Urban Futurities | Curatorial Essay by Ilene Sova

by Ilene Sova
Annual Guest Curated Exhibition – August 23 to September 10, 2023

Walk around the city and look very closely at your surroundings. Notice the noises. Hear the messages. Feel the feelings. Cold metal construction cranes loom over neighbourhoods by the dozens. Gentrification rubs up against inter-generational communities pushing people to downsize. Artists are packing up their studios in the urban centres towards affordability in outlying regions. Tent cities crop up in the underpasses on the edges of the parks. Urban populations are experiencing precarity on all levels. Politicians wring their hands and spew broken promises from glass towers. Inflation, the housing crisis, and gentrification are calling into question the future of our global cities. Affordability, rising food costs, skyrocketing rents and real estate development are pushing people to the literal margins. As citizens, we watch as this significant transformation takes place all around us, and we can see the inevitable death of our cities on the horizon but somehow feel powerless to stop it. In this exhibit on Urban Futurities, we pause and take stock. The exhibition will show viewers this crisis point through art and as we use our creative capacity to imagine new solutions and new ways of living together in our communities.

Thomas Hlavacek, The Castle, Single-channel video,HD,08:07min., 2012

Let’s walk by City Hall and sit by the fountain. Look way up at the building. Through Hlavacek’s video, we can start our journey where the decisions are made, and where possible solutions could be enacted — if there is political will. In The Castle, we are taken on a meditative journey to Toronto’s City Hall. The beautifully sublime film brings us on a journey of reflection. Here we stay with the image much longer than we usually would in our fast-paced world. Studying the lines, the angels, painstakingly looking at this symbol of a previous boom period in Toronto’s history. This film brings us back to a time when modernist and brutalist architecture paved over working-class histories in exchange for futuristic monuments of a hope that would never materialize. Hlavack’s film emphasizes the cold, linear, alien-like mood of City Hall – the building is both emotionless and overbearing. There is no trace of the previous Ward neighbourhood that existed here. A massive community of new refugees from the Potato Famine in Ireland, the enslaved people who came here through the Underground Railroad and the Jewish and Italian communities fleeing Europe. In Urban Futurities, City Hall is now a symbol of a past boom time that also pushed out the marginalized in a race toward the future.

Dan Philips, DARING ADVENTURES & COLOSSUS 0F ROADS series, Print of digital montage and drawn ink and digital tones, 14 in. x 11 in.

In the centre of our city stands another castle-like structure, Queens Park. Here is another location of possible action and solutions. In Dan Philip’s work, Ontario Premier Doug Ford becomes the muse for the “Emperor King Dougie” who wears no clothes. In the piece Daring Adventures, we are drawn to the tiny black and white sign in the corner that reads “1950s solutions to the problems of the 2020s”. As we view this exhibition, political upheaval is loud in the background as the Green Belt is being sold to developers to create more suburban sprawl. Ford, accused of corruption, claims that he’s working to solve the housing crisis by allowing corporations to build more million-dollar homes—a truly 1950s solution to a 2020s problem. But this time, the price points are much higher. Expertly using satire and the art of the political comic, we see the politician who not only presents old answers to new problems but revels in the destruction of the city he so hates. In one image, he stands on high victorious. In the other, he is resigned and unable to take action on the actual complex challenges that Ontarians face.

Frances Patella, Now Under Construction, Digital Photograph, Chromogenic print on Hahnemuhle paper, 9. x 13.75 in.
Frances Patella, Now Under Construction, Digital Photograph, Chromogenic print on Hahnemuhle paper,
9. x 13.75 in.

We head north and walk up to Bloor Street. This is where condos reign high. The tallest and the most luxurious. Millions and Millions. The height of capital. Standing at the corner of Yonge, you can’t even glimpse the penthouses, no matter how much you bend your neck. Frances Patella was paying close attention to the precious green spaces within our city limits close to Bloor. In her photograph, we see the juxtaposition of the cranes with their large monstrous heads looming over gorgeous tall trees in the distance. Through this double exposure, Patella tells us one story of the loss of the formerly protected Oak Savanna. The city allowed them to be destroyed because they were north of Bloor and, therefore, not worth protection.

