C Magazine


Issue 124

Editorial: Strata
by Amish Morrell

Shortly before this issue went to press, C Magazine welcomed winter by holding what was, to my knowledge, Toronto’s only clothing-optional public art event in 2014. On the same day as the first snowfall of the year, artists and experienced sauna practitioners led programmed sessions as part of the Sauna Symposium, held in a traditional Finnish log sauna at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Farm. Throughout the day, participants alternately steamed on the wooden benches, listened to talks and participated in performances inside the sauna, and then cooled off by plunging into the nearby pond, where stone had been quarried to build the city of Toronto a century before. Led by artist-naturalists, they also walked through the surrounding forest and fields, studying and tasting the wild edible plants that that could still be found in the late fall, and drank tea made from burdock and mint harvested there the week before.

The idea for the symposium arose, in part, as a model for exploring how artists and others with specialized practices or local knowledge might activate particular sites, such as this rural landscape just outside of Toronto. It also asked how might they enhance our sensitivity to our surroundings and what new experiences might we create together? Moreover, the symposium was a way to invite others to participate in artist-run culture – the sprawling context of experimentation, exploration and sociality – which is one of the most interesting and dynamic dimensions of contemporary art.

For one of the sessions, about 25 of us gathered in the sauna at dusk for Steam Spell, a performance based on a sauna ritual of the Radical Faeries, led by Jamie Ross, an artist and witch from Montreal. In this performance, which was in part about acknowledging queer ancestors – invoking the bathhouse raids of the 1980’s and other queer histories – there was a sense of having been invited to participate in an intimate ritual, inherited and enacted by those who had come to the event. The stark contrast between the heat and conviviality of the sauna and the wintry darkness of the surrounding forest outside made the day’s activities seem that much more intimate and elemental. The performance also highlighted the embedded queerness of artist-run culture itself, its impulse to continually discover and celebrate the strange and the magical and its embrace of pleasure and intellectual curiosity as an integral part of its politics and community.

After Steam Spell, I walked back to the farmhouse through the forest, ascending the Niagara escarpment – the edge of an inland sea that submerged much of Southern Ontario more than 400 million years ago. In the dark, from the hillside above the sauna, I could see through the leafless trees, across the blackness of the forest to the lights of the city that was built upon this ancient seabed. For this particular issue of C, the geological strata that make up the escarpment provides an apt metaphor for this issue’s theme, insofar as an awareness of the layering and repetition of physical forms can heighten or shift one’s sense of how they are located in both space and time, opening up critical new vantage points onto familiar spaces.

Throughout this issue, contributors reveal and activate new dimensions of the spaces, images and objects around us, addressing physical as well as social stratification. In the artist project for this issue, Forms FTP, British artist Dan Holdsworth depicts the landscape of Washington State’s Mount St. Helens with a series of photographic relief inversions that alter the viewer’s ability to accurately interpret the volcano’s ever-changing topography, literally making it impossible to tell what is up from what is down. In our cover story, Yaniya Lee and Bill Burns discuss how Burns’ recent artworks draw attention to the often paradoxical hierarchies of the art world, and consider how it reflects the larger conditions and workings of late-industrial capitalism. Also related to the issue’s theme, other contributors invoke the sedimentation of cultural knowledge and material objects as a way of deepening and transforming our sense of the present. In Kimberly Phillips’ essay about Deadhead, Cedric, Nathan and Jim Bomford’s elaborate floating sculptural installation that references the myriad countercultural histories of Canada’s West Coast, the past literally comes floating back to the waterways around Vancouver through this artwork. And, in her essay on Del Hillier’s Trading Post, where an abandoned log cabin has been restored for use as a place to exchange objects that are no longer needed, Peta Rake describes a model of hospitable exchange between past and present, where host and guest are never in the same place at the same time. In describing an artwork presented at the Art Gallery of Ontario for our Artefact column, Alex Bowron discusses the repetition and layering of images that results when two artists perform the image of a woman on a diving board that recurs in the work of the late Canadian painter Alex Colville. Bowron describes this re-enactment as a way of returning agency to the subject of Colville’s original paintings. And, in her article on Mi’kmaw artist Ursula Johnson, Jane Affleck considers how Johnson’s work confronts prejudice and stereotypes as a way of “righting historical wrongs.”

As a way of framing the feature essays and projects in this issue, I like to think that the artists and writers are conjuring, repeating and reframing already existent ideas and forms. Such an approach eschews the continual production of newness, and avoids seeking out new geographical or intellectual frontiers in favour of a process of critical reactivation and ritual reinvention. With the ongoing emergence of new generations of artists and new audiences, important ideas need to be repeated, not only as a way of understanding the past, but also as a means of enriching and transforming the present.