Living in a period when everything transpires so fast, it is truly impossible to keep abreast of all world events, scientific and technological advancements, and in an ever-shrinking world, the social and cultural expansion through cross-pollination. At once frightening and exhilarating, it conjures up an image of a roller-coaster careening without any safeguards where flying right off the tracks is a very real possibility. If the ubiquitous ‘promise of industry’ began as a Western utopianistic ideology committed to an ever-continuing technological and scientific evolution, and promising freedom from disease and deprivation, then where are we in our collective journey?
Although science, industry and business have made astonishing discoveries and achievements possible, there is also reason to be watchful. For example, we are now capable of killing more people in one nuclear attack than the compounded deaths caused by all of the wars waged throughout history. Should lessons from history not cast doubt on any one group’s ability to responsibly exercise such power?
Moreover, the awakening of Western public consciousness that began in the 1960s now seems strangled by abject materialism because we have become hypnotized by the never-ending abundance of new ‘must-haves.’ Our co-dependent relationship with industry compels us to buy things we often don’t need and to live in fear of scenarios that most of us will never face. We are hostages to a Dantesque exchange, knowing we are progressively killing the planet but denial is easier than trying to navigate through complex and conflicting theories of ecological and socio-economic consequences.
The artists at CAFKA wrestled with these issues and more. They presented forward thinking, cutting-edge, and inventive art projects with the goal of creating a dialogue with the public that was both celebratory and critical about many aspects currently existing in industry today. X Industria, the theme for the exhibition, originated as a tribute to the Region’s first trade fair 100 years ago to promote its visionary entrepreneurs and skilled labour, and was also inspired by the motto of the City of Kitchener: “ex industria prosperitas.” Exploring the past, present and future of industry and its influence on local and global social, economic and cultural contexts, 22 regional, national and international artists installed works in and around Kitchener City Hall.
Two of the artists in the exhibition illustrated our insatiable appetite for the latest and greatest and the subsequent detritus of the suddenly obsolete that overwhelm the landfill. This was immediately apparent in British artist Paul Matosic’s Deconstructed New Technology. Located in the Rotunda, this piece was as much an installation as it was a process sculpture. Matosic used individual parts and elements of old obsolete computers (frequently less than 10 years old), fax machines, copiers, typewriters and many other older technologies to create methodically arranged landscapes of geometric patterns that changed and evolved daily. There was a striking resemblance to busy North American cityscapes, with its towers, buildings, and parking lots, yet surprisingly cold and seemingly uninhabitable. Where Matosic worked horizontally across the floor, Quebec artist, Laurent Gagnon approached the same idea vertically by erecting a 16-foot obelisk on Civic Square entitled The Tower of Progress. This monumental freestanding metal construction was built with plates and parts retrieved from a variety of old machines (sewing machines, typewriters, cash registers, etc.) and other recuperated material. This structure resembled a monument or totem to another era; to the observer, the material reality of the piece revealed bits and pieces of a knowledge or a memory soon to be extinct.
Several artists worked with ideas of landscape and nature as something to manipulate, re-fabricate, or even engineer, posing questions against a backdrop of new eco-industries in genetic manipulation. British Columbia artist Doug Buis created a low-tech device for fabricating landscapes that engaged in an environmental dialogue about the relationship between nature and culture, and its effects on the politics of land. Mountain Splitter consisted of a 5’ high tabletop that held a large mountain of earth surfaced with flocking, miniature trees, and bushes. Over the course of the exhibition, the mountain slowly fell through a centrifugal mechanism that separated the mountain’s various elements by weight, generating two new smaller mountains to be born on the floor below. Meanwhile, a video of a single white cloud that moved back and forth was projected onto the wall above the mountain. The work elicited tremendous curiosity from viewers who would wait for something to happen. Nearby, in the centre of the East Entrance, stood Arborizing Sawdust Tree by Kitchener’s Michael Jacob Ambedian. Formed out of sawdust and glue, a leafless yet realistic-looking tree appeared lifeless and limp until the viewer walked onto a ramp, which caused the tree to rapidly erect itself upright. The sudden awareness of each other’s presence was palpable as the viewer and tree seemed to surprise each other as they met head-on, verging on confrontation. This sudden and somewhat awkward Frankensteinistic resuscitation of a ‘dead’ tree was a poignant reminder of the countless millennial forests lost to clear-cutting. Outside, in front of City Hall, Toronto artists Tony Paginton and Roswita Busskamp explored the futuristic possibility of genetically engineered plants that might not only serve as architecture, but would feed its inhabitants while intelligently regenerating or re-building itself according to their needs. Auger was an 11-foot high organically shaped brightly coloured hollow sculpture. Peering into an opening, revealed an illuminated, painted and decorated interior, which was reflected in a mirror, giving an impression that the plant form extended far into the ground below. The fantastical nature of this work called to mind some of the early 20th century science fiction stories that proposed improbable inventions and scenarios, many of which have since come true.