ARTIFACTS, Tiny Homes: Everyone is Downsizing, Installation, 66in.x 20in.
Joseph Muscat - Damn! - Beaver hewn wood, Metal, Paint, Wire - 12 in. x 11 in.

ARIFACTS, TinyHomes: Everyone is Downsizing, Installation, 66in.x20in.
Joseph Muscat, Damn!, Beaver-hewn wood, Metal, Paint, Wire,12in.x11in.

Let’s walk down a back street. The houses are stacked next to each other. Victorian row houses for miles. Wartime bungalows built in clusters. Seniors sitting on porches, watching the day go by. Harassed by real estate agents cold calling and telling them it’s time to downsize. Leave the neighbourhood. Handwritten notes slid under the door. Persistent phone calls. Offering large sums of money and dreams of condo concierges that will take care of their needs. No more shovelling the snow from the driveway. Your neighbours are selling; you should too. Get out before the market crashes. ARTIFACTS and Muscat come at the housing crisis with pro-found materials. Symbolizing precarity through balancing acts, fragile and heavy materials contrast with what is light and mobile. These intimate sculptures tell the story of precarity through their unimaginable balancing acts.

Patrick Stieber, Facade, Photograph, 24 in. x 48 in.
Patrick Stieber, Facade, Photograph, 24in. x 48in.

We must run an errand and pick up a lost package in the city’s outskirts. Box stores abound, replacing the downtown core as a place of consumption. In Facade by Steiber, a lone figure is lost in a massive late-stage capitalist structure. It harkens back to the Berlin Wall. A division between people. A site of trauma and political failure. This monumental brick wall takes up the picture frame and leads us to the word Shopify. This sign is a beacon, letting us know what is essential here. Shopping and consumption result in isolation and loneliness, amplified by the figure in the centre of the frame walking along in a post-apocalyptic isolated world. People have moved online. People are no longer walking into little shops in their neighbourhood. Buying local is gone by the Covid wayside.

Genevieve Singer, Reminiscing on Queen St. West, Acrylic on canvas, 24 in. x 36 in.
Genevieve Singer, Reminiscing on Queen St. West, Acrylic on canvas, 24 in. x 36 in.

As we move through the formerly vibrant streets of our city, we walk down one of our favourite streets; Queen Street West. Artsy. Revolutionary. Cool. However, today we feel downtrodden as we walk by the independent shops that used to be thriving and are now shuttered. Cardboard on the windows and “for lease” signs pepper every other door. In a post-Covid world, what happens to a city where people have moved online? Where shopping is more isolating and more all-consuming than it has ever been. In Reminiscing on Queen St. West, Singer places us in the upper window of the typical Victorian second-floor window. We look down through the eyes of this elderly man who doesn’t recognize his neighbourhood anymore. He seems to be looking for something he cannot see. Gone are the independent art galleries. Gone are the punk kids standing on the corner. Gone are the artist studios and the art supplies stores.

Maddy Young, YESTERDAY/TOMORROW, Sticker lettering on sheet vinyl, metal frame, 12 in. x 36 in.
Maddy Young, YESTERDAY/TOMORROW, Sticker lettering on sheet vinyl, metal frame, 12 in. x 36 in.

Gone is Queen Street West. The man can’t even find his local convenience store where he bought apples and the odd house plant to keep him company. Maddy Young reminds us of those lost mom-and-pop shops. The ubiquitous ones with the yellow vinyl that lit up at night. Hand-written signs on bristol board, ginseng shots at the cash register. In Yesterday/Tomorrow, a layered form of what Young calls hauntology pays homage to the signs that remind us of the past. They are now ghostly and abandoned. A cultural signpost that is disappearing before our eyes.

