Philip Monk’s “Substitute City”

There’s an intangible inner logic to Philip Monk’s “Substitute City” that gives the exhibition its coherence and clarity. He contends that the overt subject of the show is neither the city of Toronto nor its architecture and urban planning; instead he wishes to illuminate “how artists use and move through the city.” I suspect, however, that some of the cohesion of the exhibition is due to its reflection of Philip Monk’s own trajectory as a critic and curator.

In the latter half of the 1970s Monk began publishing essays in Artists’ Review (a no-budget Toronto periodical of the period), reviewing North American high modernists who drew on Euclidian geometry and Cartesian logic for their work. As he became interested in issues of representation in the 80s, he adopted a variation of structuralist analysis on the mechanics of meaning. This served him well in discussing the work of Ian Carr-Harris and Robin Collyer, but created distorting simplifications when applied to the complex terrain of gender and difference. Perhaps it was this fracture of the rational that brought about, in the 90s, his interest in artists who seized the arenas of abjection and transgression, particularly as these had been fleshed out in the extreme environs of the Los Angeles art world. If the polarities of work Monk has supported over twentyfive years of curatorial practice are methodic formalism on one hand and chaotic transgression on the other, both are exemplified in ‘Substitute City,” wit h numerous interstitial points on the spectrum also represented.

Toronto, like most North American cities, embraced the project of modernity and imposed an efficient grid onto its topography. Rivers and creeks were buried, while small hills and hollows were leveled to expedite this rationalizing geometry. Inevitably, in most grid cities geography undermines the plan in some significant manner, and Toronto has two imposing geographic features. First, because the city aprons into Lake Ontario, the grid tapers at the downtown edge, causing parallel streets to converge and sometimes cross, to the confusion of many tourists and newcomers. More significant is the second feature: the original topology of Toronto was veined with a complex network of ravines too numerous for city builders to eradicate. It is this web of ravines that challenges the pragmatic orderliness of the city core and acts as a conduit from the Oakridge Moraine north of the city, bringing raccoons, skunks, foxes and coyotes in ever greater numbers to Canada’s major metropolis. The ravines, barely visible to th e casual visitor, inject something wild into the fissures of an otherwise stiflingly regimented city.

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While a few contemporary painters like Brian Kipping and Sybil Goldstein are chroniclers of Toronto, it is not surprising Monk turned his attention towards photographers, filmmakers and video artists. The camera’s mechanically scrutinizing eye and time-based expository attributes are crucial to the architectonics of “Substitute City.” The exception is the work by cartoonist Seth: nine panels, each displaying a page of black-and-white comic strips, economically drawn in a style vaguely reminiscent of 1940s cartoonists like Charles Addams. If you weren’t sure that Seth’s Palookaville was Toronto, a trip to the dinosaur halls of the Royal Ontario Museum gave you the definite clue. It isn’t just the stark, gridded presentation that makes these drawing work well in the exhibition: Seth’s storyline is as rich in narrative detail as Mike Hoolbloom’s In the City, a projected cinematic loop of strategic ventriloquism (he casts the voice of Steve Reinke relating wry anecdotes of romantic failure into various restaurant locations around metro Toronto) and it gives voice to an ambivalence and anxiety about urban renewal and changing neighbourhoods that pervades “Substitute City.”

Arguably, the two pivotal bodies of work in the show are Vid Ingelevic’s Panoptic: St. Clair Place, 21 Vaughan Road (2000-01) and John McLachlin’s The Erotic Possibility of Melancholy (1997). The installation by Ingelevics consists of fifteen large photographs mounted on aluminum, each shot from a different balcony of the same apartment building: an apartment number identifies every view. While it was hit-and-miss which apartments Ingelevics could gain access to, he has intentionally varied the floors he shot from and he has ensured that every direction is depicted. This systematic pictorial strategy elegantly demonstrates the urban planners’ volition towards a latticed orderliness and shows where and why it breaks down. A shallow glen etched by a now-buried creek crumbles the grid’s edges to the southeast, while Vaughan Road, a paved incarnation of an ancient Indian trail, sweeps up from the ravine, intersecting mid-town neighbourhoods at a diagonal.

In contrast, John McLachlin placed himself in the ravines, in the thickets of neglected parks and in the scrub of reclaimed lands around the Leslie Spit to shoot the extensive documentary series from which his ten colour photographs are excerpted. Like the late Felix Gonzales-Torres, McLachlin has honed the art of presenting the most contentious issues in a restrained, conceptual manner. His suite of photographs masquerades as a pastoral interlude in an urban exhibition as it ironically presents locations of the highly urban activity of gay cruising and outdoor sex amongst the burgeoning wildlife.

McLachlin’s references to gay desire flourishing in the liminal spaces of Toronto, where nature and culture meet in verdant corridors, are a reminder that in other cities the enactment of queer desire also happens in urbanized liminal sites. In New York during the 70s, the abandoned west-side pier buildings were as notorious as the rambles of Central Park, Abandoned warehouses in Amsterdam transformed from industrial properties to queer cruising grounds to squatters’ homes to gentrified condominiums within decades.