Where these artists chose to relate nature to manufacturing, the performance installation An Earthly Project by Cuban artist Marianela Orozco Rodriguez, examined the notion of nature as commodity. Located in the Reflecting Pool, the artist constructed an outdoor kiosk and once viewers crossed a small bridge, they were ritualistically presented an opportunity to purchase small bags of sowing-earth for a nickel. Supporting the idea of earth, nature, and even country and culture as commercially tradable, the kiosk and its merchandise were iconically branded with an image of the Earth. And yet, the bags containing the earth were intimately small, giving the soil a quality of exquisite preciousness. Also turning on ritual was the sculpture/performance You Can Laugh by St. Catherines artist Insoon Ha. Resting on the floor in the 2nd Floor Lobby entrance, was a 7-foot slightly mutated human fetus that was covered with small shiny tiles and a drain hole at its belly. Periodically, the artist ritualistically polished the surface of the object in performances that made viewers unexpected witnesses to an especially private act that turned on the notion of obsessive preoccupation with cleanliness and contamination.
Naomi Wolf says that we live in a period where individuality, innovation, independence and spiritual liberation are valued, yet “we’re in the most aggressively anti-intellectual, anti-literate, anti-middle-class discourse,” as we are “literally hypnotized by affluence and hypnotized by consumer goods.” Ms. Wolf’s message was particularly relevant to the performances by three of the international artists. Japanese artist anti-cool explored ‘good corporate citizenship’ in her installation/performance piece, Allurements of Mass Media. Appearing deadpan and wearing a business suit and high-heeled shoes, the artist travelled slowly and precariously atop a balance beam. Meanwhile, a television set that played a series of mundane commercials for cosmetics, drinks, food, etc., cued her to consume the products being advertised. Originally located behind the Rotunda, within a few days of the exhibition she moved her installation into the Reflecting Pool to perform for passers-by. At one point, a street person got a little too close in a bid to confront her during a particularly perilous balancing act but maintained that this kind of intrusion is part of the process, she remained relaxed and composed. Her performance had an anxious yet comical quality as she tried to consume as much of the products while the commercials were playing. Also in the realm of consumer/user performance was the hilarious viewer-participatory docu-performance entitled Machines by Cuban artist Adonis Flores Betancourt. Surveying the public’s rapport with the machines that they use, the artist invited, enrolled, and cajoled viewers into mimicking any machine of their choosing. Designed as a non-structured competition for the best sound/noise imitation of a machine, Betancourt videotaped about a hundred people who tried to re-create the sounds of blenders, vacuum cleaners, power tools, and others. To close the exhibition, a video compilation of all the performances was screened and awards were given out to the best or most outrageous imitations. Interestingly, most contestants’ imitations had no correlation to the actual sound of their chosen machine, which revealed how machines have become such a part of our everyday lives, that our memories extend mostly to what they do rather than how and what they are–a stunning parallel can be made to human interrelationships.
Moving from consumer performance to worker performance, Help Offered by New York City artist Nicolás Dumit Estévez, was a series of site-specific performative interventions that explored the value of work by examining various workers’ routinely repetitive motional sequencings. Each day, the artist worked free of charge for a different business or non-profit community organization in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. Working alongside paid employees, he performed a variety of routine tasks from dusting shelves in a hair salon and at the gift shop at the Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery, to sorting and folding clothes in a thrift store, cleaning rooms at the Walper Terrace Hotel, serving coffee at a local Tim Horton’s, feeding the homeless at St. John’s Kitchen, and sweeping the sidewalks in downtown Kitchener through The Working Centre. Although viewers were encouraged to view some of the performances on-site, the interventions were documented daily and compilations of the artist’s activities were screened at the Forum. As his ‘jobs’ were purposely devoid of any intent to produce an income, his work transcended from purely utilitarian actions into a poetic exercise. Meanwhile, Hamilton artist Ivan Jurakic asked us not only to contemplate the opposite of work, but what work might mean to people of various cultures, and how differently work is perceived by first, second and third generation Canadians. Passages appropriated a piece of subversive French graffiti, “Ne Travaillez Jamais” from 1952, which translates as a contrarious declaration to ‘never work.’ This single line was translated into a dozen languages, produced in vinyl, then affixed onto the second floor windows so that it could be seen from the square below, or from inside the Rotunda. By reproducing the passage in multiple languages and handwritings, the slogan was transformed from a purely ideological stance, into a narrative of cultural plurality.
