reproduced in the media, does it become “legitimized”.
While I was growing up in southwestern Nova Scotia, I developed an interest in Leonardo da Vinci, and subsequently, an interest in the Renaissance. You could say that I am guilty of wanting to live during that time, sentenced to a desire to at least visit it (using the latest in time machine technology), how I’d love to meet Da Vinci and Michalanglo. I am also fascinated by how they have ceased to be human and are now characters in a greater metanarrative told by our Western Civilization, examples of the “artistic genius” as well as the “great dead white European male”.
But growing in up Nova Scotia, one is confronted with hype at an early age. “Nova Scotia, Canada’s Ocean Playground”. We’re all sailors, we all love sailboats and all of our ancestors smoked pipes, wore yellow sou’westers and said “argh”. I am frustrated that the contemporary artistic culture in Halifax is ignored in favor of folk art. I came to think of Nova Scotia as being somewhat like Tuscany in the 15th Century and Halifax as it Florence – the common rurality, the milky light vs. the Tuscan haze, and how people now as then, and all over the world for that matter, come to the city to do business and to be part of culture as a whole. They come to Halifax to study and live out the university student lifestyle. But then, they leave. During the Renaissance, Florentine artists like Michealangelo left to go to Rome, where there was opportunity to work for Pope Julius II.
I probably should have written, New York Rome…
Red brick homes
Part of the fascination with the suburban landscape began while walking, especially the walk up the hill when I wanted to browse in Chapters. These subdivisions are homogenized by style and by substance, a reddish brick that reminded me of photographs of Tuscany and Florence.
Behind walls – made of wood, designed to keep out the highway noise, like cellular walls bordering the capillaries and the arteries.
In addition, they are surrounded by fences, which exist for a variety of purposes – to demarcate territory, for security, but also, in some cases, to help baffle the noise of the traffic. And the traffic in itself is fascinating.
It’s a fractal – the microcosm of an organism in the macro scale. Blood cells carry oxygen to the cells and the organs, and here on the 401, cars carry information, in the form of people, to the organizations – corporations, libraries, art galleries, museums, sporting events. They rest in homes, which are like individual cells. One day, the city as organism will say, “Within each home is a computer, containing the codes that make us up….”
II. Parks Canada -
For a long time now I have been interested in how the future would look upon the present. Perhaps this is because of my upbringing, my education, having gone on field trips to Port Royal and visiting Louisberg on family vacations, as well as coming to art through the study of the Renaissance. My education taught me the connection between history and the objects people leave behind. This was further developed while at university, when I studied some archaeology, before going to art school.
I remember walking through the streets of Halifax early in the morning, especially one time in June of 1998, when I was coming home from Tim Horton’s and walking along Birmingham Street. It was around 5.30am and I was struck then by the silence, the emptiness, the cars parked and still, and yet, because of the time of year, it was daylight. It felt like our historical villages, like Louisberg, Fort Anne, Port Royal, and Citadel Hill; these so called “authentic” re-creations, which are distinctly underpopulated and underdeveloped. The animators dress in “period costume” and yet, I imagine that no clothing from that time was so clean or so well made. But it doesn’t matter – it’s all engineered to suggest, to awaken a spark of imagination that will ignite a fuse which in turn, will violate the laws of time and allow one to experience the only form of time travel we know. It’s about helping us conceive of a time when soft drinks and automobiles did not exist.
But what about using that spark to travel forward in time?
In this year of 1999, we have essentially arrived in the future that writers and films have dreamed of since the birth of science fiction, and so our science fiction is now turning its eye either inwardly to the present or to new visions of the 21st century built upon what we know now. 2
I have always been interested in the future as it has been depicted in the media. While growing up I regularly became a fan of whatever TV show had some basis in the future, which usually involved the 21st Century. 3 In moving to Toronto, I was partially interested in living in a world that William Gibson described in his novels, a world where ecocide has been pursued until concrete and technology are all that humanity seems to ever have known.4 I wanted to ride its trains – trains are so sci-fi – and I wanted to look at “urbanity”, in a context that was different from what I had known in Halifax. But my fascination with seeing a fiction as a reality soon disappeared as the illness of it all became apparent – the fact that it is ecocidal, which is turn, translates eventually into being suicidal.
And so, as I drove around Ajax, loathing its car friendly design over the pedestrian, the seeming insane joy at development, and the confirmation of certain suburb stereotypes (the popularity of SUV’s for instance) I began to think, this is all an historicism. These things will not last.
Pretending then, to see this area as a Parks Canada historical recreation of what we call urban sprawl today, and my neighbors as actors of “what life was like in a consumerist capitalist culture”. But also seeing it as a moment in time, the turn of the 21st Century, the time when our technology is still fresh on the scene, the period of the “birth of technology” and thus, the technonaissance. Such a time has its own aesthetic characteristics, which I am interested in.
III. The Present, The Technonaissance
What are today’s aesthetic characteristics? On some of the invites the words were cut off at the edge. At first, this kind of bothered me, but then I remembered when I used to do that on purpose, inspired by Raygun magazine’s notorious layouts…it’s what Heidegger pointed out with the nature of being, that only when something is broken does its being reveal itself. Broken text reminds you that you’re reading – that you’re only looking at symbols.
The text broken by the deckled edge, a roughness we plow under, a weed we spray Roundup on. Why I am bothered that some of the text is imperfect? Because it doesn’t correspond to manicured lawns?
