Decolonization is Not a Metaphor: The Toronto Biennial Fights its Frame

AA Bronson, "A Public Apology to Siksika Nation," 2019, and Adrian Stimson, "Iini Sookumapii: Guess who’s coming to dinner?" 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Toronto Biennial of Art.

The fanfare and the pageantry of press junkets, patrons’ previews, and inaugural performances have long subsided. A reluctant holdout, I belatedly find myself in a dilapidated former formaldehyde factory and Volvo dealership at 259 Lakeshore Boulevard East – the central site of the first Toronto Biennial of Art. My visit comes three days before a federal election that will deliver a Liberal minority government to power, one that is currently fighting a settlement for 102 Indigenous children who died in the child welfare system in northern Ontario, and is headed by a Prime Minister who cannot recall the number of times he’s donned blackface. Having managed a day off from my job at a community services agency in northwest Toronto, where I routinely observe this sordid political discourse translate into very real systemic violence, I nevertheless bring an unshakeable anxiety about the future to these “72 Days of Free Art.” Ensconced in the suburbs these days, I am mostly interested in their rich, hybrid geographies, which provide abundant raw material for the city’s expanding culture industry. The biennial, titled The Shoreline Dilemma, hugs the city’s rapidly gentrifying lakefront (with some notable exceptions) and therefore remains remote in my mind during its first weeks.

Lakefront aside, the approach of curators Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien is noteworthy in its use of an Indigenous conceptual framework. The biennial commissioned a “Toronto Indigenous Context Brief,” written by Ange Loft, and the curators asked artists to respond. Over 50 percent of the artists in the biennial are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. Hopkins and Bastien have not shied away from the durational work of transformation either – they committed to curating the first two editions of the biennial. Hopkins, in particular, brings a structurally transformative approach to curating, building on her roles at Documenta 14 (2017) and the SITElines Santa Fe Biennial (2018). A dialogic approach to exhibition-making, grounded in listening and a series of strategic disruptions in institutional rhetoric, is central to her practice. An adequate appraisal of this project demands that a critical viewer listen, as well, to the political and institutional rhetorics that shape this exhibition’s narrative.

The hyperbolic spin of the exhibition’s press copy sustains my lingering skepticism. Deputy Director of Programs Ilana Shamoon claims that “Canadians are leading [a global conversation] in many ways – around truth and reconciliation, around inclusion more broadly.” Given the wider political context, this assertion feels outsized and somewhat dishonest. I’m reminded of Aylan Couchie’s critique of “reconciliation projects” that foreground settlers and evade material accountability. I wonder how the biennial can enact more than a symbolic reconciliation given that a substantial portion of the funding comes from mining corporations, banks, and real-estate developers (as Amy Fung has pointed out). I’m wary of how material interests inflect the choice of site, the latitude of the aesthetic horizons that can be imagined, and even the language of the didactic panels. The resulting contradictions are loud in my mind, and sometimes the subtle poetics enacted by the curators drown in the cacophony that follows. The introductory text provides little anchor in the overwhelming array of aesthetic and political inquiries taken up by the artworks.

Susan Schuppli, “Learning From Ice (Part I: Ice Cores & Interviews with Ice Core Scientists)” (still), 2019. Courtesy the artist.

The cavernous and antiseptic atmosphere of the rooms at the biennial’s main downtown site feels familiar. I’m reminded of the myriad industrial studio spaces in the city that are now condos, but also of the well-worn trope of biennials staged in such venues. The resulting tension of “here” and “nowhere” sometimes works well within Hopkins and Bastien’s curatorial premise, but often compromises the experience of the artwork. This site is at times a potent vacuum that the curators fill with mnemonic devices that are meant to activate broader connections with the land and water. Hera Büyüktasçiyan’s primordial forest of industrial carpeting, and Susan Schuppli’s multichannel video of Arctic ice cores root the curatorial narrative within the immense arc of non-human histories. Invoking a notion of “deep time,” the curators asks the viewer to ground themselves in the area’s pre-colonial and prehistoric pasts. However, the sterile lighting and mostly windowless space, largely detached from its geographic context, stifles active visual linkages with the lakeshore. All the while, I have my back to the lake, confirming an observation Hopkins often makes about Toronto’s urban topography. The space itself undercuts Hopkins’s attempts to reverse this orientation.