Two more artists also used moments in history as a point of departure for their projects. The sculpture, entitled Industrial Proposition, by Kitchener artist In-Sun Kim resembled a skewed arch, referencing architectural monuments of the past and the distorted historical view of man as achiever and woman as romanticized or righteous representation of achievement, but rarely as actual achiever. Just tall enough to walk through, the top, two exterior sides, and the entire inside of the steel structure were layered in newsprint from past editions of the Kitchener Record. The focal point of the piece, underscored a specific article that was extracted from an early edition (circa 1900), detailing the industrial advances of the day and included a solicitation for female workers needed for newly expanding areas of industrial production. While in itself, hardly a landmark event, the combined collection of all such events eventually opened the door for female workers to begin creating new roles for themselves beyond the home. The other work by Regina artist and scientist Seema Goel, entitled Happy Birthday DNA, consisted of 52 taxidermied white lab mice, each standing on its hind legs and carrying a birthday candle. A touch sensor activated a digital circuit, triggering an adorably cute “Happy Birthday” singsong of tiny voices. 2005 marked the 52nd anniversary of the discovery of the building blocks of DNA by Watson and Crick which revolutionized biology and continues to have far reaching implications in genetics, medicine and bioengineering. In fact, white lab mice are such a genetically engineered invention that scientists only need to add, subtract, or alter one gene in order to carry out their experiments. While the piece maintained a humorous quality, the work called attention to the current debate on genetic manipulation and the sacrifice of animals in the name of scientific research.
The next two artists demonstrated both a fascination and enthusiasm for technology as they invited viewers to experience technological interiors as space. Incorporating the principles of a film projector, Being Above You by Montreal artist Thomas Bégin invited visitors to enter a partially enclosed space where carefully controlled mechanical disks and shutters caused the only light source entering the space to flicker. Situated on Civic Square, this site-specific architectural sculpture altered viewers’ perceptions of sequence and environment in a way that seemed to oscillate between real-time and animation. Bégin’s installation magnified the inner workings of a film camera in order for us to experience how it transacts light and sees the world. Alternatively, Brooklyn artist Will Pappenheimer invited viewers to relax in a living/domestic space where it was not immediately apparent that they might be observed by anyone with an Internet connection and a Webcam. Installed in the old artist-in-residence studio, Here For You resembled a 1960s style living space (including period music) where IP controlled lamps, lights, music, fans, and Webcams were networked and could be controlled by anyone accessing the internet. Inside the room, various lights would dim and brighten, miniature fans would start and stop, the music would suddenly change, and occasionally, a voice could be heard calling to viewers in the room. A whiteboard that contained a variety of notes, drawings and the occasional expletive, provided an opportunity for viewers to communicate back to the Internet viewers. Pappenheimer wanted to create an environment where “telepresence meets presence, remote control meets lifestyle, distance becomes proximity, surveillance becomes community and network becomes living room.”
Many works at the Forum had distinctly humorous and playful qualities but this was especially evident in the next three works that presented a series of suppositive scenarios to viewers. Located along the back wall behind the Rotunda, Officious, by British artist Dane Watkins, questioned the predominant belief that our increasing interrelationship with technology has caused machines to be more human. Instead, the series of miniature Flash animations of various machines performing monotonous tasks suggested a rather more alienating relationship with technology where, in order to survive in the workplace, humans are becoming more like machines. Displayed on six hand-held computers, or Personal Digital Assistants (PDA), the actions, such as a pile of paper that was progressively restacked to form a new pile, were familiar but ultimately served no purpose at all. Running in an endless loop, Watkins’ iconographic animations paralleled the tedious and repetitive activities of the office. Mounted along the same wall, the second project also talked about technology’s failure to live up to the dream. In Stupid Tricks, Toronto artist Philippe Blanchard mounted three small wooden boxes on the back wall behind the Rotunda, each screening a video of an unworkable and impractical jimmy-rigged contraption, made using found objects. Playfully ridiculous and inspired by perpetual motion machinery built during the Industrial Revolution, the actions in the films were seamlessly and eternally looped in order to give the illusion of continuous motion. Although devoid of narrative structure, these complicated, ingeniously contrived, and utterly useless contraptions, evoked images of George Rhoads’ rolling-ball sculptures while the sounds caused by the actions reinforced the nonsensical nature of these ‘fake’ kinetic sculptures. In another playful work by German artist Doris Kuwert, entitled Jumps forming a cloud, viewers were asked to consider what Styrofoam chips might look like inside a shipping box as they protect fragile items during transport. In this kinetic installation, shadows from the action contained in a transparent box were projected onto a wall. Inside the box, Styrofoam chips whirled in the airflow of a fan, gaining speed until the friction produced electrostatic loading in the chips causing them to stick together and pause. While waiting for the static to subside to allow the action to resume, the projected image of chips trembling on the sides of the box, formed patterns that resembled a cloud.
