by Parker Kay, Amy Lam, and Lisa Smolkin
Dear c magazine,
I am writing on behalf of the Chinatown Anti-Displacement Zen Garden located in the outdoor courtyard of Chinatown Centre, in Toronto, organized by the community arts centre Tea Base and its friends. The garden is located in a semi-circular concrete container that used to be a fountain (removed by mall management due to a conflict over its feng shui). We planted and named the garden after the struggles that people in Chinatowns all over North America face, in terms of real estate developer recklessness, unaffordability, non-consensual destruction of ways of life, all of the general crushing pressures on low-income racialized people.
Someone commented on an Instagram post about the garden: “How can a garden stop gentrification?” At first, I thought the answer is obviously in the people who care for the plants—the gardeners, not the garden. Just like how stories are in the people who have to live with monuments, not the monuments themselves. But, maybe the answer is also in the garden: in the plants and in the soil and in the water.
Toni Morrison died today, and I read this quote from her essay “The Site of Memory”: “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasion- ally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remember- ing. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
In your recent issue, you decided that it was important to look at the notion of “Monument” with a sideways glance, to subvert the idea that history follows an authoritative linear path. In search of strategies to build a better future and challenge notions of historical narratives, your issue defies the all-too-common impulse to shine a light straight towards a subject and stop at description. Instead the artist’s practices, projects and initiatives featured embody traces of dappled light scattering from oblique angles.
This makes me think about the relationship between the monument and the ruin. When does a monument become a ruin? Do the ruinous effects of time make a monument worth celebrating?
In the case of Life of a Craphead’s (LOAC) King Edward VII Equestrian Statue Floating Down the Don River, the proposal of corrective action on colonial history is embedded within this translation from monument to ruin through the relocation of the statue from Toronto’s Queen’s Park to the toxic waters of the Don River. The viewing audience was—and continues to be, by way of a 9-minute video—encouraged to believe that LOAC inconspicuously moved this 15-foot bronze equestrian statue and dumped it into the Don—and I wouldn’t put it past them. However, it’s actually a prop replica of the statue; with the help of a kind of movie magic, the viewer completes the sculpture and can indulge in the parafictional world LOAC have created.
The “observer effect” suggests that by merely observing a phenomenon we end up changing the very phenomenon being observed. In other words, if we shine a light on a subject to try and see it in its entirety, we can’t help but squint at the light reflecting back into our eyes. I think that the Bentway, a 1.75 km area underneath the Gardiner Expressway, struggles with this very issue. To formalize a space for arts and culture in what used to be a non-space is to institutionalize the liminal, and risks pulling the sideways glance into a straight-on view. The Bentway’s New Monuments for New Cities (2019) project asks important questions on the evolution of the monument, while also likely contributing to gentrification in the area—a cultural ruin unto itself. This paradox is perhaps most effectively combated through an injection of playful fiction into the banality of urban ruin. Like King Edward, events such as Daniel Rotsztain’s Pillar Picnic (2019) and Tony Romano’s Ruins (2016) series suggest parameters for an alternate cityscape that embraces the possibilities of the sideways glance.
I am glad there is an interview with Life of a Craphead. When I read it, I tried to read each sentence slowly so I could understand and digest the interview because lately I have been mostly watching a lot of TV (reality) and not reading a lot and the timing is very different with reading and TV-watching. Reading allows for and requires more time and space to digest and un- derstand the words. In my early school life, I enjoyed comprehension tests because I was good at reading a story and then able to remember and pick out the relevant details. I am still good with details and emotional nuances. I never thought I had memory issues; I thought it was a sign of low mood, disinterest, disconnection or unhappiness that I couldn’t remember what I did on the weekend. But it turns out that it is possibly a short-term memory problem, one which I have chosen to treat with IV vitamin treatment like Brain Boost. While you are reading this letter, I am probably sitting in a hand-built wooden nook on Yonge Street getting a vitamin push. I think I stopped reading because I was scared of the extra space that reading allows—starting by reading a sentence, comprehending the words and ideas but winding up in rumination about my unsolvable problems.
I saw the performance King Edward VII Equestrian Statue Floating Down the Don. It was so alive! Live art with nature, water, trees, people—including some in kayaks pulling the huge statue replica, in what looked like to me an anti-colonial statement. It is so messed up that we have all these colonial statues. Statues by their sheer presence can oppress people; monuments of oppression. At this performance there were Proud Boys walking around and one tried to talk to me to ask me what I thought of the art. This was in my neighbourhood which was so great because when I felt sufficiently and legitimately scared by the neo-Nazis, I could walk home in under 10 minutes.
Life of a Craphead’s art is the great legitimate threat, though! It is using comedy and art for the best and highest purpose of JUSTICE. We must rebalance power; we must give voice to those without a voice!