The Shoreline Dilemma
by Valérie Frappier
How can we think about place more expansively, and against behaviours like imposition, dispossession and extraction? The guiding question that curators Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien posed in response resonated throughout the Toronto Biennial of Art’s 72- day inaugural exhibition: “What does it mean to be in relation?” Indigenous, Canadian and transnational artists took up this question in pluralistic ways across the multi-venue exhibition focused on Lake Ontario’s watershed. Rather than perpetuate an anthropocentric, grid-like understanding of the city, a constellation of sites anchored by the lake spanned westward from Etobicoke Creek, eastward to the Port Lands and all the way north to where Black Creek flows past the Art Gallery of York University. What surfaced in response was an unearthing of knowledges that have been submerged through colonial-capitalist expansion.
In thinking of what it means to be in meaningful relation to Toronto’s territory, an excavation of its histories must take place. The Jumblies Theatre & Arts with Ange Loft animated this history; By These Presents: “Purchasing” Toronto (2019), an iteration of their Talking Treaties (2017–ongoing) project, manifested as a multifaceted installation with weekly workshops at Mississauga’s Small Arms Inspection Building, informing audience members of Toronto’s Indigenous history and treaties, and asking participants to consider what treaty-making means to them. In the installation, a textile map of the city’s river network was surrounded by piles of various objects representing goods that were given by the British to the Mississaugas of the Credit in the alleged 1787 trade for Toronto, including kettles, glass jugs wrapped in fabric, mirrors and bags inscribed with a pound sign. In the group’s work, the much earlier land agreement of the Dish With One Spoon, made among the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous nations to peaceably share the region’s land, is also recalled, evidencing an altogether different understanding of this land and the beings that cohabitate it. These differences bring to mind what Hayden King—the writer and educator who recently announced that he “regrets” having written Ryerson University’s land acknowledgment, upon which so many others have been based—voiced: that treaties are not metaphors, and that the acknowledgement of these treaties today necessitates an ongoing commitment and obligation to action.
Loft is also author of the Biennial’s Toronto Indigenous Context Brief, an inexhaustive working document she was commissioned to create by the Biennial to impart Indigenous histories of the region—many of which are complex and overlapping, and interrupt any prevailing, singular colonial narrative of Toronto— which the exhibition’s team and invited artists in turn used as a framework in their site-specific responses to place. Reflecting on this, Loft noted that, in Toronto, “Every time a condo goes up, they have to dig down. Exploring the changes in our city means we must also examine our foundations.” Such a literal unearthing materialized in Maria Thereza Alves’s Garrison Creek (2019) at the 259 Lake Shore headquarters, an installation featuring a pile of jute bags filled with excavated soil from Bickford Park where the creek used to flow. Hung overtop the bags, a semi-transparent archival photograph of the Harbord Street Bridge showed the body of water before it was buried in the early 1900s. In Riverdale Park, a parallel sculpture titled Phantom Pain (2019) consisted of five flat, curved steel markers, subtly embedded in the grass to outline the original route of the Don River prior to its straightening in the 1880s (an undertaking aimed at improving the movement of polluted waters, which only left the Don more susceptible to flooding). Together, Alves’s works conjured the memories of both waterways’ original routes, and displaced human-centred notions of time.
Waterways and lands bear the weight of extractive behaviour, but intimate knowledge of and connections with these entities are a counterpoint to these abusive relationships, as evidenced in Caroline Monnet’s The Flow Between Hard Places (2019). Made of Ductal® concrete, the sculpture depicted the sound waves produced when pronouncing Pasapkedjinawong, which means “the river that passes between the rocks” in Anishinaabemowin, creating a monument to the embodied knowledge contained within this word and the foundational connections to land embodied by those who speak it. The work’s sinuosity also made reference to other flows of resistance, such as when Chief Pakinawatik and 60 Algonquins of Kitigan Zibi—located in Quebec’s Outaouais region—made their way to Toronto in canoes to demand from the Governor General’s Office that sections of their traditional lands be restored to them.
Flows contesting colonial boundaries were also mapped in Fernando Palma Rodríguez’s installation Cihuapapalutzin (2019)—_Tocihuapaplutzin_ meaning “our revered lady butterfly” in Nahuatl—featuring 104 robotic monarch butterflies made from recycled cans in an ode to the sole species that migrates between Mexico and Canada. The monarchs’ flapping was fuelled by power boxes on which Palma Rodríguez had handwritten in Spanish and English Sí a la vida, no a la minería and “Yes to life, no to mining”—referencing the mining activity in his home country of Mexico, which is overwhelmingly undertaken by Canadian corporations. Canadian mining companies account for roughly three-quarters of mining activity worldwide and many of which are headquartered in Toronto’s Financial District. In their video work Pleasure Prospects (2019), the New Mineral Collective brought attention to Toronto as a nexus of extractive capital by showcasing scenes from the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada’s mineral exploration and mining convention hosted annually in the city. Through their proposed strategy of “counter prospecting,” the collective gestured to the possibility of relating with land otherwise, asking: “How to pierce the violence, not the surface?”
Aspects of the mining industry were further contextualized in a Financial District walking tour titled The Bank, The Mine, The Colony, The Crime (2019). As part of its extensive community programming, the Biennial partnered with WalkingLab and ReImagining Value Action Lab to invite activist and artist groups to participate in the tour, which brought to light the underlying implications of the sources of finance that feed the Toronto Stock Exchange. One such activist group was the Toronto-based Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN), which works to resist and educate about the harmful practices of Canadian mining corporations in direct solidarity with affected communities. MISN addressed the lack of legal supervision holding Canadian mining companies liable for their operations abroad due to Canadian courts deeming these actions outside their jurisdiction, resulting in corporations’ abusive actions often going unchallenged. The group exemplified this phenomenon by discussing human rights and environmental abuses initiated by Canadian companies—including Yamana Gold in Argentina, Hudbay Minerals in Guatemala and Barrick Gold in Papua New Guinea—as well as highlighting how affected communities resist these violations, with some cases having successfully entered the legal system.
The Biennial itself was not immune to such flows of capital, with several mining companies providing noteworthy funding to the event. What is to be said of the Biennial’s decision to support knowledge production against extraction with backing directly from these funders, using its platform to commission artists and highlight activists challenging the extractive status quo? While ideally this money would be used to support communities experiencing the effects of these industries first-hand, such a flow of money is highly unlikely given that it would register as the companies’ admission of wrongdoing, and secondly, that such a degree of social service is rarely the domain of art— despite art’s earnest activist intentions. The question of this paradoxical income source of course concerns not just the Biennial but the wider Canadian art system as a whole, significantly steeped in questionable sources of capital. We are all entangled to various degrees and, as MISN reminds us, Canadians—whether consciously or not—hugely benefit from extractive investment, whether through our banks, pension plans and the economy more broadly. Ultimately, the Biennial’s use of such funds both epitomizes and attempts to navigate the contradictions of our economic present.
Overall, the Biennial brought up complex questions around land and justice, providing space for meaningful knowledge-sharing and acts of repair to take place, the most potent strategy for which was that of relation. In the words of Loft: “Being in relation takes time, energy, and investment to learn what is in between— what holds us up and what keeps us together.” With this commitment to each other, to the non-human and to thoroughly examining our foundations’ flows—both material and immaterial—the groundwork for repair can continue to be sowed, watered and hopefully extended to more long-term justice initiatives as the Biennial readies its next iterations.