The tension between the artworks and their container creates a thematic contradiction that remains unresolved by the exhibition design. Confronted with systemic conditions that will probably see this venue replaced with another gentrified residential project, the curators nevertheless enact minor symbolic dissensions. For instance, colonial flows of resource extraction and transnational capital are highlighted in an elegantly-staged dialogue between Fernando Palma Rodriguez’s Tochiuapapalutzin (2012) and Napachie Pootoogook’s drawings (1988-99). Palma Rodriguez’s installation, named after the Nahuatl word for “our revered lady butterfly,” comprises 104 robotic monarch butterflies made out of beer and soft-drink cans. These are emblazoned with Pepsi, Coca Cola, Modelo, Corona, and other logos. The butterflies’ wings flutter, responding to passing footsteps and traffic by aid of seismic sensors. The accompanying text notes the ecological migration of monarch butterflies from Mexico to Canada, which Palma Rodriguez references. However, there is also a parallel flow of commodities and capital represented here. The multinational companies that produce these beverages are rapidly depleting groundwater reserves in multiple regions of Mexico where water is already scarce. Of course, a didactic text cannot be exhaustive, but this bit of context could have amplified a narrative thread that appears to be suggested by the spatial arrangement.

Fernando Palma Rodríguez, “Cihuapapalutzin,” 2019. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Toronto Biennial of Art.

Adjacent to Palma Rodriguez, Pootoogook speaks to a different but related mode of colonial extraction: the unequal commercial market in Inuit art. While Inuit art contributed some $87.2 million to the Canadian economy in 2015, artists and their communities did not see the bulk of the economic benefits. Dealers and collectors have been fighting to withhold artist resale rights in order to consolidate profits from the Inuit co-op art production system. This is but one of a long series of exploitative measures that render basic necessities, building materials, and art supplies inaccessible in the Arctic. Colonial dispossession and deprivation have inflicted deep trauma and violence on Inuit communities, forming the backdrop of Pootoogook’s scenes. However, these images also bear testament to long-cultivated bonds of kinship and mutual support, sustaining joy and cultural memory, and providing solace and subsistence. Hopkins’s subtle curatorial effort here invokes the material flows that bind us, but only glimpses at possible alternatives.

Beyond this incomplete appraisal of material redress, the exhibition focuses a great deal on truth and reconciliation, particularly in AA Bronson and Adrian Stimson’s collaborative project, A Public Apology to Siksika Nation (2019). Bronson and Stimson are descendants of Reverend John Tims and Chief Old Sun of the Siksika Nation, respectively. Tims established a residential school on the Siksika reserve in Treaty 7 territory, whose brutal conditions provoked an uprising led by Chief Old Sun. Introduced by Hopkins, Bronson and Stimson engaged in a semi-televised process of research and community dialogue. The text resulting from this process begins with an apology by Bronson and a detailed brief of the history and atrocities committed by research assistant Ben Miller. This apology was subsequently performed twice on the opening days of the Biennial. Stimson and the Siksika elders present accepted the apology, sanctioning that it was genuine and done in good faith. While reconciliation may have been enacted here on a personal level between the two artists, I wonder whether it provides too neat a closure. Stimson and the Siksika elders’ acceptance is a communal gesture, while the lone Bronson, though apologizing on his ancestor’s behalf, glances away from collective, systemic culpability. The text and its syrupy, overly self-effacing tone lets settler audiences off the hook. Ineffectual, rehearsed apologies to Indigenous people are a perennial nuisance in Canada; a photo of the Prime Minister crying while apologizing for residential schools has become a tired meme. Bronson, while purporting to not care about the artworld and its travails, nevertheless lists his lengthy CV and thanks his commercial gallerist in a confusing moment of self-centering. The timeline of events displaying archival material pertaining to these events engenders a heavily anthropological gaze. Even the photos of Stimson’s father and all the other boys in his class mounted on the wall, mimicking the serialized format of a yearbook, serve to anonymize their subjects through repetition. Perhaps Hopkins and Bastien anticipate our skepticism by curating, in close proximity, New Red Order’s Never Settler – a tongue-in-cheek indictment of white settler guilt and the fetish for Indigenous “authenticity.” Here, as with the unresolved material and symbolic tensions in the biennial’s conception, this question of where the viewer places themselves in relationship to processes of redress is unclear.

