18 October 2018


Museums on Earth | Jordan Fee

A few months ago, on one of those days that residents of Toronto became very familiar with over the course of the summer - heat radiating from every surface, transforming our very clothes into miniature greenhouses - I took a brief walk with my partner. As we strode westwards down Queen Street, I remarked that this scorchingly hot day was only a tepid representation of what, one day, would become our daily life. At this, I received a very curt response: “Honestly, I don't want to talk about that right now.” While I was joking around, I did believe my comment to be truthful; nevertheless, I understood the desire to not talk about how it was just going to get hotter, and hotter.

An audience member watches a video of burning ivory tusks, Photo courtesy of Jordan Fee
It is difficult to not be aware of the issue facing the entire human population - just last week, a report was published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that detailed the startling pace at which climate change is advancing upon us. Yet for some reason, we don’t seem to talk about these issues very much. People mentioned this report to me in the days following its publication, but since then the people have grown silent. Anecdotes aside, the conversation that I had with my partner spoke to something larger. I realized that it is rare that we have to confront our day to day realities on this subject. The conversation is in our midst, yet it exists almost nowhere. If we are going to get any better, then someone needs to say something.
Why not in a museum?

Recently, an exhibition opened at the Art Gallery of Ontario titled Anthropocene, featuring works from celebrated Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and award-winning filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. The title of the exhibition makes reference to a new era in the development of our planet, where humans now exert more energy than the earth’s own natural forces. This idea was not coined by the makers of this exhibition; French scholar Bruno Latour has written extensively on the topic, an example of which you can find here. (Note: you can also find an older post from Musings titled “Curating the Anthropocene”, which provides a different perspective on this new era!)

Reading Latour’s essay, one finds a pressing argument that does not attempt to obscure the realities of our current situation. When I visited Anthropocene last week, I found no such sense of immediacy. Even before going to the exhibition, I scanned the information page on the AGO’s website, and found the tone to be quite off-putting - not a single mention of a pressing issue (not even a single use of the words climate change!), but rather a number of vague sentences about the traces and “signatures” that we have left upon the planet. I was honestly sad at the lack of urgency displayed. The page even includes a statement from the artists, which is also featured next to the introductory panel for the exhibition. This statement reads: “Our ambition is for the work to be revelatory, not accusatory, as we examine human influence on the Earth both on a planetary scale and in geological time. The shifting of consciousness is the beginning of change.” Something that I have learned recently is that in writing, silence can be more important than anything else.

Detail of a photograph by Edward Burtynsky showing a Phosphor Tailings Pond in Florida,
Photo Courtesy of Jordan Fee
What they are not saying in this statement is what we are all not saying: that climate change is our fault, that it is happening right now, and that it will soon begin to affect our daily lives. The words climate change appear only once in the entire exhibition; a small boost in comparison to the museum's website. In addition to that, the language used in many of the descriptive panels lends itself even further to this vague interpretation of our effects on the world as being “powerful” and “poetic”, thus extending this strange artistic metaphor for the negative effects that industrial processes have wrought upon the Earth. It is true that some text within the exhibition does speak to the feeling of worry that some of the photographs and films evoke; thus the gravity of our current situation is acknowledged. But is this really useful commentary? Of course we are worried; but do we actually acknowledge these worries in a way that is even remotely constructive? Do we actually talk about climate change?

In 2014, writer and activist George Marshall published a book titled Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. This book provides a fascinating perspective on the topic of climate silence, documenting the ways in which people respond to questions about climate change. Marshall travels to towns affected by extreme weather events to speak with victims, to conservative Texas to speak with gun-toting tea-party voters, and even to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History - there is an entire chapter about how museums teach (or rather, fail to teach) about climate change. In all of these places, and in the many others discussed in his book, Marshall finds one commonality - a lack of desire to address these issues in a direct, meaningful manner.

A panel text written by filmmaker Jennifer Baichwal, Photo courtesy of Jordan Fee
I understand the artists’ desire to not be accusatory. Most museum visitors do not want to be accused of destroying the planet after paying for admission. But how is it that an exhibition such as Anthropocene, which according to the introductory panel text is based directly on scientific evidence, says so little about the realities of climate change? If the artists involved really wanted to begin a shift in our consciousness surrounding these issues, perhaps they should have chosen a more direct path.

