A plea for salvation

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November  12th, 2013

A plea for salvation

The impious maintain that nonsense is normal in the Library and that the reasonable (and even humble and pure coherence) is an almost miraculous exception.

– Jorge Luis Borges [1]

I hesitate to use the word democracy – its connotations already overburdened with concepts like ‘majority representation’, ‘republicanism’, and other arrogations – but perhaps a truer form, a more encompassed approach, is on the minds of the artists and curators at the King Edward School. I want to expand on Andrea Williamson’s inimitable writings about PHANTOM WING and Boris Groys; focusing on the artist as a harbinger of the future, the prescient guide of a distant but inevitable utopia. [2]


Right now, I am thinking of Melinda Topilko, Peter Britton, and Lindsay Joy’s Girl Gang Dance Party. Their contribution to PHANTOM WING comprises an old girls’ bathroom repurposed and made new. They have decorated the mirrors and counters with tokens of ’60s nostalgia while old dance tunes circulate on vinyl and vintage hygienic illustrations adorn the walls.

I am thinking about their appropriated bathroom site as something truly democratic: a representation of that which we all hold in common. I am thinking about the processing of waste as the commonest denominator of humanity. I am thinking of accumulation and disposal, intake and excrement, burdening and shedding, inhaling and exhaling, gain and loss. Topilko, Britton, and Joy focus on the latter half of this binary, manifested physically in the bathroom site, but further elaborated as they provide a venue for unleashing and baring. A safe place.

Each stall provides a visitor with a different form of unloading or banishing, different ways to take control. Emotional burdens and desperate secrets can be pinned down, captured in the shackles of language, written on slips of paper and released into a glowing toilet bowl. Another stall has been converted into a photo booth, wherein the unsure and the shy (and possibly the distressed, the wounded, the mascara-streaked refugees) can photograph themselves on disposable cameras. The film cameras are an important touch, here. The time it takes to develop the resulting photographs means we are not granted an instantaneous image to judge. Superficial self-deprecation is precluded. We cannot critique the frozen absurdity of our own face as soon as the shutter closes, as we can when enacting selfies on our iPhones or webcams. We will be equally imperfect when the developed images are posted online. We will be equally beautiful in our naturality.

Despite their reliance on nostalgic tropes, these artists have effectively prototyped a new kind of ‘restroom’ or haven – one that insists on nurturing equality and the comfort it entails. Here, one is given the luxury to be human.


Lowell Smith and Sarah Storteboom provide participants with another basic amenity: the right to speak. In addition to fulfilling a function necessary for the infrastructure of the exhibition – delivering informative notifications for PHANTOM WING schedules – Smith and Storteboom’s PA system allows opportunities for the public to transcend the passive role of ‘viewer’ and engage in their own way. Anyone can approach their recreated school office and pass on a message to be broadcast on the revived public announcement system. Specifically, their project description allows one to ‘give their feedback to the artists’, dispersing critical reflection in real-time. [3] The hierarchy between ‘participant’ and ‘artist’ is removed.

These artists are not creating ‘works’ as much as they are creating ‘opportunities’. Their contributions are not intended to be ‘observed’ as much as they are meant to be ‘participated within’. Indeed, the curators themselves mimic their approach on a grander scale.

I am thinking about a recent article published on the work of Arbour Lake Sghool – a locally-based collective with members partially responsible for the instigation of WRECK CITY and developing its spiritual predecessor, the Leona Drive Project. They are currently concluding a residency in Hoorn, North Holland, wherein they set up a public access television station and studio. In an interview with Metropolis M magazine, Arbour Lake Sghool representatives were asked if they ‘wanted to say something with [their work]’. [4] Their response:

No, not really. It’s more of a gesture. We rarely if ever want to communicate specific ideas. We basically just wanted to give the inhabitants of Hoorn the possibility to tell their story. We are really hesitant about attaching specific politics to something like this … That kind of gesture undermines the actual content that people are making.

WRECK CITY created innumerable possibilities for individuals of varied and disparate communities to interact and collaborate. Artists from distant cities were invited in, building friendships as well as installations, while local writers, passers-by, and artists from many fields and insularities were equally united in the ineffability of the project. It gave rise to a trading post and methods of alternative currency, it effectively utilized untested civically-instigated (and potentially [initially] misguided) crowdfunding strategies, and despite its artsy grassroots origins (read: pretentious), it elicited an unforeseen response from an attentive city. It revitalized the to-be-demolished neighbourhood in a way that unmistakably transcends the capabilities of property developers and municipal legislators – even eclipsing the plans of the overseeing curators (who should more accurately [and nobly] be referred to as ‘facilitators’).


PHANTOM WING elaborated and refined the adventurous spirit of WRECK CITY. By pairing grassroots/do-it-yourself ethicists with the bureaucratically arms-length and risk-adverse CSpace, new possibilities were created. New methods of collaboration have been realized. Perhaps a precedent for future endeavours has been established. Maybe a better world awaits, where the heft of the government and the willingful passion of the arts youngsters can coalesce and realize Groys’ dream of an eventual political climate foretold by art. [5]

But we cannot rely on this better world to realize itself. Indeed, as curators (‘facilitators’) Caitlind Brown, Matthew Mark, Jennifer Crighton, and Shawn Mankowske have demonstrated both at PHANTOM WING and WRECK CITY, the artist must live up to their emboldened role – the heavy praise keenly articulated in the YYC Artsplan articles. [6] The artist must become the visionary, the scrying innovator, the ‘time traveler’ whose efforts bring forth the future. [7]

Before it is done, it must be demonstrated to be possible. Our artworks must comprise the instigation of space and possibility. The artist/viewer paradigm must be reconsidered. Hierarchies must be inverted or destroyed. Status quos should be questioned in lieu of a truer form of commensuration. New equilibriums should be proposed. If we are truly in pursuit of democracy (and I do not think we are ready to give it up yet) we would be wise to look to Girl Gang Dance Party, Smith and Storteboom’s PA system, Arbour Lake Sghool, and WRECK CITY’s patient subversion of the artistic/civic role. This is about so much more than the ‘exhibition’ of art. This about the ‘power’ of art, the opportunities it creates, the relationships it oversees, the interactions it allows.

I am not content to wait for the future. Already, a better world is forming, taking shape, becoming.

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[1] Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel: http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/users/00/pwillen1/lit/babel.htm

[2] Andrea Williamson, Notes on the Archive: https://phantomwing.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/notes-on-the-archive/

[3] PHANTOM WING artists: https://phantomwing.wordpress.com/artist/

[4] Pam Roos ten Barge, The Arbour Lake Sghool brings Public Access Television to Hoorn: http://metropolism.com/features/the-arbour-lake-sghool-brings-pu/english

[5] Boris Groys, Art Workers: Between Utopia and the Archivehttp://www.e-flux.com/journal/art-workers-between-utopia-and-the-archive/

[6] YYC Artsplan Visionary Articles: http://artsplan.ca/visionary-articles?page=1

[7] Patrick Finn, Artists are Dangeroushttp://artsplan.ca/content/artists-are-dangerous