The way the biennial portrays Inuit narratives contrasts sharply with typical “trauma porn” coverage of the Arctic. As Lindsay Nixon has written, Inuit are seldom present at the table when truth and reconciliation are discussed, despite their involuntary role in helping Canada fashion its image as a benevolent settler state. Hopkins and Bastien present a multifaceted view of contemporary Inuit material conditions and culture. Embassy of Imagination + PA System’s ongoing project Sinaaqpagiaqtuut/The Long-Cut (2019) travels nearly 2,300 kilometers to present a series of performances, wearables, and a metal snowmobile by Kevin Allooloo, Salomonie Ashoona, and Patrick Thompson, which rotates on a circular plinth like a car in a dealership. The young collective works between disparate worlds, reclaiming agency from economic exploitation and bringing communally engaged programming. Further afield, in the Small Arms Inspection Building in Mississauga, the history of the Inuit’s forced displacement is given centerstage in Isuma Collective’s stunning film One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk (2019), directed by Zacharias Kunuk. It depicts a 1961 encounter between the film’s eponymous protagonist and a Canadian government, their contentious exchanges lost in translation.

Installation view featuring works by Isuma Collective, Jumblies Theatre & Arts with Ange Loft, and Adrian Blackwell. Image courtesy of Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy the Toronto Biennial of Art.

A munitions warehouse-turned-gallery, the second venue feels much more grounded in its environment than the downtown site. The curatorial narrative here is sharper, too, focusing on the encoded violence of language in moments of cross-cultural encounter. Rhetoric and its slippages often become the foundational logic of settler colonialism. British settlers exploited language to doctor fraudulent treaties and swindle land from the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation with the Toronto “Purchase” (1787-1805). Jumblies Theatre & Arts, a community arts company, animate this history in Talking Treaties (2019), a three-part film with nursery rhymes and cartoon imperialists which parodies children’s TV. In an accompanying series of collaborative workshop-performances, audiences dissect and reassemble treaty texts and images. Continuing on this linguistic turn, Algonquin-French artist Caroline Monnet invokes linguistic relationships to land and water in The Flow Between Hard Places (2019). A vertical slab of concrete mimics the ripple of soundwaves from a recording of Anishinaabe elder Rose Wawatie-Beaudoin saying “pasapkedjinawong” (Anishinaabemowin for “the river that passes between the rocks”). Adrian Blackwell similarly translates an image sequence of the shores of Etobicoke Creek onto a 300-foot-long printed pillow, stuffed with poplar shavings and coiled into a Gordian knot. I’m invited to nestle within its folds and contemplate how the winding contours of its watershed defy the logic of the cartesian grid, the very structure that defines the colonial geography of this unceded land.

Albeit tacitly, the biennial offers some entry points into productive, decolonial ways of being with each other and with the planet. However, getting that far required a great deal of contextual reading. The Shoreline Dilemma made visible the fissures and contradictions present in Toronto’s cultural geography and challenged us to engage in the continuing work of learning and listening across difference. The sheer breadth of the material covered makes this challenging for casual visitors, however, putting an otherwise ambitious curatorial agenda at risk. What remains most legible is the harsh dissonance between the work and its container – both physical and structural. The unresolved position between the Toronto Biennial’s ideological project and the capital that funds it remains jarring. What longevity can this endeavor bring to a cultural landscape being swallowed by the rapacious expansion of capital? I can only hope that the following edition takes up these queries in earnest. After all, to paraphrase Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, decolonization is not merely a metaphor.

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