17 October 2018


Ghosts of Toronto's Past | Rebecca Barrett

Katie Paolozza wrote an article for this column in 2017 about Honest Ed’s getting taken down. In that article, she raises an important question: “how should we then define a city that changes what is part of its core essence?” This article is my attempt to answer her, and all the other people who think that Toronto’s changing landscape is pushing our city’s heritage to the sidelines.

The critique is certainly fair – it seems that there are new condos going up every other day at the expense of beloved cultural institutions like Honest Ed’s. But the battle between condos and history isn’t black-and-white. In fact, we have more power over our city’s memorialization than we might think.

The demolition of Honest Ed's nearing completion. Source.

The “myth of Toronto”, the story and identity of our city, changes based on who you ask. Some people think Toronto’s myth is multiculturalism, for others it might be world-class cuisine, absolutely terrible public transit, or permanent construction. Insofar as we all consider different things important to Toronto, we all imagine the city’s myth somewhat differently. However, I think there are instances of common ground between our individual conceptions of Toronto’s myth — for example, many of us mourned Honest Ed’s demolition, suggesting that we all happened to agree that it was important to Toronto.

Honest Ed’s didn’t instantly become a famous Toronto landmark the second it opened its doors. But when that sign was taken down 68 years later, there was a palpable feeling of collective loss, like the entire city was mourning. Sometime during its 68-year lifetime, Honest Ed’s came to develop a greater significance to the city. People had grown to weave Honest Ed’s into their day-to-day lives and family traditions, going there after school every day or taking their kids there every Christmas. When it was taken down, it wasn’t only the end of the building’s lifetime – it was also the end of all those individual traditions.

I think there is a correlation between Honest Ed’s value to Toronto as a whole and its value to individual people. In other words, individual people thought of Honest Ed’s as part of Toronto’s myth, and it developed greater value to the city in virtue of developing this greater value to individuals. And even though it’s gone, those individuals can still remember it through their family traditions that took place there.

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A lot of Toronto’s myth develops like this, with pieces of ordinary city life gaining significance by being part of people’s day-to-day lives. This kind of myth seems like it relies on physical continuity, since an institution needs to physically exist to remain a part of people’s day-to-day lives. But I think institutions of Toronto’s myth actually have the power to withstand dramatic change, even demolition – because we can choose to remember them.

The same thing happened with Sam the Record Man: it began as regular store with no inherent significance to the city when it opened. But over time, it developed a greater meaning to individual people, and therefore to the city as a whole.

An old photo of Sam the Record Man in all its LED glory. Source.

We also saw this happen in 2003, when Corwyn Lund installed an ordinary playground swing between two buildings in Graffiti Alley. The “Secret Swing” became an urban legend and tiny cultural institution, a pilgrimage site for the cool youth of Toronto.

The Secret Swing's dedication: "new secret swing dedicated to all of Toronto". Source.

The Secret Swing was an ordinary object given no physical place of prominence in the city. But it became extraordinary through people’s continued interest and fascination with it, until it was officially dedicated to all of Toronto. (As an aside, the alley where the Secret Swing was located got boarded up in 2006, but you can still visit the site today.)

An old picture of some lucky person getting to ride on the Secret Swing. Source.

All of these institutions have been subject to change and taken down. But they haven’t ceased being a part of Toronto’s myth, for the same reason we didn’t just suddenly forget every time our parents took us to Honest Ed’s at Christmastime. The memories don’t go away. So asking how we can define Toronto in light of all these changes is the wrong question (sorry Katie!). We don’t have to change our understanding of Toronto’s myth whenever the city’s landscape changes; rather the myth just needs to survive the landscape changing around it.

With that in mind, I think the question we should be asking is: “how can we create opportunities for remembering the cultural institutions of Toronto’s past?” There are some examples of this already being done in Toronto: the Honest Ed’s sign is going to be installed outside the Ed Mirvish theatre, and the Sam the Record Man sign was moved to Yonge and Dundas Square earlier this year. These memorialization efforts are by no means perfect or free from criticism, but my point is that it is (at least) possible to turn our capacity for remembrance into a memorialization that persists through the changing Toronto landscape.

Sam the Record Man sign lights up the skyline behind Yonge and Dundas Square. Source.