I remember thinking that Raygun expressed well the chaos of today, how everything is dissolving into subgenera and fractals of everything else, cohesion provided only by the media, the frame of the TV or the computer screen. But I don’t think about that so much anymore. I just see it now as a celebrity obsessed childish culture, an idiot’s paradise where thoughts and ideas are rejected in favor of the new and the shiny, and we are taught to consume like fat friars in medieval parodies, taking one bite out of the chicken leg before tossing it behind their shoulder, moving one to take one bite out of the apple before it too gets thrown away. This food, that the peasants worked so hard to produce…
And where do fat friars live today?
A park for tourists, to experience an idiot’s paradise in an enlightened future?
It’s everywhere. Canadian politicians buy trendy eyewear. Al Gore is advised by Naomi Wolf to wear earth tones. BBC World runs a segment on Brazilian show salesmen having their buttocks enlarged with silicone. Men’s Health instructs their readers to wear, in this order: leather, stiff collars, turtlenecks, unvented jackets, untucked shirts, non-pastels, layers, colour combinations, monochromes, contrasting collars and clothes that are too big. The underlying message is ‘You’re just not good enough.’ Fixing your flawed self will cost money. That’s the whole point of articles like that: They damage self worth and then rebuild it by means of expensive accoutrements urged on by the magazines advertisers. 5 — The Globe and Mail, Saturday 23 June 2001
That's the whole point of the constructed geography. Nature by itself just isn’t good enough. We have to damage its intrinsic value, destroy what’s there, to rebuild it in the image that suits the bourgeois demographic. And given that such a suburban environment typifies so well this day and age, is it not conceivable that in two hundred years, Parks Canada (if it still exists) will reconstruct one and fill it with animators having back yard barbecues, wearing flip flops and drinking beer? They’ll make a big show about going to the grocery store in an SUV.
These reconstructed parks, what are they other than the commodification of the landscape? What then is tourism other than the commodification of geography? These parks are about rebuilding, recreating, using “authentic” techniques, in order to make the illusion as real as possible. But of course, some things are not reproduced, like having the animators toss chamber pots out the windows in the morning. The smell of these parks is our smell. Side rooms that would have originally been storage closets or the like now contain porcelain toilets and sinks. The modern bathroom is a convenience that none want to do without, even for the sake of the past.
And these subdivisions, so uniform in appearance, aren’t they not the result of a plan, of a developer plowing under a farmer’s field, once used to grow food, so that they can build crescents and cul-de-sacs, commodify the landscape by turning it into real estate? And this real estate, with its parks that exist pragmatically as soccer fields and baseball diamonds – what does that say about the demographic that they imagine want to live in a suburb? They don’t preserve grasslands for young artists to wander through and daydream, where they can find wildflowers or what-nots. No, they impose the order of the sporting event; “this field exists so that boys can learn patriarchal games” – so that they learn the value of cooperating in order to compete, rather than to make the world a more livable place.
In 2019, at a special closed high-level session in its Zurich world headquarters, the GTC approved a high-priority project to design the “perfect” man and woman. Shielded from public discussion, the GTC directors decided that perfection included not only lofty intelligence but also a ruthless competitive instinct and a dollop of energizing paranoia. — A Short History of the Future, page 93
The only possibility for hope in such a world is to play the time travelling historian. The works in this show, photographs and drawings, are evidence, are explorations and illustrations of ideas, and they are an attempt to route out the fascinating sci-fi elements of this environment, hoping that one day, it will be a part of history.
The work presented here is very much an exploration of the geometry of the geography, and how I imagine a couple walking in the park across the road in a 150 years and they do this appreciating the geography because of its heritage value, instead of loathing it as urban sprawl.
1. W. Warren Wagar A Short History of the Future 3rd Edition, 1999; ISBN 0-226-86903-2 University of Chicago Press
2. http://www.upcomingmovies.com/billiondollarhotel.html "Greg's Preview Thoughts: 13 May 1999" a review of the film A Million Dollar Hotel, by Wim Wenders.
3. My show in the Khyber stairwell, Come See how bad I used to draw, during March of 1999, was an example of this.
4. Gibson came to Canada as a draft-dodger in the late 60s, living in Toronto before moving to Vancouver where he still lives, so perhaps it's no surprise that the landscape of Toronto should remind me of his books, or that his books should remind me of the landscape around Toronto.
5. Heather Mallick, "What do wo/men want?" subsection, "Men" Page R1, (The Weekend Review) The Globe and Mail, Saturday 23 June 2001
Thanks to: Chris Lloyd, Caroline Chan, Sasha Havlik, Stephen MacEachern, Sara Spike and Winnie Fung, for their assistance in the preparation and presentation of this show.
- 2001: This was first produced as a staple bound booklet with the following statement:
The Khyber Skylight Gallery, July 10 – August 5 2001, 1588 Barrington St, Halifax, NS B3J 1Z6 (902) 422 9668 with grateful acknowledgement to the Canada Council. Booklet written, designed, and printed by Timothy Comeau using Word 97 software. No copyright unless you intend to make a profit, in which case please ask first: email@example.com ISBN 0-9689430-2-0
- 2001–2014: It was digitized early on and was listed on my websites
- 2004–2015: archived on my blog
- 2015: this version produced