This is the phenomenon that a group of polymorphous-perverse performance artists seem to fancifully re-enact in lstvan Kantor’s video projection Broadcast. The anxiety that artists feel about gentrification and urban renewal is even more pointedly addressed by Adrian Blackwell’s series Evicted, May 1st 2000 (9 Hannah Ave.), a series of thirteen pinhole photographs of artists’ studios shot from above. From a distance the pictures resemble the rosette windows of a Gothic chapel, enhancing their sense of loss and melancholic mourning. On closer inspection they are incisive portraits of the absent artists who moulded the spaces to their needs and aesthetic criteria. Nine Hannah was a mammoth structure, formerly a munitions factory, that seemed improbable as a possible domicile because of its scale and dereliction. And for precisely that reason hundreds of artists found homes and studios there, until it was leveled to make way for a new building that would be more suitable for the trendy dot-coms, film companies and advertising businesses flocking to the formerly deserted neighbourhood. Evicte d stands in as a commemorative work to all the warehouses, like 2 Berkeley Street or the Clocktower Building, which became incredible hives of creative activity and then were lost, sometimes to the wrecker’s ball, sometimes to condo conversion.

Peter MacCallum is Toronto’s Eugene Atget. No other Toronto artist has so methodically documented the city core, doggedly capturing the last days of historic buildings slated for demolition, persistently recording interiors that mirror a Zeitgeist of the city. As with Atget, few public galleries have had the vision to collect his work, while he is well represented in archival collections. For this reason it’s surprising that Monk does not do the expected and emphasize MacCallum’s career-long obsession. Instead, the photographs selected pointedly reveal our ambivalence towards the Gardiner Expressway; the roadway that made us feel modern and cosmopolitan in the mid-2Oth century but cruelly separated most downtown residents from their waterfront. One series, Gardiner Expressway Restoration (1998-2000), documents restoration work that the city funded to counter frost damage. The second series, Gardiner East Demolition Project (2000-01), documents an almost contemporaneous effort to demolish the entire expressway , beginning in the east end.

The literal corridors of flux in Toronto are the expressways that encage the city, moving vehicles around the municipalities that make up this densely populated pocket of Southern Ontario. Leslie Peters has contributed four short tapes from her 400 series. All are shot from the window of a car moving on one of Toronto’s major expressways, an uncomplicated yet apt idea that captures the monotonous reverie of commuting. Geoffrey James has also moved to the periphery, mediating between the rural and the urban with a series of elevated highways and transit ramps that look almost as abandoned as Roman viaducts in Southern Europe. While suburban housing developments can seem like the last ring of inferno to inveterate urban dwellers, James reminds us that it’s not only city and country meeting in the 905 belt. His photograph, House on Zafarullah Khan Crescent, Maple Township (1999) depicts a brand new suburban tract home with the minaret of a mosque in the background. This picture can still give us a bit of a friss on – the shock of a newly recognized commonplace — but probably not for much longer.

While Ingelevics’ and McLachlin’s work subtly reveal what is hidden, two artists, Robin Collyer and Michael Awad, sharpen our insights by deleting from the visual record. Employing the simple device of digitally erasing all the signage in his photographs, Collyer adroitly demonstrates how language and commercial signifiers play a crucial role in constucting our urban landscapes. Michael Awad utilized a doctored reconnaissance camera that only records movement to strip the city of its buildings and extraneous visual noise. Except for a few streetcars and miscellaneous vehicles, all that remain are people, Torontonians in all their incredible diversity, shopping in Chinatown, strolling the Beaches boulevard, dancing in Caribana costumes.

“They should go home. Difference is not from here,” Karma Clarke-Davis intones in her videotape, Doom Eager: Heavy Duty Black (2001), reminding us that all is not well in this supposed multi-cultural paradise. In her expansive hybrid video (meshing the vernaculars of music video, performance art, travelogue documentaries and horror movies), she vamps around Toronto at night wearing her trademark thigh-high platform boots and a latex mask of Lucifer, all to a distorted recording of Black Sabbath at York Stadium. Thrown into this witch’s brew are images of Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in digital meltdown and spiraling views of Toronto’s business district from a helicopter, all peppered with trenchant quotes from Pasolini’s essays and poems.

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There are few cities where the buildings and architecture matter less in creating the prevailing Zeitgeist. It is a hard, caviling city and many gifted architects like Arthur Erikson (Roy Thompson Hall) and Morphosis (the University of Toronto’s Graduate Student Residence) have created mediocre buildings in Toronto, perhaps defeated by the contradictory desires of its citizens. The artists in this exhibition suggest that beauty happens in Toronto when you’re not looking for it. Perhaps, as McLachlin proffers, when you give in to animal impulses and flock to the ravines. Or as Rose Kallal imparts in her haunting suite of cibachrome prints, when insomnia is driving you through the industrial wasteland near Cherry Beach, the area designated for Olympic development, and you discover the abandoned docklands have transmuted into a sublime landscape shimmering in the nocturnal rain.

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