There are so many more missed opportunities to memorialize Toronto’s myth – I certainly don’t intend to suggest that all the work has already been done or that I have the answers about how best to do it. I simply want to suggest that there isn’t a back and forth, all-or-nothing battle, between condos and history, and that Toronto doesn’t lose a part of itself with every new demolition. Even though the city might be changing rapidly around us and doesn’t seem to care about preserving our story, we still have some power over Toronto’s myth. After all, we’re the ones who ultimately have a say over what counts as myth, and it is up to us to find ways to remember it.

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16 October 2018


Beyond Tradition | Elizabeth Cytko

Attractive display cases full of goodies.
Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Cytko

Often the gift shop is not at the top of mind when thinking of must-see items when visiting a museum. Usually the draw is dinosaurs, mummies, out of this world art or any other amazing items contained within the hallowed walls. I have discovered that if you want to know what the museum prioritizes in its collection, check out the gift shop. My special interest in museum gift shops grew over time after numerous frustrating experiences; seeking out the perfect purchasable item resulted  in me coming across generic tourist gimcrack. Museum gift shops ideally are a continuation of the collection, but in take-home form.

Generic Tourist Gimcrackpoorly made items found in every tourist shop with no true focus in advertising the collection or building upon the mandate of the museum.

ROM Boutique sign displaying when they are open.
Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Cytko

In considering what I thought was a good gift shop, I made my own personal rubric. Scores are out of five stars and cover the basics.

Gift Shop Rating Guide

5/5 Stars

· Includes all the main pieces + unique items you can only find at the store
· Has special exhibition goodies
· Value for money
· Good lighting
· Easy accessibility
· Relaxed place to browse


4/5 stars

· Has main pieces and maybe a few others
· Has some special exhibition goodies
· Fairly priced
· Good lighting
· Easy accessibility
· Relaxed place to browse


3/5 Stars

· Has some of the main pieces, not a diverse choice
· Might have some special exhibition goodies
· Increase in generic tourist gimcrack
· Questionable pricing
· Normal lighting
· OK accessibility


2/5 Stars

· Basic blockbuster items represented
· No special exhibition items
· Increase in generic tourist gimcrack
· Borderline fairly priced
· Bad lighting
· Tight corners, not easily accessible
· Escape is foremost on the mind


1/5 Stars

· Might have one or two postcards of the biggest draws
· No special exhibition items
· Overwhelmingly generic tourist gimcrack
· Bad pricing
· Terrible lighting 
· Terrible accessibility
· Gift shop last place anyone wants to be

A young child explores the exciting treasures laid out at her height.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cytko.

With this in mind, I set off to investigate the gift shop that lurks right by my front step – The Royal Ontario Museum! This entrance hit me over the head with the museums largest draw – dinosaurs! Overwhelmingly this shop is dedicated to the cult of the dinosaur. Adults and kids alike can fulfill their paleontologist (or perhaps Jeff Goldblum?) dreams and purchase many dinosaur-themed goods.

A shopper walks down the wide brightly lit aisles contemplating future purchases.
Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Cytko

The shop has a savvy design with wide aisles for easy access and low tables that beckon moth-like kids to their lamp-like goodies. As I turned the corner ahead,  I saw a see-through magical cave full of jewelry. I myself was tempted by a necklace that featured ancient Roman glass as the pendant, but immense willpower (and student debt) allowed me to pull away just in time. Much like the museum itself, the store is neatly sectioned out into themed displays dedicated to their various galleries, which is full of items that are relevant to their collection.

Book display of Modernism on the GangesPhoto courtesy of Elizabeth Cytko

It is very apparent that the ROM has put much thought into the gift shop items and their display.
As mentioned in Kathleen Lew’s article, the exhibit Modernism on the Ganges is controversial  due to the artist Singh allegedly raping Jaishri Abichandani. In the gift shop, artfully displayed beside the book for Modernism are two other books, addressing ethics within museums, giving a strong voice to the difficulties facing institutions today. There is acknowledgement that while the solution may not be perfect, there are clearly efforts being made in acknowledging the conversation occurring.

Hello Kitty Mug and Keychain.
Unfortunately this series seems to have mostly sold out.
Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Cytko

One of the greatest geniuses of the ROM gift shop is the specially branded ROM merchandise which can only be bought there. There are fancy chocolate bars, shirts, mugs, and my favourite crossover – an entire paleontology line featuring Hello Kitty.