Hye Yeon Shin, Regenicide, 2021, collage on aluminum, 116cm x 55cm
Hye Yeon Shin, Regenicide, 2021, collage on aluminum, 116cm x 55cm

As we walk through the streets, we are bombarded by the sounds of jackhammers, enveloped by hoarding on every other corner. Shin’s work beautifully articulates the overwhelming sense of chaos and loss that urbanites experience as they move through their cities. Her work amalgamates the twenty construction sites a person can pass from one point to another in their daily walk. Regenicide exemplifies the jarring and shocking surroundings we find ourselves in. The immense construction and utter destruction all around us. There seem to be solutions amongst the rubble—new houses, large apartments, gigantic condos with innumerable floors—but then we come across the glossy advertisements and prices in large font on these buildings. “Bachelors starting at 750,000!” We all know that living through this chaos is not a solution, just another way to push people out.

Douglas Gammage, Sidewalk Closed, Two-Plate Aquatint, 8.5in.x7 in
Douglas Gammage, Sidewalk Closed,T wo-Plate Aquatint, 8.5in. x 7in

We can only walk from one place to another if we are forced onto the street by pylons, construction, and police officers pointing us to the other side. Getting from one point to another used to be smooth. It used to be predictable and manageable within this grid that leads the way. Now we never know what roadblock delays, loud bangs, or blaring sirens imploring quick movement in dense urbanity will be encountered. Gammage expresses this disorientation in a small intimate print with lines that scratch with the frustration and discombobulation. A wire fence blocks our way. It’s an all too familiar site as the arrow points us out of the city we used to love.

Ruth Maude, Waste Not, Want Not, Encaustic on scraps of fabric,20 in.x 13in.

Ruth Maude, Waste Not, Want Not,
Encaustic on scraps of fabric, 20in.x 13in.

Helena Wehrstein, Searching For Sanity, Circuit boards and other bits from dismantled discarded electronic devices, discontinued fabric sample scraps, found wooden box, discarded metal antennas, 20 in. x 14 in.

Helena Wehrstein, Searching For Sanity,
Circuit boards and other bits from dismantled discarded electronic devices, discontinued fabric sample scraps, found wooden box, discarded metal antennas, 20 in. x 14 in.

We navigate through the piles of rubble, disappearing historic districts, debris and furniture from evicted tenants piled on curbs. In Maude’s Waste Not, Want Not, and a Wehrstein’s Searching for Sanity, we find a focus on the do-it-yourself materials and recycling that these moments in history can evoke. Throughout the post-industrial city, working-class histories are falling to the ground, replaced by more concrete and technology. Neighbourhoods, roads, sidewalks and buildings created from discarded treasures; typographic maps made from discarded scraps into textured, layered images. These artists take what they find and repurpose it, upcycle it, and make it look new so that we can reflect upon the waste and the ‘discardedness’ of the normal we now find ourselves in. Using their hands and industrial materials, they harken back to a time when waste was not embedded in progress.

Bret Culp,Jack’s Video Sports Bar, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, Metal Print Photograph with Float Mount, 36in. x 24in.
Bret Culp, Jack’s Video Sports Bar, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, Metal Print Photograph with Float Mount, 36 in. x 24 in.

As we walk down towards the waterfront, constantly in flux and under development, we are reminded of that industrial past. In some places, we can still see the blacked concrete marked by years of pollution on now abandoned factory buildings. The post-industrial North American city is strikingly haunting in Bret Culp’s Jack’s Video Sports Bar, taken in Cleveland, Ohio. The formally vibrant neighbourhoods ripe for the working class to make a living wage are empty and silent. In their place, economic uncertainty and political disenfranchisement. In the distance, the composition juxtaposes the near future “The top of the contemporary Key Tower skyscraper shines like a beacon against sympathetic skies, contrasting where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re heading” (Bret Culp)

Kezleigh, Are We There Yet? Digital painting on acrylic glass, 30 in. x 20 in.
Kezleigh, Are We There Yet? Digital painting on acrylic glass, 30 in. x 20 in.