Two Guelph artists constructed sound works that transported viewers into alternate environments that were practically surreal in their nature. In the sound sculpture Overnight by Mark Laliberte, an antique travel trunk was transformed into a large speaker bin. This aural postcard, created from field recordings and collaged sound elements of an actual trip taken by the artist in 2002, gave two views of a train ride: an exterior viewing, and later, an interior one. The limitations of the original object as a container for sound were purposefully exploited as waves of rolling sound emitted from the face of the box. Its heavy frame and its metal parts vibrated and rumbled to the bass moments, taking on a kind of physical manifestation of the train’s journey as it travelled on the tracks. In the other work entitled Sound Circuit by Michael Waterman, a sound installation of electronic circuits taken from sound-emitting toys was mounted to the exterior of the main entrance’s wall of windows. The interactive web of individual units, with motion and light triggering devices reacted to people entering or leaving the building whose motions set off various units to momentarily switch on in no particular pattern. Suggesting the dizzying amount of background noise we are all subjected to, the installation created an overall effect of a hectic, specialized soundscape made up of fragmentary, intermittent, yet recognizable snippets of cell phones, toys, and other sound samples. What first appeared to be an incomprehensible asynchronous maze of wires and circuits, in time revealed a narrative sequence of causes and effects in which sonic and visual information were inextricably intertwined.
Continuing an initiative that began last year, CAFKA organizers juried in two projects developed by fine arts and engineering students at the University of Waterloo. The first project, entitled Butterfly Forge, reproduced a miniature production line, raising questions about the industrial production of yesterday and today, and its effects on the environment. Jillian Catton, Jahan Kargar and Stefan Smeja built a mechanical forge that resembled a cast iron contraption from the 19th century, and yet the piece was constructed entirely out of wood. When viewers approached, a motion sensor caused the forge to come to life. A motor began to feed paper continually onto an anvil, then through a stamp, at which point one hammer would strike the stamp followed shortly be another hammer that would strike a cutting device. At once produced and discarded on the floor below, lay a mound of small pieces of paper, each imprinted with the image of a butterfly. The other project, created by Rick Nixon and Matt Millard, examined how time and motion are experienced by re-animating Eadweard Muybridge’s legendary freeze-frame photographs of animals in motion. In Post-Critical Zoetrope, a computer monitor spun in circles with the help of a mechanical arm as it screened a short video of a horse and rider. The monitor seemed to keep pace with the action on the screen, and in turn, gave back some of the life inherent to the original source of Muybridge’s observation.
On the last day, MT Space (Multicultural Theatre Space) performers presented an experimental series of improvised pieces of theatrical ‘motion-activity’ entitled “Motio X Industria.” Moving among the art projects at the Forum, the performers explored relationships between the physical structures of the art works as well as any emotional impulses triggered by these structures. In this well-received intriguing initiative, at times, the art projects transcended their roles as inanimate props or sets, becoming collaborative players in exuberant performances.
The artists participating in the Contemporary Art Forum brought their personal voices to art projects that were contemplative, beautiful, and often humorous. They responded not only to the X Industria theme but also to the very public nature of a municipal building that was never intended for the purpose of exhibiting works of art. While installing their projects, many artists had to contend with difficult spaces, lighting and noise issues, and a curious public who asked them questions, or made positive or inappropriate comments. However, the very purpose of the Forum was to take cutting-edge contemporary works out of the traditional gallery scene and bring them into the public space, in order to have a much larger cross-section of people, from various social and economic backgrounds, engage with the works. In fact, some of the most engaged, vocal, critical, and interesting responses came from the street-people who gathered daily on the square and inside the building. Ultimately, the role of artists is to explore who and what we are and to re-present their observations, ideas, inspired visions, or criticisms using their own aesthetic standards or sensibilities. Whether propelled by curiosity or as an act of witnessing, the artists at the Forum challenged our assumptions about (and relationships to) technology, and ultimately asked us to consider developing transformations in the way that humankind interacts in a technologically driven world. Christian Bernard Singer