A display in the Spider gift shop.
Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Cytko

An interesting move by the ROM is that in the main gift shop there were no spider themed items for the temporary exhibition. When I asked, I was told there was a gift shop downstairs dedicated to that one exhibit. I visited Spiders (very good, strongly recommend), and at the very end of it there the mini gift shop lay – a small oasis of consumerism. This too had kid-friendly items, sure to inspire and catch the attention of spider loving children.

Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Cytko.

Overall I found the experience enjoyable, with lots of exciting things to peruse. There are items for every age group with a very large variety. The entrance facing Bloor is currently under construction, so I look forward to see how this gift shop will continue to grow along with the rest of the museum.

 I rate the ROM a 5/5.

15 October 2018


Exhibition Reviews | Maddy Howard

What do you believe in? 

To welcome you to their new industrial building, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) is displaying BELIEVE, an exhibition featuring 16 artists, exploring the beliefs and systems that shape our values and behaviours.

BE:LIE:VE by Kendell Geers. Photo Courtesy of Maddy Howard.
MOCA has found a new 55,000 square foot home in the Lower Junction. With all this new space, MOCA is able to further their collection and exhibition of contemporary art. BELIEVE utilizes this new space, spanning floors two and three of the building, with one installation on the first floor. The exhibition includes works from 16 Canadian and international artists: Can Altay, Matilda Aslizadeh, Carl Beam, Dineo Seshee Bopape, Awol Erizku, Meschac Gaba, Kendell Geers, Barbara Kruger, Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, Tuan Andrew Nguyen, Jeneen Frei Njootli, Rajni Perera, Jeremy Shaw, Nep Sidhu, Maya Stovall and Tim Whiten. 

Kendell Geers neon installation BE:LIE:VE is located on the first floor of MOCA, giving visitors their first glimpse of the exceptional art they will see throughout the exhibition as they enter the building. Artists installed on the second floor explore the past and the future. These installations look into the artists' experiences and cultural identities while also analyzing the histories, stories and technologies that help to shape our current beliefs. As the introductory panel states "We are what we believe."

The Columbus Suite by Carl Beam. Photo Courtesy of Maddy Howard.
The third floor of MOCA hosts artists exploration of how beliefs are created. Artists dig at the question of how belief systems shape how we perceive the world, but also how these perspectives influence our behaviours and relationships, both individually and within the community. 

(Untitled) Doubt + BELIEF by Barbara Kruger. Photo Courtesy of Maddy Howard.
Before seeing BELIEVE, I will admit that I was a little intimidated. I am the first to admit that I don't know a lot about art, especially contemporary artwork, but this exhibition blew me away. There was one reason in particular that this exhibition can speak to the artistically versed and the artistically illiterate-- and that was the labels!

The labels truly made the experience more enjoyable since there were artist statements attached to each piece of artwork. These statements got to the core of what inspired the artist and what message their artwork was trying to convey. This meant that for people who don't understand art (i.e. me) there was an opportunity to look through the artists' eyes and see what they saw. The labels also allowed those who might want the art to speak for itself to just enjoy the installations, as they were located near the installations but did not intrude visually. This means that visitors can easily skip over the labels and experience the artwork on their own.

And-In. The Light of This._, by Dineo Seshee Bopape. Photo Courtesy of Maddy Howard.
The exhibition also hosts a large number of artists but the space never felt cramped or crowded. Spreading the exhibition across two different floors and separating by theme, allowed for each piece to speak for itself and not be infringed upon by other installations. I also felt it gave me more time to look at the works. I could spend more time with each work before moving on and it didn't feel rushed. There was a natural flow to the space.

Each piece had its own story and perspective to share and each piece resonated differently. I was interested to see what drew me in and what confused me. There were definitely pieces that will stick with me for a long time. One piece in particular was "The Island" by Tuan Andrew Nguyen. The message resonated with me, but the video captured me. I was entranced by the story and the accompanying music was both hauntingly beautiful and unsettling.

The Island by Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Photo Courtesy of Maddy Howard.
BELIEVE gives visitors a chance to confront and question their beliefs. These 16 artists captured the past, the present and the future through different mediums and methods. Fans of contemporary art and those new to the field can find something that resonates and speaks to them. BELIEVE is an open and understandable exhibition because of the artists' ability to make us think about the beliefs that shape us.

BELIEVE opened September 22, 2018 and runs until January 6, 2019, so head over to MOCA to confront your own truth.