Our walk through this city is taking forever and feels exhausting. Are We There Yet allows us some space to stop in a random city courtyard to think and reflect. This is because Kezleigh takes us into our internal struggles with the future of our urban centres. Her work drags us into the subconscious, the feelings below the surface. The women in her work stand like surreal sculptures in the town square—subconscious Statues of Liberty. Instead of welcoming the downtrodden, they are blind to the problems here. They hide the fear of the future and tell us to cover our faces. In all directions, we refuse to look directly at what is in front of us. The glittering stars, the bright colours, and the swirling beautiful textures create an illusion of optimism and a mirage of beauty. In this town square, we must create our own delusion to move forward.

Beverly Daniels, Blue Sky, Collage, 24 in. x 18 in.25 in. x 19 in.
Beverly Daniels, Blue Sky, Collage, 24 in. x 18 in.

After we leave the square, we begin to wander. The streets are in a perfect grid. It feels organized. It feels intentional. We decide to wait for a street car that never comes. We can’t find a public washroom. We walk along, and the sidewalk stops due to construction. We can’t cross the street because the traffic is so intense. On every corner, unhoused, mentally unwell, and people living with addiction are visible to passersby. In Daniel’s work Blue Sky, she invites us to contemplate this dichotomy. Using collage and texture, the organized square is breaking apart in layers of chaos. On the one hand, we exist in this hyper-organized geometry. But within that grid, everything is busting apart at the seams.

Jonathan Stern, I Own the City and the River, Six Photographs with accompanying Poem, 5 in. x 7 in

Maybe we decide to take a walk down to the Don River? Here we find more folks pushed to the margins. Siting, walking, camping, carrying loads of personal belongings on carts, in suitcases, packed up and piled high in the back of bicycles. In Stern’s work, I Own the City and the River he carefully draws this every-person on a tiny piece of cardboard and places him throughout the city. His protagonist seems to be on a search of his own. In these images, he is up against the wall, overpowered by the concrete, walking precariously over the grates, looking into the stores he cannot afford to shop in. To be in. With his accompanying poem, Stern ends with an impactful line that brings us along with the man with the shopping bag, “Is not here, nor song nor river, nor freezing half wind with half a – Heart” (Jonathan Stern)

Carly Friesen, Nonprofit Housing Now, & Coop Housing Now, Mixed Media on Wood,12 in. x 12 in.

As we finish our walk in the city through a back graffiti-covered alley, we see a fissure in the narrative we are being told, painted carefully on 12 x 12 inch-foot wood and collage. Solutions are painstakingly depicted over the numbers. They scrawl out the race to the highest capital per square foot. In Carly Friesen’s work, she boldly states her solutions. Co-op Housing Now! Non-Profit Housing Now! The images evoke external and internal machinations around our desperation for affordable housing. In the background of the collages, we imagine the citizen at their desk frantically trying to make the numbers work for an unattainable mortgage. Amongst the collages glued to wood, we feel the layers of advertisements hoarding the latest condo construction. Friesen gives us a rallying cry. She tells us that we know the answers.

The Manhattanization of cities worldwide calls into question what and who cities are actually for. When housing is unaffordable for the majority, infrastructure is crumbling, public transit is broken and unsafe, and developers rule urban planning, where are concerned citizens to turn? The people who want to stay, make things better, and live in a healthy and balanced way – where do they fit in? Urban Futurities gives us a creative window into the urban crisis through art and imagination. There is a way our neighbourhoods can thrive. There are solutions.There are viable alternatives to the direction we are moving in. The artists in this exhibition have hope and imagination and aim to think through an equitable future in which urban centres are healthy and livable places for us all.

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