The First Toronto Biennial Uncovers the History of the City’s Shoreline

From colonization to industrialization, the exhibition tackles complex local issues with international ambition 

Anyone who has lived in Toronto has probably heard the dubious term ‘world-class’ used to assert the city’s so-called cosmopolitanism; a 2016 Globe and Mail headline read, ‘Toronto, you’re a world-class city. Now stop talking about it.’ World-class indeed is the city’s ballooning housing market and related shortage of affordable space – Toronto recently ranked number two on the UBS Global Real Estate Bubble Index – which has made it difficult for many, artists included, to live and thrive there. But this mix of hardness and insecurity has reignited a local conversation about what it means to be in Toronto that is central to ‘The Shoreline Dilemma’, an intriguing, self-interrogating biennial that comes, appropriately, at a time when the biennial model itself is subject to growing scrutiny.

New Mineral Collective, Pleasure Prospects, 2019, columns, casts of prospecting bore holes, rammed earth, hand-pulverized black copper slag, copper, zinc, steel, fine gold and silver shavings, aluminium and concrete. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art. Courtesy: the artists; photographs: Vlad Lunin 

‘The implications of the changing shoreline – evidence of an increasingly anthropocentric world – prompted us to ask invited artists: What does it mean to be in relation?’ write co-curators Candice Hopkins and Tairone Bastien in their introduction to the exhibition. This question is only partly answered by the biennial’s page-long land acknowledgment, which follows other local land acknowledgements in noting that the place now known as Toronto is ‘the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee, and Anishinaabe peoples, including the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation’. In 2018, Ange Loft, a multi-disciplinary artist and performer from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, co-authored the ‘Toronto Indigenous Context Brief’; while the brief has not been made public, its concerns are materialized in a significant biennial work from Loft’s own collective, Jumblies Theatre & Arts. In exhibition materials, Loft notes that ‘hidden layers tell the story of shifting populations’ along Toronto’s waterfront ‘going back to 1000 CE,’ and that ‘agreements for this territory…were not made quickly,’ despite the city’s rapid development, and its record of colonial ‘purchases’ that swindled Indigenous peoples and left areas of the city unceded to this day.

Susan Schuppli, Learning From Ice (Part I: Ice Cores & Interviews with Ice Core Scientists), 2019, video still. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art. Courtesy: the artist

The biennial is mostly situated on the city’s shoreline, which was extended into Lake Ontario in the 1920s for industrial infilling. The event’s two main venues are the Small Arms Inspection Building, an arts centre housed in a former munitions plant, and 259 Lake Shore Blvd East, a former Volvo dealership that may soon be demolished. Other site-specific projects dot the lakeshore. The venues are unusual and dispersed, but neither far flung nor inaccessible. When I visited the SAIB, where a number of works about land and extraction are on display – notably by Hajra Waheed, Kapwani Kiwanga, Caroline Monnet and Althea Thauberger & Kite – the floor-to-ceiling backdoor was open, and a grasshopper had come into the gallery, perched on the reflective base of one of New Mineral Collective’s Pleasure Prospects (2019), column-casts of prospecting bore holes. Toronto’s magic: learning how to see what is already there.

Curtis Talwst Santiago, J’ouvert Temple, 2019, mixed-media installation. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art. Courtesy: the Toronto Biennial of Art; photograph: Toni Hafkenscheid

At 259 Lake Shore, Hopkins and Bastien make clever use of the former dealership. Never Settle (2019), a video and sculptural installation by artist collective The New Red Order about the white-settler obsession with Indigenous cultures, is placed in what appears to be a former showroom. C-prints from Moyra Davey’s ‘Gold Dumps and Ant Hills’ (1992/2019) series, another work about extraction, are hung in former sales offices. Hydraulic car lifts hold up the monitor for Susan Schuppli’s video documentary Learning From Ice (Part I: Ice Cores & Interviews with Ice Core Scientists) (2019) about glacial ice and climate change, as well as ephemera from Embassy of Imagination + PA System, an arts non-profit that connects young artists from Kinngait, Nunavut, to creative networks at home and abroad. (A wire sculpture of a snowmobile rotates on a platform as if it’s a luxury vehicle.) Outside, the biennial’s branding is wrapped in bright yellow over the Volvo sign, the latter’s letterforms popping out in relief like a poltergeist. ReMatriate Collective’s banner reading ‘YOURS FOR INDIGENOUS SOVEREIGNTY’, words from a 1978 strike action by Service, Office, and Retail Workers’ Union of Canada, hangs over the former dealership’s front garages.

AA Bronson, A Public Apology to Siksika Nation, 2019, multi-media project with publication, installation and performative components in several stages. Commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art. Courtesy: the Toronto Biennial of Art; photograph: Toni Hafkenscheid

Many of the biennial’s works similarly revisit, reveal and reimagine things that have been buried or obscured. Curtis Talwst Santiago has made an installation of rubble, painted dancing figures and chain-link fencing in the city’s eastern Port Lands area (also the result of industrial infilling, now set to be re-naturalized); at first blush it looks like yet another of the city’s construction sites. (The work’s title, J’ouvert Temple (2019), suggests the politically charged Caribbean celebrations of emancipation and subversion.) On the biennial’s opening weekend, AA Bronson collaborated with Adrian Stimson on A Public Apology to Siksika Nation (2019), a performance repeating Bronson’s informal 2018 apology for his great-grandfather’s role in the genocide of Stimson’s ancestors, and preceding Bronson’s apology to the Siksika Council and Chief on Treaty 7 territory in Alberta.

Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin de Burca, RISE, 2018, video still. Courtesy: © Bárbara Wagner & Benjamin De Burca and Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo

Toronto has had a discernible influence on many of the biennial’s international artists – a triumph for a city whose art world has often imitated or imported work from other major cities, such as New York, Berlin and London. In Riverdale Park, the forms of Brazilian-born, Berlin-based artist Maria Thereza Alves’s embedded steel sculptures follow the original curves of the industrially-straightened Don River. At 259 Lake Shore, Recife-based artists Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca’s RISE (2018), commissioned by the Art Gallery of York University, is one of the best works ever made about Toronto. Set in the cavernous, dystopian subway stations of North York and Scarborough, the film is a mini-opera featuring rappers, poets and musicians from the R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere) collective, who hail from the city’s Caribbean diaspora. Lines from the video could be slogans for this biennial, which knows exactly where it is and what it’s doing there: ‘no longer art for art’s sake’, and, ‘the tunnels we dig will be visionary.’

The Toronto Biennial of Art, ‘The Shoreline Dilemma’ continues at Small Arms Inspection Building, 259 Lake Shore Blvd East and various other venues around the Greater Toronto Area, Canada, through 1 December 2019.

Main image: Jumblies Theatre & Arts with Ange Loft, Talking Treaties, 2019, multi-media installationdimensions variableCommissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art. Courtesy: the Toronto Biennial of Art; photograph: Toni Hafkenscheid

David Balzer is a writer, editor and teacher based in Toronto. He is the author of Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else (Coach House/Pluto Press, 2014). Find him @davidkbalzer

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